Third Melbourne council votes to scrap Australia Day citizenship ceremonies

A third Melbourne council voted to stop holding citizenship ceremonies on Australia Day and start hosting a “day of mourning” event for Indigenous Australians, as pressure mounts on the federal government to reverse a Morrison-era policy that forces councils to hold the ceremonies on January 26.

The Greens-led Merri-bek council, which covers Brunswick, Fawkner and Glenroy in the north, voted on Wednesday night to accept a recommendation from its First Nations Advisory Committee to stop holding citizenship ceremonies on the controversial date.

Melbourne protesters rally on January 26 last year for an Invasion Day march.Credit:Justin McManus

People in the gallery cheered and clapped once the motion passed. Elder Gary Murray said before the vote that January 26 was a day of mourning and the council needed to be courageous and stop hosting ceremonies on the date.

“We need to move on to a better day, that’s inclusive, that’s multicultural and involves First Nations,” he said.

He wanted to see the citizenship ceremonies become more spectacular and culturally focused.

“That hasn’t got the baggage of being tainted by what’s happened in the past,” Murray told the meeting.

It was the council’s second attempt to stop Australia Day citizenship ceremonies after a similar motion was voted down in 2017. In the same year, two other inner-north Greens-led councils, Yarra and Darebin, successfully voted to stop holding the ceremonies.

According to council agenda papers published before the Merri-bek meeting, the advisory committee recommended that the council stop holding ceremonies, host a “day of mourning” ceremony, and create an alternative event to welcome new citizens and develop First Nations cultural knowledge.

Pressure has been mounting on the federal government to change the date and to hold a referendum on the Voice to Parliament.

The Darebin and Yarra councils had their ability to conduct citizenship ceremonies revoked in 2017 by the then-Liberal federal government after they voted to stop holding them on Australia Day.

Then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said the councils were “out of step with Australian values” and the purpose of his ban was to “safeguard the integrity of citizenship ceremonies”.

Two years later, in 2019, the Morrison government amended the Citizenship Ceremonies Code to force all councils to conduct citizenship ceremonies on January 26.

A report by Merri-bek council staff warned that it was unclear how the new federal government would respond if the vote passed, but noted that the Albanese government “advocated strongly on the Uluru Statement from the Heart and on reconciliation with First Nations”.

“Nonetheless there is a risk that Council may have its authority to conduct citizenship
ceremonies revoked by the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs [Andrew Giles],” the report said.

Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs Andrew Giles will need to make a call on what to do if Merri-bek council breaches the code by not holding a citizenship ceremony on January 26.Credit:Rhett Wyman

“Alternatively, the minister may choose to take no action or review or amend the Citizenship
Ceremonies Code so that January 26 citizenship ceremonies are no longer compulsory.”

The ban on citizenship ceremonies in Darebin and Yarra is still in place, although new citizens can attend ceremonies in other councils.

Darebin council said it had written to the Albanese government earlier this year appealing for the ban to be overturned. Yarra council did not respond to a request for comment.

A government spokeswoman said there had been no changes so far to the Citizenship Ceremonies Code.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said in September that his government had “no plans to change Australia Day”.

Maribyrnong council also voted this week to ask the federal government to amend the code and allow councils to stop holding citizenship ceremonies on January 26. The inner-west council conducted a community poll that found that 80 per cent of respondents wanted the organisation to “reconsider” how it acknowledged Australia Day.

In September, Melbourne City Council voted to advocate for changing the date of Australia Day, although it would continue to hold citizenship ceremonies on the day.

The 11-person Merri-bek council is made up of four Greens members, one Socialist Alliance member, two Labor members and four independents.

The council hosted its first “day of mourning” ceremony last year and voted to continue doing so in February.

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