City of Darebin Mayor Kim Le Cerf (second from left) and City of Yarra Mayor Amanda Stone (second right) 

Don’t mess with the USSRN — the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics of Northside — appears to be the message from Darebin Council. The Melbourne local authority covering Hipsterville and the Hummus Curtain — sorry, Northcote, Thornbury and parts of Preston — has become the second council to announce that it will not be honouring Australia Day on January 26.

The move comes a week after Yarra Council, to its immediate south (but still so very northside) announced it was neither honouring nor referring to Australia Day, following a unanimous vote. The Turnbull government responded — with deep gratitude at the opportunity to do something decisive — by revoking the council’s authority to conduct citizenship ceremonies. Turnbull spouted some guff about mateship, the fair go, and the “complexity” of the day for Aboriginal people.

Tempting though it is to see these moves as a blow against a national holiday day that was at one time without character and has now become a ridiculous jingoistic palaver, I’d suggest that it’s worth taking a step back and having a think about whether such strategies are really the way to go. Quite a lot of indigenous people live in the areas, especially in Yarra, and I presume they would be happy to see it go. But the short-term gains of such an initiative could undermine some of the larger gains that people are after.

[Dispatches from the federal Liberal council, a place you never want to find yourself]

The paradox is that the same time as such moves are expanding the operational autonomy and decisions of local councils concerning national identity and recognition, indigenous people are aiming for as much recognition as they can get at a national level, through constitutional recognition, tied to a treaty. After much division, there has been a unified ticket of sorts created, with the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

The key point of any such process is to be national, constitutional and bound into the law and fabric of the nation. It is seeking a categorical and unitary change in the character of our polity. Equally importantly, it is seeking the legitimacy to impose such a change with the force of the national state, on any who might be of a mind to reject it, or refuse recognition. This was done with the 1967 referendum, and with the High Court case that led to the Mabo judgment. Both were aimed at getting a national ruling to overrule a patchwork of laws and conditions.

Yarra and Darebin council, by their actions, are weakening the national legitimacy principle on which the recognition-treaty push depends. This not only undermines the notion that such a categorical shift should be imposed, with the force of the state, on those who disagree with it, but it also gives a mechanism for many to opt out. Any recognition-treaty process would bring with it various ceremonies, honourings, and would lay the basis for a new holiday, beside or instead of January 26.

[Fuck off, we’re full (of contradictions): the discontents of Australia Day]

Unilateral action by councils now, will legitimate unilateral action by councils in the future. Does anyone doubt that there are more shires and councils across rural NSW, Queensland and WA who would be willing to kick against the recognition-treaty process, and announce that a “nation can’t have a treaty with itself,” etc? Given the importance that indigenous leaders are placing on running such campaigns at a national level, and the historical opportunity offered to make such a gain, are local councils helping or hindering by establishing, de facto, a wider remit for councils than they have previously been considered to have?

Yarra mayor Amanda Stone has noted that the council had a unanimous vote to not recognise Australia Day, and to replace it with a variety of ceremonies recognising indigenous dispossession. This followed a poll of the community which found a majority in favour of such a move. But there is something paradoxical in this process too. Yarra Council is an entity of the dispossessing government, whose population is constituted by that dispossession. It has a mixture of social classes and ethnicities, but it is increasingly dominated by prosperous knowledge-class white people (Anglo and otherwise). The wider strategic sweep of indigenous politics is not really theirs/ours to determine.

That is not to suggest that such councils have to leap into Australia Day with all the kitsch gusto that has been assigned to it. The day can be left all but unmarked by a council that does not want to honour it, given its unreconstructed character. But surely we don’t really want a national polity that is a Balkanised series of culture wars, fighting on every front? Surely Australia’s indigenous/first peoples have made clear that the fight they want now is for recognition-treaty at a national level? It’s one thing — and difficult enough — to win that high ground. But after it has to be held. And the only possible way to do that is with the force of national authority. Better to consolidate that, then win it, than shatter it and fight over the fragments, back in the USSRN.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey