In an historic decision, Sydney’s Inner West Council (IWC) has voted to move the annual Australia Day celebrations to January 25, the day before the existing national holiday, becoming the first NSW council to change the controversial date.
On 12 November, after a heated debate within council chambers, the motion passed with a large majority, backed by Labor, Greens and several Independent councillors, and supported by IWC Mayor Darcy Byrne.
The date was moved as a mark of respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders, who regard January 26 – the commemoration of the arrival of Britain’s First Fleet of prisoner ships and the raising of the Union Jack in Sydney Cove – as Invasion Day.
The new celebrations on January 25 at Enmore Park will be reframed as a children’s and family festival to “ensure there is no loss to the community,” said Mayor Byrne. “We are simply purporting that there is a more respectful way to conduct ourselves on that day.”
Citizenship ceremonies remain
However, citizenship ceremonies will still be held on January 26, meeting the requirements set by the federal Morrison government, which many critics suggest misses the point of changing Australia Day to a new date the whole country can follow.
Home affairs minister Peter Dutton threatened to strip councils of their right to hold citizenship ceremonies if they are moved from Australia Day.
The retention of citizenship ceremonies means the IWC are unlikely to face the wrath of the Morrison Government. Councillor Pauline Lockie isn’t concerned about any further ramifications. “We’re still intending to hold citizenship ceremonies on January 26, so we’d be meeting the requirements,” she said.
“As far as I know, they haven’t mandated holding fireworks or celebrations on this day as part of the requirements,” she added.
Clr Lockie confirmed: “Just to clarify, the wording of the motion changed somewhat from what was on the business papers. Citizenship Ceremony will still be held on 26 Jan as noted. Celebrations will also move, and will be aimed at children/families and held “another day in summer”; so it’s still open for it to be on 25 Jan to coincide with Lunar New Year as proposed by staff, but it’s not dictated within the current wording.
“Citizen of the Year awards will also move to a different date, still to be confirmed. And we’ll promote attendance at Yabun on 26 Jan (though this is technically held in City of Sydney’s LGA, not IWC, and we’re not the organisers of this event).”
“I should note too that, in relation to the former Councils that comprise Inner West, only Marrickville used to have the celebrations on 26 Jan. Leichhardt and Ashfield Councils held Citizenship Ceremonies, but no celebration. Marrickville’s event was carried over to IWC on the basis that all the events held by previous Councils would continue after amalgamation.”
The motion to change the date of the festivities, normally held in Enmore Park, was brought forward by Greens councillor Tom Kiat in 2018, but was voted down by Labor, Liberal and Independent councillors. Cr. Lockie described the previous motion’s failure as “allow[ing] ourselves to get too divided on the Labor/Greens differences on the issue.. We can come to a regulation that allows us to do a better job of respectfully recognising what 26 January means to all Australians. We owe that to our community.’
The success of IWC’s latest motion was put to the consultation of community members through an online survey and, according to Cr. Lockie, ‘the majority of people who’ve contacted me support moving our celebrations from that day.’
Cr. Kiat agreed and said, “In terms of justice and respect for First Nations people, we have a long way to go. This is a step in the right direction… It’s fitting that our Council, on Gadigal and Wangal land, be the first in NSW to commit to this change, as it was on Gadigal land that the British Penal Colony was first established.”
The online survey cited by council however, only received 37 respondents, with 5 attending a consult with council to discuss changing the date. Independent councillor Victor Macri, who opposed the date change, raised his concerns with council regarding the low uptake of the survey for what he considers a ‘woeful’ consultation of community.
“[Council] were pointed towards this online survey that had 37 responses,” he said. “At what point do you think that it was representative of a 200,000-person community?
“If 37 people said they don’t like something they shouldn’t ban it. I’m open to change but change has to come in the correct way.”
People’s Republic of the Inner West
Known colloquially as ‘the People’s Republic of the Inner West,’ the traditionally left-leaning electorate is one of the safest Labor seats, held by federal opposition leader Anthony Albanese. On the state level, the seats of Newtown and Balmain are held by the only two Greens MPs in NSW.
Cr. Macri, who also voted down the motion last year, disagrees that the area is truly progressive.
“Is it really progressive to drive a pre-2000 car with all its emissions but put a Greens sticker or a Stop Adani sticker on the back of it and say it’s cool? I’m sorry, it’s not,” he said.
Speaking of the motion, Cr. Macri said, “I don’t think it’s a good thing, it causes tension in the community. People need time to understand that it’s really the federal government that needs to change… leadership needs to come from the top.”
Change does appear to be coming from below, as the IWC joins Darebin, Yarra and Moreland councils in Victoria, and Fremantle Council in Western Australia in changing the date of their Australia Day celebrations or scrapping celebrations entirely. The Inner West became the first council in New South Wales to change the date after Byron Shire backflipped on their decision after threats from Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton to strip the council of their right to conduct citizenship ceremonies.
For Cr. Lockie, the decision to change the date is more than progressive signalling from the council. “It’s more than a symbolic gesture. We’re taking a tangible action to recognise that, for many in our community – both Indigenous and non-Indigenous – holding a fireworks-driven celebration on 26 January isn’t the most appropriate way to recognise this date,” she said.
The changes to IWC’s Australia Day celebrations will come into effect in January 2020.