By a close margin, Ballina Shire Council has voted to return its official awards date to Australia Day in 2024, after deciding to try something different at its previous meeting.
The rescission motion was brought on by Crs Nigel Buchanan and Eve Ramsey, reversing the May decision which would have brought Ballina into line with the federal awards event, which takes place on January 25, the day before Australia Day.
Artist and teacher Mim O’Grady read a statement on behalf of Bundjalung man Ashley Moran, who grew up on Cabbage Tree Island and has worked for National Parks for many years. Mr Moran mentioned some of the horrific incidents of post-contact history in and around Ballina, including the massacres.
He then spoke about the burial places of ancestors, saying ‘I think it’s very important for council to understand from an Aboriginal perspective the importance of those areas, and also the importance of why January the 26th is a really difficult time for Indigenous people to celebrate.
‘They’re still starting to try and acknowledge, and mourn, some of the events that happened to our local people way back then, and we’re only starting to feel that maybe the community can move together with the Ballina Shire Council,’ he said.
‘I feel very strongly about changing the date and from a community perspective, our local council need to understand that we are still trying really hard to embrace these traumatic events that have happened to our people in our local area, especially the Nyangbul country.’
Mr Moran said that sticking with the 25th as the date for the acknowledgement awards would make ‘a big difference’, especially for those people receiving awards, while ‘shifting it back to the 26th would be not in our interest as Aboriginal people, and certainly make it difficult for us to celebrate and be a part of that event.’
Ballina Rotary’s Col Lee spoke in favour of the rescission motion, saying he was concerned that the motivation for the change ‘was more politically based, rather than logically founded on the community residents of Ballina Shire.’
Mr Lee suggested that changing the date of the awards by one day would have ‘little impact if any’ on the real issues confronting the region.
Cr Nigel Buchanan then spoke, having been absent for most of the previous meeting. ‘I’d like to express my disappointment and dissatisfaction with those that have brought this issue to the surface, in these chambers,’ he said.
Cr Buchanan said Ballina Council should stick to roads, rates and rubbish. ‘We should not even be discussing this issue, in my opinion, as it is not our place,’ he said. ‘It’s nothing more than virtue signaling,’ he said, arguing that those who support it would ‘have you believe it is in the interest of inclusion and tolerance, while in my opinion it’s actually the opposite.’
He quoted a Morgan Poll which said 64% of Australians were in favour of January 26 being celebrated as Australia Day, before quoting Warren Mundine and Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price as examples of Indigenous people who agreed with this position.
Cr Buchanan failed to acknowledge or address the comments of Ashley Moran.
Cr Simon Chate said no one was proposing to change the date of Australia Day, which was a matter for the federal government.
‘This is simply about aligning our awards ceremony ceremony with the national ceremony, to make our ceremony more inclusive. Nothing more,’ he said.
He appealed to Cr Eoin Johnston as a ‘genuine independent’ to consider his position. Cr Rod Bruem then jumped up and said these words were casting aspersions on others in the room (the members of Sharon Cadwallader’s ticket at the last election, including himself). Mayor Cadwallader asked Cr Chate to withdraw.
Cr Chate did so, and went on to say he had received 54 emails of support for the amended date, with only 10 emails wanting the celebration date to go back to January 26. He urged his fellow councillors to opt for inclusion and welcoming, instead of ignorance and discrimination.
‘We say to our community, we hear you and it’s important that you feel welcome. So we will do this thing,’ he said. ‘I’d like to see Ballina Shire Council step boldly into a place of welcome and integration rather than being dragged there at some date in the not so distant future.’
Cr Eoin Johnston declined to support Cr Chate’s appeal, for muddy reasons which amounted to January 25 being too close to January 26, which was a ‘pretty dreadful day’ for the Indigenous people of Australia. ‘To me it is tokenism,’ he said.
Community consultation needed
After the rescission motion succeeded, Ballina Council then re-debated January 26 as the date of Ballina’s Australia Day celebrations. Cr Kiri Dicker noted that federally ‘the days of celebrating the 26th of January are probably numbered’, and that Ballina should get on with consulting the local community about how to proceed.
Referencing the poll quoted by Cr Buchanan, she said ‘upwards of 70 or 80 per cent’ of Australians under the age of 30 wanted the date to change. ‘I’m a very patient person and I’m happy to wait for that to happen,’ she said.
In later debate Cr Rod Bruem said he was glad Australia was settled by the British, because if we weren’t settled by the British, it would have been someone else, and I think the outcomes probably would have been a lot worse for indigenous people… Let’s put this debate to bed,’ he said.
Cr Jeff Johnson noted that ‘January 26 is a controversial date for modern day Australia and particularly hurtful for many First Nations people across the country because this was the date the British declared Terra Nullius’, in other words uninhabited, which was clearly a lie.
A kind and peaceful man?
Cr Eva Ramsey, who was absent from the previous meeting, then gave a speech about Australia’s history, claiming ‘Captain Phillip was a kind peaceful man. His instructions were that the Aboriginals’ lives and livelihoods were to be protected and that friendly relations with them were to be encouraged.’
Skipping over what happened after that, Cr Ramsey went on to say, ‘The 26th of January allows all Australians the same opportunity to celebrate how proud and profoundly lucky we are to be Australians.’
Cr Phil Meehan took a different line, saying the opportunity to move Ballina’s celebration event one night earlier was not just a token, as had been said ‘a hundred times’, but a chance to repair harm in the community, and reduce pain.
‘If you’re still adamant about Australia Day, you can have a barbecue with your friends and family the next day. What can be better than that?’
It was revealed that it would cost Ballina Council substantially more to hold the celebration event on January 26 than January 25, because of penalty rates for workers on the public holiday, but those councillors who usually claimed to be defensive of the bottom line remained silent about this.
Cr Chate explained that Ballina Council would not be an outlier if it moved its event one night earlier, saying many councils were already doing this, along with the national event, in order to create a more inclusive ceremony.
In the end, the status quo of 26 January 2024 was confirmed as the date of Australia Day celebrations for Ballina Shire Council, although Mayor Sharon Cadwallader had to use her casting vote to get it over the line.
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