By Kirra Grimes

A LOCAL reconciliation group has questioned Bass Coast Shire Council’s decision to host a citizenship ceremony on January 26, calling this a “painful” day for Indigenous Australians, and one that should be reserved for “reflection” rather than celebration.
Council has traditionally held citizenship ceremonies in Wonthaggi on January 26, and from this year on, that tradition will be enforced, by federal government legislation introduced in September 2019 in response to a growing trend among local councils to ‘boycott’ Australia Day celebrations, out of respect to Indigenous people.
Under the new legislation, councils that choose not to host citizenship ceremonies on behalf of the Federal Department of Home Affairs on January 26 will forfeit their right to host such ceremonies on any date.
But the Bass Coast South Gippsland Reconciliation Group (BCSGRG) says that shouldn’t stop Bass Coast Shire Council taking a stand in the Australia Day debate, with members calling on Council to make the reconciliation message a central part of the day.
“Compelling councils to hold citizen ceremonies on Australia Day doesn’t entirely compel Councils to ‘stick with the script’ on Australian values,” BCSGRG secretary Marg Lynn told the Sentinel-Times in the lead up to the ceremony in Wonthaggi this Sunday.
Marg suggested a “brave” Council could “take the opportunity to speak up about our colonial past, our treatment of Aboriginal Australians and the relatively recent adoption of the January 26 as a national holiday”.
“The deeper questions are whether we should hold Australia Day at all, whether we should rename it and change its date, or whether we should retain it as a day of reflection. The [BCSGRG] has adopted the latter approach for the moment,” Marg said.
Bass Coast Shire Council has defended the decision to celebrate the arrival of new citizens on January 26, with Deputy Mayor Cr Geoff Ellis telling the Sentinel-Times he did not see a conflict between this process and reconciliation values.
Cr Ellis, himself a member of BCSGRG, confirmed he would be attending several local Australia Day events on Sunday in his role as Deputy Mayor, including Council’s citizenship ceremony.
“Welcoming fresh faces into our community is one of the best facets of the role of councillor and I love being able to talk to people about all the great reasons they have chosen to make their home and future among us. I don’t see this process as disrespectful to our First Nations people,” Cr Ellis said.
The ceremony on January 26, as with all Bass Coast citizenship ceremonies, will include acknowledgement of First Nations people and a ‘welcome to country,’ Cr Ellis said, describing these practices a “great honour” which would be carried out with “utmost respect”.
Cr Ellis also highlighted Council’s “clear and progressive” approach to supporting and promoting respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members of the Bass Coast community, reflected through involvement in BCSGRG and the Bass Coast Reconciliation Network, and events such as the annual Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener commemoration, National Sorry Day, National Reconciliation Week and NAIDOC Week.
“In working with our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and stakeholders we continue to develop respectful relationships and create meaningful opportunities with First Nation peoples,” Cr Ellis said.
The BCSGRG is co-hosting an ‘Alternative Australia Day’ event at Churchill Island this Sunday, January 26, from 11am to 2pm, for Indigenous and non-Indigenous community members who want to gather in a supportive environment.
BCSGRG members encourage all Australians to embrace the spirit of reconciliation on Sunday and beyond “because it’s about the healing of the nation”.
“We are divided from one another and the more we embrace reconciliation with our brothers and sisters who are the first people, the more we become one community,” the group’s co-chair Florence Hydon said.
The Bass Coast Shire Council is currently developing its first ‘Reconciliation Action Plan’ in collaboration with the local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and Reconciliation Australia.
The plan was due to be completed during the 2018/19 financial year, according to Council’s latest Annual Report, but was deferred to allow more time to “enhance working relationships with our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community” and “identify key priorities for our reconciliation journey”.