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Liberal MP says Jan 26 also “not a great day” for first fleet, slams council rejections to date

Jarred Cross -

A current Liberal MP advocating for a legislated Australia Day on January 26 and former Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs in the Howard Government has slammed recent local government shifts away from celebrating the date.

On Brisbane's 4BC Radio on Monday, member for Bowman in the city's east, Henry Pike and former Minister and host Gary Hardgrave labelled council decisions to axe citizenship ceremonies on the annual holiday "wrong".

It's understood more than 80 local councils around the country are opting not to host formal proceedings on January 26 in 2024.

The major uptake follows the Federal Government's late 2022 update to the Australian Citizenship Ceremonies Code, allowing councils to host citizenship ceremonies and events in the days surrounding the date.

On the announcement, Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs, Andrew Giles said it was a "pragmatic change" helping to remove "red tape".

"It is the Australian Government's strong expectation that councils conduct ceremonies on January 26," he said.

Speaking on Monday, Mr Hardgrave said the date was still important to "many millions" and likened citizenship ceremonies to getting "married to Australia".

In March last year, Mr Pike introduced a private bill to the lower house to "enshrine Australia's National Day in federal law" with "legislative protection".

Without specific mention to First Nations concerns, Mr Pike told 4BC "I hate this sort of time of year when we get the perennial dissenters who want to criticise the 26th of January".

"I'm very confident still the silent majority of Australians are strongly supportive of 26 January and I'm doing what I can to try to defend that date as much as I can," he said.

Mr Pike said the first fleet's landing "wasn't a great day" for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

"I think it's actually important that we actually celebrate the 26th of January because it was such an inauspicious start. It wasn't a great day for Indigenous Australians. And it wasn't a great day for all those people on the first fleet either," he said.

"But out of that inauspicious start, we've actually created the best country on Earth."

Later in the interview, the pair both labelled council moves not to host citizenship ceremonies on January 26 "wrong".

"It's really fantastic and I'm pleased that a lot of councils are still maintaining the Australia Day ceremonies. Unfortunately, we're seeing a lot trying to get rid of it," Mr Pike said.

He later added "lessons" could be learned and a "clear message" taken from October's unsuccessful referendum "that we should be entrusting the Australian people with more decisions around what we do with these important milestones".

A year on from Prime Minister Anthony Albanese saying there would be "no changes" to the date, shadow minister for immigration and citizenship Dan Tehan accused the Labor Government of "undermining the significance of Australia Day" and "laying the groundwork to abolish January 26 as Australia Day".

It came amid wider backlash from politicians.

Mr Tehan said more than 80 councils turning away from hosting ceremonies on the date was "dividends" and that Mr Albanese should be judged on his "words not his actions".

"Labor is undermining the significance of Australia Day and is laying the groundwork to abolish January 26 as Australia Day," he said on January 2.

"If the Prime Minister wants to change Australia Day he should be upfront with the Australian people instead of working in the shadows to change the date."

City of Fremantle was an early adopter of a transition away from the date, first hosting their One Day celebrations - an "inclusive alternative to Australia Day" on January 28 in 2017.

In 2024, the council will shift to a Truth Telling program, with extended efforts across the year.

"One Day in Fremantle successfully ignited debate around the country in questioning the celebration of Australia being held on the 26th of January each year," City of Fremantle mayor Hannah Fitzhardinge said in a December release.

"Many local governments and businesses now hold inclusive celebrations on a different date."

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