The federal government has stripped Yarra City Council of its power to hold citizenship ceremonies, the latest action in a blistering attack after the council decided to not hold celebrations or ceremonies on Australia Day.
Yarra council -- including Abbotsford, Collingwood and Fitzroy -- became the first in the nation to wipe Australia Day from its calendar out of respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, in a move labelled "deeply disappointing" by the Prime Minister, after a meeting on Tuesday night. It will no longer refer to January 26 as "Australia Day" or hold citizenship ceremonies on the day.
On Wednesday, Malcolm Turnbull described the decision as an "attack" on Australia Day and "a repudiation of the values the day celebrates: freedom, a fair go, mateship and diversity". Later, assistant immigration minister Alex Hawke confirmed the government would hold true to its threats for councils who made similar decisions, and stripped Yarra of its power to hold citizenship ceremonies.
"The Melbourne local authority will be stripped of its power to hold any citizenship ceremonies following its political resolution which cancelled Australia Day citizenship formalities," a statement from Hawke said.
"The Government had already issued a warning to Yarra Council that such an action would be viewed by the Government as a significant breach of the Australian Citizenship Ceremonies Code ('the Code')."
Hawke said prospective citizens in the City of Yarra would have their ceremonies in neighbouring areas while "the Department of Immigration and Border Protection will hold ceremonies within the City of Yarra as demand requires, including on Australia Day next year."
"We are committed to ensuring that citizenship is treated in the 'non-commercial, apolitical, bipartisan and secular manner' which the Code mandates," Hawke said.
"The instrument I have signed today means there will be no more citizenship ceremonies conducted by the City of Yarra on behalf of the Government."
In a statement on Wednesday morning, Turnbull attacked the council for its decision.
"The council is using a day that should unite Australians to divide Australians," Turnbull said in a statement on Wednesday morning.
"I recognise Australia Day, and its history, is complex for many Indigenous Australians but the overwhelming majority of Australians believe the 26th of January is the day and should remain our national day."
The council will instead use January 26 to hold a small-scale Indigenous-focused event to acknowledge "the loss of culture, language and identity felt by the Aboriginal community" on the anniversary of European settlers' landing in Australia.
Councillors voted unanimously for the changes on Tuesday night, despite pressure from the Federal Government to abandon them.
On Tuesday, the Federal Assistant Minister for Immigration, Alex Hawke, had sent a letter to councils across the country warning that such actions could see "Greens-dominated councils" banned from hosting citizenship ceremonies, the Age reports.
In the letter, Hawke claimed that using Australian citizenship ceremonies to lobby against Australia Day on January 26 breached the Australian Citizenship Ceremonies Code.
"As long as Australia Day is celebrated on 26 January, this is a most appropriate date for a citizenship ceremony to take place," the letter stated.
"Local councils are now on notice that if they politicise Australian citizenship, the Government will see it as a breach of the code and take the appropriate action."
Four of Yarra Council's nine councillors identify as Green, including the mayor Amanda Stone, according to The Greens Victoria website.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has also criticised the decision, saying Australia was already getting "the balance right" when it came to respecting our traditional owners.
"You can celebrate what modern Australia is and citizenship ceremonies are a big part of that -- it's truly a magical thing," he told the ABC.
"I don't think anybody should be trying to diminish that."
Yarra's Mayor, Amanda Stone, said that the councillors' decision had broad public support in the community, as well as from the Aboriginal community.
"The overwhelming sentiment from our Aboriginal community is that January 26 is a date of sadness, trauma and distress. They have told us that this is not a day of celebration, but a day of mourning."
The decision also includes discarding the council's Australia Day awards, which will be re-labelled and instead held "on days that better suit the nature of each award".
Other changes passed by the council include:
- Committing to a community education plan to help people better understand Aboriginal peoples' experiences of January 26
- Run educational workshops for young Aboriginal people, run by local Elders
- Cease referring to January 26 as Australia Day in all communications
- Officially supporting the #changethedate campaign to change the date of Australia Day
- Lobby the Federal Government to change the date