Time to be “more decisive”: City of Melbourne to review Australia Day events

Time to be “more decisive”: City of Melbourne to review Australia Day events
David Schout

Local Australia Day celebrations could be scrapped by the City of Melbourne after councillors voted to review January 26 celebrations from 2023 onwards.

Lord Mayor Sally Capp said the “change of public sentiment” had become more apparent each year and it was time for the council to be “more decisive” around what happens on the day.

Councillors voted eight votes to zero to request that management compile a discussion paper to return to the chambers in just six weeks’ time.

The “options paper” will canvass views from the local community, Traditional Owners, upper levels of government, and other stakeholders before presenting options for how the city approaches January 26 planning going forward.

Councillors will then debate and could decide (at the September 6 meeting) what council-endorsed events, if any, take place on the contentious date from next year onwards.

A motion from Cr Capp at the July 26 council meeting noted the growing dissent around January 26 celebrations.

“There is growing national debate about whether Australia’s national day should be changed to a date that can unify all Australians for celebration about what it means to be Australian,” it stated.

Speaking to the issue at that meeting, Cr Capp said now was the right time for a considered debate and a decision to be made.

“Every Australia Day I’m asked, ‘what are we doing on January 26?’ But I think more importantly for me, ‘why are we doing those things?’ There has been a change of public sentiment,” she said.

“The debate is maturing, and it is time for us to be more considered, and I think more decisive, in our approach to what happens on January 26.”

As the most prominent local government in the state, the council’s move garnered divisive views when it released plans for the review prior to the July 26 meeting.

However, Cr Capp said it was never the intention to divide.

“I know that this is a polarising issue. I see that in the feedback I’ve received, and I’ve seen that in the discussions over time. But what we want to do is be part of the effort that create more unity than division in our community, particularly when we’re considering what it means to celebrate being Australian.”

There was sentiment from a number of councillors at the meeting that it was time the issue was properly debated at Town Hall, and a decision made.

“Like it or not, this debate is ongoing, and, in my opinion, the City of Melbourne needs to clarify its position,” Cr Jamal Hakim said.

“Not doing so would be putting our head in the sand and ignoring the constant calls from community for leadership [on the issue].”

This was a view backed by Cr Davydd Griffiths.

“It is very much a debate that’s going on in our city, and you can feel that very much when you’re walking around the city on that day [January 26]. To deny that that debate is taking place, or to think that we can’t be or shouldn’t be participating in it I think would be foolish.”

This directly contrasted with the views of councillor Jason Chang, who abstained from the vote at the July 26 council meeting and said he believed “it was an issue for the Federal Government”.

He argued that the council should be more focused on local issues.

His views were backed by Victorian Opposition Leader Matthew Guy, who argued the contentious issue was not the domain of local government.

“I think the City of Melbourne starting to question our institutions — well, frankly, I question them,” he said.

“Councils entering these kinds of debates, I think they should stay in their lane and frankly work out how to unite us, not divide us.”

However, the Lord Mayor countered any claims it should stick to “road, rates and rubbish” and argued that the council chambers were the exact domain the Australia Day issue should be debated.

“I believe that it’s important for local governments, as the level of government closest to our people, to be active participants in this important debate,” she said.

Deputy Lord Mayor Nicholas Reece further backed the council’s important role in what happens on January 26 going forward and said any suggestion it had no business in the debate was “nonsensical”.

Cr Reece added that the motion’s use of the word “debate” was important.

“I think that wording makes a really important point. We’re not pre-ordaining an outcome out of this exercise, we are going into it with an open mind acknowledging the reality that there is a growing national debate about Australia’s national day.”

Should it vote to remove Australia Day events from the calendar, the City of Melbourne would join Yarra, Darebin and Moreland councils in scrapping January 26 celebrations.

Australia Day became a national public holiday in 1994.•

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