IT’LL be quiet in Fremantle on January 26 – Australia Day, Invasion Day or whatever, with even local businesses giving up on fireworks. That’s no problem for Fremantle mayor BRAD PETTITT, who’d hoped the day would fly under the radar following last year’s furore when the council axed its own festivities. But the debate’s isn’t going away, so he says it’s time to respond to the criticism.
GIVEN the furore that surrounded the City of Fremantle last year, and the ongoing debate on the date of Australia Day since then, I was happy for Fremantle to keep a low profile this year.
But in light of some of the hyperbole published in lead up to Australia Day, I feel compelled to respond to some of the common criticisms against changing the date.
The first is that local governments should stick to roads, rubbish and rates and that the City of Fremantle has no business sticking its nose into a national issue.
To suggest the City has no role in this debate is ridiculous because the trigger for the whole discussion was a decision about how best to spend ratepayers’ money. The council made a decision not to spend ratepayers’ money on a fireworks display on January 26 – a decision we are still very comfortable with – and instead use it to host an inclusive, family-friendly event on January 28.
That decision has been vindicated, with around 15,000 people from all walks of life coming to Freo to enjoy the One Day in Fremantle event last year.
From a business perspective, 89 per cent of local traders were open during One Day last year – compared with just 59 per cent on the public holiday.
It’s better for business to have an event that attracts 15,000 people to Fremantle for a longer period and on a day when more businesses are open.
But in addition to the practical decisions around how to spend ratepayers’ money, local governments are also obliged to advocate on behalf of their local community.
Our decisions around Australia Day were in response to concerns expressed from local Aboriginal leaders, and came from a desire to hold an inclusive event where everyone could celebrate what’s great about being Australian.
Issues like the marriage equality debate have demonstrated that our federal representatives can be behind the curve on matters of social change.
Local governments interact with their communities at a grass roots level. They can, and should, advocate for their communities on national issues.
Another argument is that changing the date of Australia Day won’t do anything solve the ‘real’ problems like Aboriginal health, education and unemployment.
My answer to that is nobody said it would.
Changing the date of Australia Day – like the Apology to the Stolen Generations or the recognition of the first Australians in our constitution – would be a symbolic gesture, but that does not mean it would have no value.
The social disadvantages faced by Aboriginal people are deeply entrenched and have been suffered for generations. It will take a lot of effort and goodwill between Aboriginal people and governments at every level to tackle them.
The recognition of historical truths and a demonstration of empathy for Aboriginal people will show that we care.
From that foundation of mutual respect and trust we can then make a genuine effort to tackle the big issues like health and education.
Changing the date of Australia Day is not the answer, but it is a respectful and healing step towards the reconciliation this country needs.
While it is a necessary step it is not a sufficient one. We also need to close the gap on health and life expectancy and education, and we need to take seriously the recommendations of the Uluru statement that gives Aboriginal people an ongoing voice.
The other main criticism I’ve heard from people who don’t like the discussion about changing the date of Australia Day is that it’s divisive. To those people, I’d simply encourage them to come down to the One Day in Fremantle event on January 28 and see for themselves how inspiring and uplifting it can be when people from all backgrounds and walks of life can come together to celebrate everything they love about Australia.