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Byron Shire
March 3, 2024

Australia Day award declined in solidarity with First Nations people

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Nina, pictured with her son Alex, considers herself very fortunate to be a part of the wonderful community that created such a lovely event to celebrate her 100th birthday. Photo Tree Faerie.

It’s not every day that you get nominated for an Australia Day award, and you’d have to think long and hard before declining one – yet that’s exactly what local dancer and dance teacher, Philip Channells, did when he and his collaborators at Dance Integrated Australia were nominated for a Byron Shire award. 

The win was for Community Event of the Year for Nina’s 100th birthday celebration, an event held to celebrate Nina Milenko Marzi on her special day.

Mr Channells decided that if he won the award, out of respect to First Nations people around the country and other community members who don’t celebrate, he would decline.

‘I had a few conversations with Council flagging that I felt really conflicted about this.’

Two members of Mr Channells’ team, Sean Campbell and Leigh-Anne Vizer, ‘attended’ the virtual event on January 25, and when Mayor Michael Lyon announced the event as the winner, they spoke to the ceremony.

Grateful for the recognition

On behalf of the group, Mr Campbell expressed their gratitude for the award.

‘Creating this event was another reminder of the importance of arts and culture in our society, of exchanging knowledge and telling stories through dance music, and celebrating diversity and the importance of accessibility and inclusivity.

Ms Vizer said things commonly celebrated on Australia Day such as equality, freedom, opportunity and our national identity are not always reflective of the experience of First Nations people and indeed many other people in Australia.

‘We believe the nationalistic pride often celebrated around Australia is rooted in racist colonial history, values and behaviours. On behalf of Nina, Alex and the Move It Dance Fitness Fun family, we truly appreciate the acknowledgement of our contribution to the community, however, with respect to the First Nations people of this land that we are privileged and fortunate enough to call home, we will not accept the award’.

When the livestream returned to Council, it was Cr Sarah Ndiaye at the podium.

Acknowledging the complexity of the times

‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘We do acknowledge the complexity of this time and one of the reasons that we have this event today, rather than on the 26th is acknowledging the challenges around celebrating a day that is so vexed for so many people.’

Council’s E-newsletter, sent after the event, omitted the winner of the declined award.

Mr Channells was upset that there was no mention of the reasons the group declined in any of the media sent out. ‘Not everyone’s celebrating – I just wanted to have a conversation about that,’ he said.

The Echo contacted the Mayor, who agreed every citizen has the right to protest, and not accepting an award is a valid form of protest and one with many famous examples.

‘With hindsight, I think it would have been better for us to have mentioned that the award was declined by the intended recipient and given the reasons for that in the E-news. 

‘It is clear to me that its omission by staff was not intended to shut down political protest, but rather a judgment call that we were communicating about the receipt of awards by members of the community’.

Awards are sponsored by the National Australia Day Council

Regarding the timing of the awards and changing the date, Cr Lyon said that the awards are sponsored by the National Australia Day Council. To receive financial support, it requires Council to hold it between certain dates, and to be clearly connected to Australia Day.

Council issued a media release on Monday recognising the protest that had been made by the rejection of the award.

Mr Channells added, ‘We need to keep the conversation going. I feel like we did the right thing’.

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