City of Whittlesea administrators Bruce Billson has resigned. He is pictured with Lydia Wilson and Peita Duncan.

By Colin MacGillivray

THE City of Whittlesea will not host an Australia Day celebration on January 26 as it reviews the inclusivity and safety of its events and festivals.

Council will still host a small citizenship ceremony on the day, but has postponed celebrations and community awards until later in the year.

January 26 marks the anniversary of the landing of the First Fleet of British ships in Australia, signalling the advent of European colonialism and the subsequent death, displacement and loss of culture of Aboriginal Australians.

Many Aboriginal people regard it as a day of mourning, with some terming the date Invasion Day.

In recent years some other Victorian councils have elected not to host celebrations on January 26 in recognition the date is distressing for Aboriginal people.

The City of Whittlesea has the second-largest Aboriginal population of any metropolitan Melbourne municipality, and chair administrator Lydia Wilson said council recognised the grave significance of the date for Aboriginal people.

Ms Wilson said other factors such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic also factored into council’s decision to scrap next year’s celebrations.

Council has committed to reviewing all of its events as it works towards forming a new Council Plan 2021-25, and will make a decision on whether to reinstate Australia Day celebrations on January 26 after conducting extensive community consultation.

“Most festivals and events were cancelled in 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions around gatherings, which has provided an opportune time to conduct a thorough review,” Ms Wilson said.

“We want to ensure they are aligned with our community’s expectations around cultural appropriateness, value for money, seasonal risks and community health.

“Council acknowledged that January 26 is a complex and contested date to celebrate Australia Day. We recognise this causes distress for many people living in our community, and we are committed to moving forward in a way that will build relationships and understanding.

“We clearly need to hear the voices from our diverse community to make sure we have an inclusive program of festivals and events, and the overarching policy that guides that program.

“We’ll continue our program of education and engagement to foster understanding, awareness and respectful dialogue around reconciliation issues in our community.”

Sarah Gafforini, a co-chair of local Aboriginal advocacy organisation Whittlesea Reconciliation Group, said council’s decision was a welcome one.

“We fought for this decision for many years,” she said.

“We raised awareness that January 26 is an inappropriate day to celebrate Australia with previous councillors, [but] they lacked the courage to make hard decisions. This decision unites us as a community. We stood strong and congratulate council in finally joining us.”

Ms Gafforini said changing Australia Day celebrations from January 26 would allow people to re-examine Australia’s history.

“When you know better, you do better,” she said.

“For those in the community that don’t like this decision, learn the true history of Australia. No one loses in this decision. We all deserve to celebrate Australia together.

“Next year celebrates 20 years of the Whittlesea Reconciliation Group. This decision means we can now look ahead to what can be, together.”

City of Whittlesea administrator Peita Duncan said she was proud of council’s decision.

“We recognise that this day does cause distress for many, and we are committed to moving forward in a way that will build relationships and understanding amongst our entire community. It is time now to do that,” she said.

“The City of Whittlesea has the second-largest Aboriginal population in metropolitan Melbourne and council has taken significant steps across the years towards reconciliation. This is a continuation of that journey that we are on.”

Council chief executive Craig Lloyd said all residents deserved to celebrate being Australian.

“We’re a country that includes everyone, we take care of each other and we believe that every Australian deserves a fair go. Australia Day should be as inclusive as our country is,” he said.

“But current celebrations on Australia Day don’t include all Australians. For Aboriginal Australians in particular, 26 January represents a very painful time in our history.

“We’re at a point now where we need to review our events on 26 January out of respect to our whole community, to ensure we can live our vision to make the City of Whittlesea a place for all.”

City of Whittlesea community wellbeing director Kate McCaughey said council officers would consult with the community about festivals and events during the next six months.

“We’ll do targeted special consultation looking at our cohorts across the city – age demographics, cultural backgrounds, languages other than English – but also our wider population through a range of different mechanisms,” she said.

“A lot of our policies and strategies are due for renewal in the next six to 12 months. That includes our anti-racism strategy, our Reconciliation Action Plan and our social inclusion policy.

“We really want to consolidate those actions under a much more powerful integrated document, and we see the council plan as our primary critical document over the next four years, consolidating and capturing those initiatives across those areas.

“We might have fewer policies and plans and more focus on joined up, integrated actions in partnership with our community. That’s what we’ll do with the community when we consult on our council plan.”