Feds’ coercive approach to Australia Day citizenship ceremonies heavy-handed

Today’s announcement by the Federal Government to force councils to hold citizenship ceremonies on Australia Day as a response to the debate to change the date of this national holiday is heavy-handed and odd, according to the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA), the peak body representing local government and councils Australia-wide.

ALGA President, Mayor David O’Loughlin, said that most councils likely won’t be opposed to the Federal Government’s proposed changes to the Australian Citizenship Ceremonies Code but councils will have valid concerns, not excuses, that will need to be addressed.

“The priviledge of Australian citizenship is highly respected by the Australian community and councils value their role in holding citizenship ceremonies and being a part of this important commitment,” Mayor O’Loughlin said.

“However, 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.

“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 Governor’s do with their Australia Day Awards ceremonies.

“It would make more sense for the Federal Government to insist on local, state and their own level of government holding events to celebrate Australia Day Honours and Citizens of the Year on Australia Day, rather than only insisting on local councils holding a citizenship ceremony on the 26th of January, especially given Citizenship Day is the 17th of September, months after Australia Day.

“We do acknowledge that a small number of councils are in discussions with their communities about whether the 26th of January is the appropriate day to celebrate Australia Day.

“However, councils cannot move Australia Day – this is ultimately up to the Federal Government – but it is our job to be responsive to our communities, including to their calls for prudence and advocacy.”

ALGA has responded to the Federal Government’s strong commitment to change the Australian Citizenship Ceremonies Code with calls for it 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.

“There is very real pressure on council budgets nationally and the Federal Government must put their money where their mouth is if they are serious about their proposal.

“The Federal Government must lift its core funding to local government, Financial Assistance Grants (FAGs), back to 1% of Commonwealth Taxation Revenue (CTR) – levels last seen in 1996.

“This funding has been in steady decline for the past 20 years and, unless the Federal Government does something to fix it, today’s announcement will be seen as just another cost-shifting tactic.

“Our local and diverse communities matter, and so do their pools, beaches, libraries, sporting grounds, parks and the safety of their local roads. Therefore the 1% funding to local governments and local communities should be of far more importance to the Federal Government.”

/Public Release.