What began as a spat between prime minister Scott Morrison and Byron Mayor Simon Richardson has blown up into a national confrontation after the government said it will force all councils to hold citizenship ceremonies on Australia Day.
In September last year, the PM threatened that Byron Council would be stripped of its power to hold citizenship ceremonies if it dared to follow through on its plan to move the event to a less controversial date.
But despite Byron Council backing down, the government has announced it plans to ram through changes to the Australian Citizenship Ceremonies Code without consulting the councils that would be required to implement it.
That action has been described as ‘heavy handed’ by the federal peak body of councils, the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA).
ALGA also says the government has offered councils no financial compensation for the extra costs associated with running such an event on a public holiday.
President, Mayor David O’Loughlin*, said in a statement that ‘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,’ Mayor O’Loughlin said.
‘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.
‘Other councils combine their citizenship ceremonies with their local Australia Day Citizen of the Year Awards, which are often held in the week before Australia Day, just as many of the state and territory governors do with their Australia Day Awards ceremonies.’
He said , ‘We do acknowledge that a small number of councils are in discussions with their communities about whether January 26 is the appropriate day to celebrate Australia Day,’ adding that, ‘it is our job to be responsive to our communities, including to their calls for prudence and advocacy’.
ALGA has called for the federal government’s plan ‘to show an equally strong commitment to assist councils with issues – such as cost – that may come with holding the ceremonies on Australia Day’.
‘There are significant additional event and staff costs associated with holding citizenship ceremonies on a public holiday, which is why some councils sensibly choose to hold it on a weekday instead,’ Mayor O’Loughlin said.
‘Interestingly, the federal government has made no mention of any financial contribution towards the additional costs involved in running these ceremonies – ceremonies conducted on behalf of the federal government – instead opting to continue a pattern of cost-shifting to councils.’
*David O’Loughlin is Mayor of City of Prospect in SA.