Change the date: locals, council back Australia Day change

Change the date: locals, council back Australia Day change
David Schout

City of Melbourne councillors, residents and businesses owners have all shown majority support to move Australia Day away from January 26.

A survey of more than 1600 locals and traders, held by phone between August 4 and 7, revealed that almost 60 per cent of respondents want to see Australia’s national day celebrated on a different date.

The independent poll showed that almost double the number of people (59.8 per cent to 31.6 per cent) backed a change compared with those who did not. A remaining 8.6 per cent of respondents expressed a neutral view. The survey also highlighted that “women, people aged 49 and younger, and those with higher education levels were more likely to support the change of date for Australia Day”.

It was released as the crucial part of an “options paper” presented to councillors at the September 6 Future Melbourne Committee meeting at Town Hall, after Lord Mayor Sally Capp declared in July it was time to be “more decisive” around what happens on the day.

Following the release of the survey, councillors voted seven votes to two (with one abstention) to advocate the federal government move the date.

It acknowledged it was “not within the City of Melbourne’s authority to change Australia Day”, however would now lobby the Commonwealth that change was needed.

The council would, however, continue to support and issue permits for events delivered by the state and federal governments in Melbourne on January 26, including a citizenship ceremony.

There was also unanimous support to change the date from the five Traditional Owner organisations that make up the Eastern Kulin.  

Lord Mayor Sally Capp said this now provided an “evidence base” to inform the council going forward.

“It’s clear there is majority support in our municipality to change the date on which we celebrate our nation – that’s why we will lobby the federal government to change the date of Australia Day,” she said.

“We’ve sought feedback from a wide range of voices in our community to understand the most unifying way to celebrate what it means to be Australian. It’s ultimately the federal government’s decision to change the date. Until then, we will continue to support a range of activities on January 26, including citizenship ceremonies.”   

As it stands, the federal and state governments do not have a policy position on changing the date. January 26 is the anniversary of Captain Arthur Phillip landing in Sydney Cove and raising the Union flag in 1788. The date is controversial because it “celebrates” a painful part of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, and was sometimes referred to as “Invasion Day”.

Deputy chair of the council’s Aboriginal Melbourne portfolio Cr Dr Olivia Ball said she believed the survey’s results was “a reflection on our maturing as a nation”, but argued we had to do more.

 

“We need to recognise that reconciliation, if it is to mean anything, is a two-way process. Too commonly, and absurdly, we sometimes think of reconciliation as something Aboriginal people need to do. We all need to do this, and this is part of us coming at least halfway, and arguably we need to go a lot further than that.”

 

She argued the motion was “modest” and said, “we could go further, but we are not”.

“It doesn’t change anything on the ground or in current practice. It’s adopting a position on a national day that we don’t have the power to change … it’s an adoption of a position reflecting public opinion.”

However, Cr Roshena Campbell, one of two councillors to vote against the move, said the move was a waste of ratepayer money on “advocacy that is clearly going to fall on deaf ears”.

She questioned whether the sample size of 1600 residents and business owners truly reflected the municipality and wanted to continue celebrating the day “that makes us so proud to be Australians” on January 26.

Cr Jason Chang also voted against the motion, and argued that for first generation Australians the day was special.

“It’s a day that many immigrants view that they have truly become Australian, and I think they celebrate that day,” he said.

“I do understand the hurt and pain that it does bring to the Indigenous population, but I also believe for the future as well, there are many who look at that day for respect and view it as a special day.”

Cr Rohan Leppert, also from a migrant family and a German citizen, argued that this did not stack up.

“The story that’s forged and the nostalgia that’s forged from receiving a citizenship makes that day special. However, that value, that nostalgia, that tradition, that significance, can just as easily be attached to a day that doesn’t also have associated with it the attempt at eradication of Aboriginal people across the country,” he said.

“The idea that we can only maintain the pride that we all have in a nation, if we have it, by holding onto that date, just does not make any sense to me.”

After the January 26 options paper was first raised at Town Hall in July, the council was criticised by some, including Victorian Opposition Leader Matthew Guy, for straying outside local issues and were urged to “stay in their lane”. However Cr Capp reiterated that the council has repeatedly shown it could “chew gum and walk at the same time”, and while it continued to focus on “roads, rates and rubbish”, could also — as the level of government closest to the community — push their state and federal counterparts on issues it saw as important.

Recently, these have included lobbying for renewable energy investment, increased affordable housing, and on behalf of international students.

She also countered queries about the community survey and argued the sample size of 1600 was “significant”.

The state government has traditionally organised a range of activities within the city on January 26.
These include a flag raising ceremony at Melbourne Town Hall, a parade along Swanston St, a family festival in Kings Domain and a public fireworks display in Docklands.

During COVID-19 these events were disrupted, and all events were cancelled in 2021. An Australia Day Concert was the only event held in 2022.

Key findings from 1600 residents/business owners:

  • 59.8 per cent collectively support changing the date of Australia Day, compared with 31.6 per cent who do not
  • 59.9 per cent indicated it was likely Australia Day would be moved from January 26 in the next 10 years
  • 55.1 per cent believe that local councils should have citizenship ceremonies on Australia Day
  • 31.3 per cent indicated activities that acknowledge Indigenous Australians should be held on Australia Day

*Note: the survey found there was “little difference in the responses of residents and businesses”. •

John Buncle

John Buncle

February 14th, 2024 - Felicity Jack
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