Tight vote sees Strathbogie back retention of January 26

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Decision time: A screenshot of Strathbogie Shire Council's extraordinary meeting on Tuesday, June 28 when it voted to retain January 26 for its Australia Day celebrations.

Strathbogie Shire Council has resolved, by just a single vote, to keep celebrating Australia Day on January 26.

The councillors met for an extraordinary meeting on Tuesday, June 28 when they considered whether to maintain the council’s current role and support for conducting ceremonies on January 26 or to withdraw its formal support.

Councillors considered a report prepared after a period of engagement with the community and several community members spoke at the meeting.

The report indicated that 46 per cent of respondents voted to abandon January 26 for Australia Day celebrations, while 54 per cent voted to retain the date.

Twenty-nine written submissions were also received. Of those, 12 were in support of changing the date, six were in support of retaining it and 11 provided alternative views or information.

Council staff recommended the community feedback received be noted and that celebrations continue to be held on January 26 in 2023, but it also be acknowledged that some communities will choose not to undertake such events.

In addition, the recommendation also proposed using an independent consultant to undertake a detailed engagement process, but a motion put forward by Cr Chris Raeburn to remove that point was passed by four votes to three, meaning the engagement will not go ahead.

Cr Raeburn said Australia Day celebrations are a matter for higher levels of government, not shire councils.

“I truly believe, and this is what I believe at the moment is, things will change federally and that’s where I believe it should come from, not from the lower echelon of government,” he told the meeting.

“This should be a decision from the top echelon of government. So that’s the reason why I’ve gone with this tonight.”

Councillor David Andrews supported the motion retaining the current arrangements and not pursuing greater engagement with the community on the issue.

“It’s not an easy issue, but to put it simply, it is a national day and I think the council’s decisions should be driven by the federal government of the country,” he said.

Cr Reg Dickinson said Australia’s history can’t be changed and our national day’s celebrations should be more inclusive, but opposed the council abandoning January 26 for its celebration.

“By dispensing with Australia Day, this council could be seen as ignoring history,” he said.

Cr Sally Hayes-Burke, though, spoke strongly against retaining the date and became emotional when addressing the motion.

“I guess I’m saddened my fellow councillors don’t want to embark on this journey to have the truth told because I think it’s important for this council, it’s important for this nation and it’s important at all levels of government,” she said.

Cr Hayes-Burke also quoted Matt Burns, CEO of the Taungurung Land and Waters Council, and member of the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria, as saying January 26 “...celebrates the suppression of Taungurung language and culture, the incarceration and genocide of our people and it’s the annual reminder of the dispossession of our people...”

Cr Paul Murray also admitted to being emotional over the issue, describing the motion as a “very bad move” and saying the conversation must continue.

He said, instead, Cr Raeburn’s motion aimed to end that discussion.

“It actually cuts the story off,” he said. “It says we’re going to do exactly what we did in the past and we’re going to do it all the way in the future.”

Cr Kristy Hourigan said she was yet to form an opinion on the merits of celebrating on January 26, but pointed out that the motion only addressed plans for 2023.

“The good part about the recommendation is that it doesn’t talk about how we celebrate it in 2024 or 2025 or 2026, and so for me that opens up the time for learning, for education, for our community to think about it,” she said.

Cr Hourigan was among those councillors to vote for the motion, along with Crs Raeburn, Dickinson and Andrews.

Crs Hayes-Burke, Murray and mayor Laura Binks voted against it.

Mayor Binks thanked the community for their contributions during the engagement process, which she said resulted in robust conversations around a complex issue.

“Council’s aim by opening up the conversation around traditional Australia Day celebrations was to be inclusive, respectful, and to recognise the significance of the day to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, in line with our Memorandum of Understanding with the Taungurung Land and Waters Council,” she said.