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SA councils to face a double-whammy Australia Day sanction

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South Australian councils will from next year face repercussions from both the state and federal governments if they decide to opt out from conducting citizenship ceremonies on Australia Day.

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Local Government Minister Stephan Knoll confirmed to InDaily that he will seek to amend the state’s Local Government Act to force South Australian councils to hold citizenship ceremonies on January 26 as part of the upcoming local government reform process.

If successful, South Australian councils would be legally forced to conduct citizenship ceremonies on Australia Day from next year.

Activists are planning protests across the country on January 26, claiming that the date – which marks the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove in 1788 – represents a day of mourning for Australia’s Indigenous communities.

The SA Liberal Party entered last year’s state election promising to end what party leader Steven Marshall described as the “hijacking” of Australia Day for “political purposes” by introducing legislation that banned councils from boycotting Australia Day citizenship ceremonies.

Knoll told InDaily last week that he had originally intended for the policy to come into force this year, but the Government had since decided to amend the Act as part of its broader local government reform process, which is expected to begin in the coming weeks.

He said the Government was confident it could hold off from enforcing the policy, given what he described as a “lack of desire” from local councils to stop holding citizenship ceremonies on Australia Day.

“The parliamentary process is long and drawn out, so to wrap it up as part of the local government reforms is more efficient from a regulatory sense,” Knoll said.

“We have been monitoring councils and no councils to date have actually moved a motion not to hold services on Australia Day.

“We knew that for this coming year that we weren’t going to have an issue and that afforded us the time to be able to put it as part of the broader reform process.”

The State Government push comes as Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced over the weekend that he would introduce changes to the Australian Citizenship Ceremonies Code in the first half of this year to force councils to hold citizenship ceremonies on Australia Day.

The move comes after a handful of councils across Australia voted to move citizenship events out of respect for Indigenous people, with Melbourne’s Yarra and Darebin councils both being stripped of their power to host citizenship events.

Morrison told reporters yesterday that his government “will not undermine Australia’s national day”.

He said a strict dress code that banned board shorts and thongs would also be introduced for ceremonies.

“If some councils, as we’ve seen, want to play games, well, you don’t have to run citizenship ceremonies, other arrangements will be made,” he said.

But Local Government Association state branch president Sam Telfer said the state and federal policies were “unnecessary” and would ultimately burden South Australian taxpayers.

He said he was yet to receive any details or a proposal from the State Government about its plans to amend the Local Government Act, despite Knoll telling InDaily that the Government had “certainly had discussions with the LGA” about the best way to implement its policy.

“No South Australian councils have voted to support changing the date of Australia Day; and for those that don’t hold citizenship ceremonies on this day, their reasons are practical, not ideological,” Telfer said.

“Many South Australian councils, especially regional ones, don’t have enough requests for citizenships, and thus simply wouldn’t be able to hold a ceremony.”

Telfer’s comments were supported by national LGA president, David O’Loughlin, who described Morrison’s announcemnt as “heavy-handed and odd”.

“The privilege of Australian citizenship is highly respected by the Australian community and councils value their role in holding citizenship ceremonies and being a part of this important commitment,” he said.

“The Federal Government’s strong focus on drawing a link between Australia Day and citizenship ceremonies is bizarre.

“If the Federal Government had bothered to consult with us in the development of this policy, they would have heard that 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.”

A spokesperson from the Adelaide City Council, which currently does not host a citizenship ceremony on Australia Day, said it instead held a ceremony on January 25 to avoid the increased costs involved in hosting a ceremony on a public holiday.

But Knoll said the “vast majority” of Australians were in favour of having citizenship ceremonies on January 26.

“What we’re trying to stop is a council going against the very clear wishes of its ratepayer base, especially on something that has such symbolic meaning,” he said.

“We should celebrate what it means to be Australian and that doesn’t mean that we blindly wash over the mistakes of our past, it means that we instead give ourselves an opportunity to reflect on our history and learn from it.

“Hiding away from Australia Day, I think, detracts from that and that’s why it needs to be protected.”

– with AAP

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