THE Turnbull government has threatened to strip Fremantle council of its power to hold citizenship ceremonies in response to the axing of its Australia Day activities.
The council made national headlines this week when it officially announced it wouldn’t hold Australia Day activities on January 26, instead organising a concert and citizenship ceremony two days later to avoid offending indigenous people who don’t see the arrival of governor-designate Arthur Phillip in 1788 as a celebratory occasion.
“The government takes a very dim view of Fremantle council’s decision to cancel their Australia Day events on political grounds,” assistant federal immigration minister Alex Hawke told the Herald.
His interest in Fremantle was sparked by a letter from new Tangney Liberal MP Ben Morton, who was so angry about the change he wrote to his federal colleague asking him to stop the council’s proposed ceremony and force it back to Australia Day.
“In response to Mr Morton’s letter, the government will now write to Fremantle council to seek further details of what is planned for the so-called ‘One Day’ event,” says Mr Hawke.
“The government’s firm position is that citizenship ceremonies are non-commercial, apolitical, bipartisan and secular and must not be used as forums for political, partisan or religious expression.
“If Fremantle council is found to be in breach of the code, I have the power to revoke Fremantle council’s ability to preside over citizenship ceremonies, under the Australian Citizenship Act 2007.
“I note this has occurred twice in the last decade and the government will be monitoring the situation closely and in the first instance will await the response of Fremantle council.
“The government notes the public concern over this decision…”
Fremantle council has held a citizenship ceremony on Australia Day for the last five years and Mr Morton says the move to the 28th devalued the event.
“Having your citizenship conferred to you on Australia Day is very very special,” he says.
“The actions of Freo council will deny that very special occasion to our new citizens, it’s a disgrace.
“I want a reconciled Australia, and when we focus on issues confronting our indigenous Australians we should focus on those issues that will make a difference to their lives, like Aboriginal incarceration, parental responsibility, health, alcoholism and employment.”
Australia’s citizenship ceremonies code says councils must tell the immigration department about ceremonies three to six months in advance, but the department says there’s been no request from Fremantle council to date.
Fremantle state Labor MP Simone McGurk was non-plussed about the re-scheduling.
“The majority of people take out their citizenship at ceremonies throughout the year, and this will still be available to them,” she says.
“There are many local councils who don’t hold citizenship ceremonies on Australia Day.”
Ms McGurk says her initial opposition to the change has softened.
“Now a decision to hold a concert on 28 January has been made, I hope people will approach it with an open mind and find a way to celebrate what they have in common rather than what divides them,” she says.
Fremantle federal Labor MP Josh Wilson says he will be attending Cockburn council’s citizenship ceremony on Australia Day and Fremantle council’s on the 28th.
“Becoming a citizen is a special moment – and an opportunity to reflect on the way migrants enrich our society as they join the diverse Australian community,” Mr Wilson says.
by STEPHEN POLLOCK