The federal government has revised the citizenship code to make it compulsory for all councils to hold citizenship ceremonies on Australia Day – but some councils say the Morrison government should have consulted rather than applying a “heavy-handed and odd” approach.
Under changes to the Australian Citizenship Ceremonies Code to be introduced in 2020, councils will also have to hold a second citizenship ceremony on September 17 – Australian Citizenship Day – and new citizens will have to abide by a strict dress code that bans boardshorts and thongs.
The revised code will be sent to councils this week, Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs Minister David Coleman announced.
“Australian citizenship is an immense privilege and fundamental to our national identity,” Mr Coleman said.
“As part of this update, the government will require that citizenship ceremonies be held on Australia Day across the nation.
“New citizens should be given the opportunity to become an Australian on our national day – Australia Day is an incredibly important part of our national calendar.”
On Sunday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the government will “protect our national day and ensure it is respected”.
“We believe all councils who are granted the privilege of conducting citizenship ceremonies should be required to conduct a ceremony on Australia Day,” he told the Sunday Telegraph newspaper.
In 2017, two Melbourne councils were stripped of the right to hold citizenship ceremonies after scrapping all Australia Day celebrations to recognise Indigenous sensitivities. Yarra City Council and neighbouring Darebin Council cited a groundswell of popular support for the move but were slapped down by the government.
Amid a growing push from some corners to change Australia’s national from January 26, several councils have already made plans to move or cancel traditional celebrations this year.
Victoria’s Darebin, Yarra and Moreland, Western Australia’s Fremantle and NSW’s Byron have already flagged a change of date, because January 26 is considered a day of mourning by many Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
City of Sydney Labor Councillor Linda Scott said councils had an obligation to listen to community sentiment.
“The job of local governments is to listen to their communities and represent their views,” she told SBS News.
“Councils should be able to set the day of their citizenship ceremonies in line with the views of their community.”
She said other councils had shifted citizenship ceremonies from January 26 because of extreme heat, a lack of new citizenship applications or because of cultural sensitivity.
Australian Local Government Association president Mayor David O’Loughlin said most councils likely won’t be opposed to the government’s proposed changes to the Australian Citizenship Ceremonies Code but councils will have valid concerns.
“Most councils hold more than one citizenship ceremony a year, some as often as monthly – the Federal Government’s strong focus on drawing a link between Australia Day and citizenship ceremonies is bizarre,” he said.
“We do acknowledge that a small number of councils are in discussions with their communities about whether the 26th of January is the appropriate day to celebrate Australia Day.
“However, councils cannot move Australia Day – this is ultimately up to the Federal government – but it is our job to be responsive to our communities, including to their calls for prudence and advocacy.”
He said if the Morrison government had “bothered to consult” with council it would have found many Local Government Areas forgo citizenship ceremonies on Australia Day because of the heat.
“In some locations, it’s simply too hot for councils to hold ceremonies during the day, so they do it the evening before, just as the Federal Government does with its Australian of the Year Ceremony,” he said.
“Interestingly, the federal government has made no mention of any financial contribution towards the additional costs involved in running these ceremonies.”
More than 73,000 people have become Australian citizens on Australia Day in the past five years, according to government figures – despite there being no specific requirement for councils to hold ceremonies on January 26.
City of Darebin’s Mayor Susan Rennie told SBS News her council “will not be marking January 26 by holding any events on that day or surrounding days” for a second year running.
Ms Rennie said Darebin is “opposed to Australia’s national celebration being held on January 26 out of respect for local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, who have told us that they experience a day of sadness, pain and disconnection”.