City of Darebin Mayor Kim Le Cerf (left) and City of Yarra Mayor Amanda Stone (right). Image: Julian Smith/AAP

This week marks a year since Melbourne’s Yarra City Council was stripped of the right to hold its own citizenship ceremonies for residents.

It was the end result of a bitter public fallout over Yarra’s decision to stop referring to January 26 as Australia Day and cancel its 2018 Australia Day citizenship ceremony, a move that infuriated the government and attracted condemnation from across the political divide.

Accusing the council of “seeking to take a day which unites Australia and turn it into one which divides us”, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull directed ministers to amend the Australian Citizenship Act to specifically ban Yarra from holding any further citizenship events.

A week later neighbouring Darebin Council was also banned from hosting ceremonies after passing a similar motion.

With the battlelines firmly drawn, the government announced it would instead organise its own citizenship events to “ensure a citizenship ceremony is held on Australia Day 2018 in Yarra and Darebin for prospective citizens”.

“As long as Australia Day is celebrated on 26 January, this is a most appropriate date for a citizenship ceremony to take place,” Assistant Immigration Minister Alex Hawke said at the time.

Now a list of government-run replacement events, obtained for Crikey under Freedom of Information laws, reveals five ceremonies have since been organised to confer citizenship on a total of 671 new Australians living in the two areas affected.

Despite all the fuss over the importance of holding an event on Australia Day, just a single new citizen from Yarra attended a Department of Immigration citizenship ceremony on 26 January this year, along with forty new citizens from Darebin.

The data also shows none of the five ceremonies were held in Yarra or Darebin, instead taking place at a Melbourne CBD conference centre and AAMI Park sports stadium.

Not even the two councils affected have been given a list of events held for their residents until now, with both struggling to obtain government data about new citizens living in their area. 

The news that only a small number of residents attended ceremonies on Australia Day will raise questions about the purpose and effectiveness of banning the councils from running their own events unless they agreed to host one on January 26.

The government has said the cancellation of planned ceremonies on January 26 was not the sole reason for the councils being stripped of their powers, citing the broader politicisation of the occasion including the councils’ decisions to put their weight behind the #changethedate campaign.

However nearby Moreland Council — which last year also voted to scrap Australia Day celebrations — avoided the same fate by agreeing to retain its January 26 ceremony.

And what of the prospects for a resolution to the standoff?

“The federal government have made it quite clear they won’t give us back our citizenship ceremonies unless we agree to do it on 26 January,” Darebin mayor Kim Le Cerf told Crikey.

“We won’t be changing our minds so I guess that’s just something we need to adapt to, including hosting a special event to congratulate new citizens who live in Darebin,” she said.

Yarra mayor Dan Nguyen also confirmed there was no change to Yarra City Council’s position but said the council was “continuing to have a dialogue” with the government about the issue.

The Department of Home Affairs declined to provide further comment. However, departmental officials told a senate estimates hearing in May it is “up to the councils to come forward to the minister if they wish to be reinstated”.

Peter Fray

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