Change the date: Locals have their say on Australia Day

Change the date: Locals have their say on Australia Day
David Schout

The City of Melbourne’s residents and business owners support changing the date of Australia Day, after almost 60 per cent backed a move away from January 26.

A survey of more than 1600 locals and traders, held by phone between August 4 and 7, revealed that almost double the number of people backed a change compared with those who did not.

The independent poll showed that 59.8 per cent collectively supported moving the date, while 31.6 per cent did not.

A remaining 8.6 per cent of respondents expressed a neutral view.

The survey also highlighted that “women, people aged 49 and younger, and those with higher education levels were more likely to support the change of date for Australia Day”.

It was released as the key part of an “options paper” presented to councillors ahead of what was expected to be a lively debate at the September 6 Future Melbourne Committee meeting at Town Hall, which took place just after Southbank News went to print.

At the meeting, councillors were expected to decide on how to approach January 26 from 2023 onwards after Lord Mayor Sally Capp declared in July it was time to be “more decisive” around what happens on the day.

Councillors would consider, among a range of options, advocating to the federal government to change the date.

It acknowledged it was “not within the City of Melbourne’s authority to change Australia Day”, however it could opt to scrap council-run activities on the day.

The council would, however, continue to support and issue permits for events delivered by the state and federal governments in Melbourne on the day (including a citizenship ceremony).

As it stands, the federal and state governments do not have a policy position on changing the date.

January 26 is the anniversary of Captain Arthur Phillip landing in Sydney Cove and raising the Union flag in 1788.

The date is controversial because it “celebrates” a painful part of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, and was sometimes referred to as “Invasion Day”.

When the options paper was voted for eight votes to zero by councillors on July 26, Cr Jason Chang abstained from the vote and argued “it was an issue for the federal government”.

He said the City of Melbourne should be more focused on local issues, a position backed by Victorian Opposition Leader Matthew Guy who urged the council to “stay in their lane”.

However, the Lord Mayor countered any claims it should stick to “roads, rates and rubbish” at the time, and argued that the council chambers were the exact domain the Australia Day issue should be debated.

“I believe that it’s important for local governments, as the level of government closest to our people, to be active participants in this important debate,” she said.

The state government has traditionally organised a range of activities within the city on January 26.

These include a flag raising ceremony at Melbourne Town Hall, a parade along Swanston St, a family festival in Kings Domain and a public fireworks display in Docklands.

During COVID-19 these events were disrupted, and all events were cancelled in 2021.

An Australia Day Concert was the only event held in 2022.

Should it vote to remove (council-run) Australia Day events from the calendar, the City of Melbourne would join Yarra, Darebin and Moreland councils in scrapping January 26 celebrations.

Yarra and Darebin councils previously also moved to not hold a citizenship ceremony on the day, and in response the Commonwealth Government removed these council’s powers to conduct citizenship ceremonies.

Key findings from 1600 residents/business owners:

  • 59.8 per cent collectively support changing the date of Australia Day, compared with 31.6 per cent who do not
  • 59.9 per cent indicated it was likely Australia Day would be moved from 26 January in the next 10 years
  • 55.1 per cent believe that local councils should have citizenship ceremonies on Australia Day
  • 31.3 per cent indicated activities that acknowledge Indigenous Australians should be held on Australia Day

*(Note: the survey found there was “little difference in the responses of residents and businesses”) •

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