Yarra council stripped of citizenship ceremony powers after Australia Day changes

Alex Hawke, the assistant immigration minister, announced the decision on Wednesday afternoon, after the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, declared in parliament that the council’s vote was “utterly out of step with Australian values”.

“They are seeking to take a day which unites Australia and turn it into one which divides it,” Turnbull said. “To change the date of Australia Day would be to turn our back on Australian values.”

In a separate statement Turnbull said: “An attack on Australia Day is a repudiation of the values the day celebrates: freedom, a fair go, mateship and diversity.”

Hawke warned the council it could be stripped of its right to hold citizenship ceremonies before Tuesday’s council meeting but the changes nevertheless received unanimous support.

He said the decision was taken to “safeguard the integrity of citizenship ceremonies” in the City of Yarra, which covers the inner northern suburbs of Richmond, Collingwood and Fitzroy; the heart of the Aboriginal rights movement in Australia.

Hawke said the decision by the council not to hold a citizenship ceremony on 26 January next year, to support the campaign to change Australia Day to a date that is less painful to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and to refer to the Australia Day public holiday as “January 26” in all official council documents, was a “political resolution” and therefore a “significant breach” of the Australian Citizenship Ceremonies Code.

“We are committed to ensuring that citizenship is treated in the ‘non-commercial, apolitical, bipartisan and secular manner’ which the code mandates,” he said. “The instrument I have signed today means there will be no more citizenship ceremonies conducted by the City of Yarra on behalf of the government.”

Instead, citizenship ceremonies for residents of the local government area, which has a population of 80,000, will be conducted by neighbouring councils or by the immigration department. The department will hold a ceremony in Yarra council on 26 January.

Yarra council held bimonthly citizenship ceremonies and said before its meeting last night that it would continue to do so, just not on 26 January.

The council consulted Wurundjeri traditional elders, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and conducted an independent survey of non-Indigenous residents before committing to the change.

It was welcomed and applauded by Indigenous people but roundly criticised by both state and federal politicians, who say it is politicising a day that ought to be universally celebrated.