Merri-bek joins other councils saying no to citizenship ceremonies on Invasion Day

December 17, 2022
An Invasion Day protest in Melbourne in 2020. Photo: Mel Kulinski

Merri-bek Council, formerly Moreland City Council, in Melbourne's north, decided on December 8 to accept its First Nations Advisory Committee’s recommendation to stop holding citizenship ceremonies on January 26.

This makes Merri-bek the third Melbourne council after Yarra and Darebin councils to pass such a motion. It was Merri-bek Council’s second attempt to stop holding citizenship ceremonies on Invasion Day, after a similar motion was voted down in 2017.

The motion in 2017 also came from the Merri-bek Council’s First Nations Advisory Committee. Uncle Gary Murray is the co-chair of the Advisory Committee and he spoke powerfully. His grandfather, Pastor Doug Nichols, was one of the First Nations people who began to mark January 26 as a Day of Mourning in 1938 .

Sue Bolton, Socialist Alliance Merri-bek Councillor and co-chair of the First Nations Advisory Committee, told Green Left: “There were seven Wurundjeri Woi-Wurrung clans before European invasion and only two survived. The other five were totally exterminated.

“It would be a very bad sign if council rejected this motion from its own First Nation advisory Committee. Council should embrace it.”

The motion called on council to “discontinue” holding citizenship ceremonies on January 26, starting from next year, and “notes that Council intends to continue holding citizenship ceremonies at all other times of the year”.

The motion also said council should host a day of mourning ceremony on January 26 and directed council to work “with the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation to develop and hold an annual event to welcome new citizens and develop First Nations cultural knowledge, if the federal government subsequently revokes Council’s ability to hold citizenship ceremonies”.

After the vote, and while the meeting was in session, Labor councillor Lambros Tapinos emailed a rescission motion to the Merri-bek CEO to overturn the decision to host the citizenship ceremony on a date other than January 26.

Those councillors who opposed moving the citizenship ceremonies argued that the federal government might strip Merri-bek of its ability to hold citizenship ceremonies. The argument opponents used in 2017 was based was around patriotism.

At an extraordinary council meeting on December 7 to debate the rescind motion, no seconder was found.

The original motion to stop holding citizenship ceremonies on 26 January was finally passed, to claps and cheers from the gallery.

Meanwhile, the federal government on December 16 overturned the previous Coalition government’s ban on holding citizenship ceremonies on days other than January 26.

The Scott Morrison government changed regulations to force councils to hold citizenship ceremonies in, response to Yarra and Darebin Councils’ decisions.

Councils are now able to hold ceremonies on the three days before or after the national January holiday. Yarra and Darebin Councils have also had their ability to hold citizenship ceremonies reinstated.

“It’s appalling it’s taken this long to change the code, but it’s great that, finally, it has been recognised that many councils do not want to hold citizenship ceremonies on a day of great sorrow and mourning,” said Bolton.

“It is disrespectful to invite Aboriginal elders to undertake a Welcome to Country at a citizenship ceremony on January 26. It is also disrespectful to migrants to have to receive their citizenship certificates on that day.

“Many migrants and refugees have come from countries which have been invaded and colonised, and where people have been dispossessed. Many migrants don’t want to receive citizenship certificates on a day that reflects dispossession and genocide.”

Sam Wainwright, a former Socialist Alliance councillor at the City of Fremantle in Western Australia, helped that council become the first to stop celebrating Australia Day on January 26. He told Green Left: “For a lot of young people this is one of the moral issues of their time, alongside climate change. It’s really exciting to see how this issue has evolved.”

“The decision to allow councils to conduct ceremonies on days other that January 26 opens the door to a much broader discussion,” Wainwright added.

“It’s a small victory but it is a sign of the growing mood for change. People ask me when I would like to see Australia Day celebrated and I reply, ‘Maybe on the day we become a Republic with a Treaty and Bill of Rights. What are we celebrating anyway?’.”

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.