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Change the Date, by Misha Coleman

Why shouldn’t local government act on ‘Australia Day’?

Published: 14 Jan 2019

I truly hope someone gives Mark Latham a real job sometime soon—his latest contribution is the launch of a campaign to ‘save Australia Day’. While promoting some revisionism about what did or didn’t happen in 1788, he makes the point that changing the date won’t address Indigenous disadvantage, a key point also made by a co-campaigner, Alice Springs councillor Jacinta Price, who argues that changing the date is only supported by middle-class Australian Aboriginals.

I completely agree that unrecognising 26 January won’t fix the criminal rates of rheumatic fever among Australia’s Indigenous children, who are 122 times more likely to contract the disease than non-Indigenous kids. Nor will it reverse the high rate of type-2 diabetes in Indigenous people, which is three to four times higher at any age than for the general population.

Latham could launch a campaign to raise funds for more screening and treatment options for Indigenous Australians, but that wouldn’t win him the attention of Australia’s culture-warrior clique, so why bother?

The year 2018 marks the eightieth anniversary of the Australian Aborigines Conference: sesqui-centenary Day of Mourning and Protest. It will also mark the first full year wherein the federal government will not allow the City of Yarra to hold citizenship ceremonies. This was ‘payback’ for council’s having the temerity to support a National Citizens Movement and for supporting the views of our Yarra-based Wurundjeri community.

Something seemed to really shift in the Change the Date movement last year. In the lead-up to 26 January 2017, and following the November 2016 local-government elections, the lobbying to reconsider what we do on 26 January had a potency that felt different to me and my fellow councillors. Perhaps, like marriage equality, it was just time. So we undertook to talk with the Yarra Wurundjeri community, and we were unapologetic in prioritising their views. Ultimately we adopted thirteen new recommendations/initiatives that included the two that the federal government feels most challenged by: not referring to 26 January as ‘Australia Day’, and not holding one of our six or seven annual citizenship ceremonies on this date.

The move to unrecognise 26 January was never meant to solve all the issues related to constitutional recognition, dispossession or Indigenous disadvantage. Nor was it meant to throw out the concept of a national day to celebrate all that is good about Australia. It was meant to demonstrate leadership—where there is no federal leadership—to show recognition, and to show respect. In some respects this is no great break with the past. Councils already have the discretion to hold citizenship ceremonies on any date they choose, although the federal government’s knee-jerk move to scare off other councils from following Yarra’s lead may change that. But around the country, councils from Darebin to Fremantle to Hobart have thought deeply about what they should and should not do on 26 January, and their responses and actions will reflect their unique contexts.

The tide to change the date and to give Indigenous Australians a fairer go is broader than unilateral actions taken inside the so-called ‘hummus curtain’ of the inner Melbourne north. Being one of the first to initiate change is not necessarily unilateralism; it’s leadership. Bottom-up initiatives can lead to a national response, although I recognise the potential danger of sparking a Balkanised series of culture wars. In a context of having no federal leadership on this and so many other issues, though, do we just sit and wait and hope that a change of government will result in something different?

So what next?

Ideally, the federal government would initiate a national discussion on an alternative date. Less ideally, a bold state government could follow Yarra and other local councils’ lead and change the date of the public holiday in Victoria. That would really take the debate to the federal sphere. Currently, 56 per cent of Australians don’t mind what date Australia Day is held on—as long as it happens. Indeed, 62 per cent of people surveyed in the recent Australia Institute poll didn’t know what the date of 26 January actually commemorated. (In any case, the day has only been a national public holiday since 1994.) Certainly the listeners of Triple J are no longer comfortable with the celebratory tone of 26 January. The marriage-equality plebiscite showed that this young, progressive class of voters can be a powerful force once it is engaged by an issue.

In the meantime, local councils will continue to lead. Yarra City Council has embarked on a process to commission a Stolen Generations memorial. We live in a country where Captain Cook is memorialised in the names of everything from universities to suburbs. Sporadic attacks on a few of those memorials have drawn an authoritarian response from the federal government. In a mighty display of leadership, our prime minister has asked the Heritage Council to place those statues of Cook that are more than 100 years old on the National Heritage List, thereby ensuring that anyone caught defacing them will face fines and up to seven years in jail.

That’s one way to go about engaging in a debate.

Personally, I believe that erecting memorials to Indigenous men and women who died or who were disenfranchised as a result of colonisation, and commissioning new tributes to our Indigenous heroes, is a better response than defacing existing monuments to Cook and his ilk. The Victorian government has acknowledged in the narrative accompanying the draft Local Government Bill that councils’ role has expanded over the past three decades: that ‘communities demand responsible representation’, and that modern councils ‘create the social capital that make places into communities. Councils help to build civic pride, connected communities and a vibrant civil society’.

One of the features of the draft Local Government Bill is the requirement that ‘deliberative community engagement processes’ underpin councils’ four-year plans and budgets. This will require a major rethink and policy redesign to ensure that we don’t raise false expectations through ‘deliberative engagement’, such as those Paul Muldoon eloquently describes in his article in this issue of Arena Magazine as related to the Referendum Council process.

Similarly, we also mustn’t waste money by asking people what they want and then not delivering. Historically, at Yarra, as with most councils, most of the council budget is already locked into departmental budgets by the time it goes out for community consultation, with less than 1 per cent available for ‘discretionary projects’ (initiatives supported by residents or councillors). In other words, traditionally the council bureaucracy decides what happens with 99 per cent of ratepayers’ money, while elected councillors have only been able to engage at the margins. At Yarra we are going to have a go at upending this for the 2018/19 budget, and community submissions have been called for.

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Yarra didn’t hold a citizenship ceremony on Australia Day and it won’t hold any on any other day this year. On 26 January council held a small smoking ceremony, and council will produce online materials that aim to educate and inform the city’s residents. Perhaps this is just symbolism, or Balkanisation of the national agenda to change the date, but consider what Natalie Cromb, a Gamilaraay woman, says: ‘Put simply, changing the date is not enough if that is all we are going to do. But it is a first step and it must happen’.

The City of Yarra warmly welcomes other ideas for 26 January 2019. Why not approach other local councils, too?