The Turnbull government could be facing a council rebellion over Australia Day, with a growing number of municipalities across the country considering changing the date of their events.
The government this week stripped rogue Melbourne councils Yarra and Darebin of their right to conduct citizenship ceremonies, accusing the inner-city municipalities of “politicising” Australia Day.
But that threat has not deterred at least seven resolute councils who are also looking closely at their own Australia Day celebrations.
Hepburn Shire Council in western Victoria is considering changes to its national day celebrations due to sensitivities around January 26, while another, Mount Alexander Shire, has held informal discussions and consultation with the local Indigenous community.
Banyule, which covers suburbs in Melbourne’s north-east, is also planning to consult residents on the issue.
In New South Wales, Lismore and Byron Bay councils are among those examining their current arrangements, while Lord Mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore, also supports calls to change the date.
In the west, Perth’s Cockburn and Bassendean councils have established working groups to consult on the issue.
‘Change the Date’ proponents argue the national celebrations should be moved from January 26, the date of the First Fleet’s arrival on Australian shores, which is considered a day of invasion by many.
Hepburn Shire mayor Sebastian Klein told The New Daily his council was looking at whether January 26 was the “right day to celebrate” Australia Day due to the “outrage” expressed by the community, particularly Indigenous groups.
Asked if his local council was overstepping its responsibilities, Cr Klein said state legislation meant councils were responsible for the “social, economic and environmental of their community”.
“I don’t think local governments would be taking it up if it wasn’t a significant issue for our communities,” he said.
The growing debate over the national holiday comes after a ‘change the date’ motion by Hobart City Council narrowly passing the Australian Local Government Association national conference last month.
On Monday night, Darebin Council enraged the federal government by voting to move its Australia Day citizenship ceremonies from January 26.
Critics have pointed out that that the decision was based on 81 responses to a survey issued to around 200 people.
Darebin’s move followed Yarra’s decision last week to replace Australia Day citizenship ceremonies with an event “marking the loss of Indigenous culture”.
The federal minister responsible for citizenship, Alex Hawke, blasted both councils on Monday.
“The overwhelming majority of Australians support Australia Day remaining on January 26,” Mr Hawke said.
He said the councils had been “warned well in advance that politicising citizenship ceremonies would not be tolerated”.
“We are committed to ensuring that citizenship is treated in the ‘non-commercial, apolitical, bipartisan and secular manner’ which the Code mandates.”
Political scientist Dr Bligh Grant, an expert in Australian local government, said the debate was playing out amid a “toxic” relationship between councils and the higher tiers of government.
“I think it’s significant that local government, as a non-sovereign tier of government, should initiate the dialogue,” the UTS academic said.
“That, I would argue, is a good thing. It’s grassroots democracy putting forward issues that, as a nation, we need to talk about sooner rather than later.”
Federal Greens politicians Adam Bandt, Nick McKim and Rachel Siewert have already offered to conduct citizenship ceremonies on behalf of councils who had been banned by the government.
Fremantle Council also caused controversy earlier in the year by deciding to hold its Australia Day celebrations on January 28.