Council to fly flag at half mast as Australia Day debate rolls on

A Melbourne council will fly its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags at half mast on Australia Day as debate swirls about the best way to mark January 26.

This will be the first time that Glen Eira Council lowers its flags on Australia Day to acknowledge the suffering experienced by Australia's First Nations people. It appears to be the only Victorian council planning to take this course.

The Aboriginal flag is seen during a protest last month by Indigenous Australians on the forecourt of Parliament House in Canberra. Glen Eira Council will fly its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags at half mast on Australia Day.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

It follows a call from federal Greens senator Lidia Thorpe, a Djabwurrung Gunnai Gunditjmara woman, for communities, councils and organisations to fly their Aboriginal flags at half mast on January 26.

"On this day, the Aboriginal flag can be flown at half mast, as befits a day of grief and remembrance,” she wrote in a recent opinion piece in The Age.

Senator Thorpe hit out at the Victorian government on Thursday for ignoring her calls and failing to back up their rhetoric with action.

"It's disappointing that the Victorian government has chosen to handball this decision, when they say they are committed to First Nations justice through a treaty process," she said.

Margaret Esakoff, the mayor of Glen Eira (which takes in the south-eastern suburbs of Bentleigh, Caulfield and Elsternwick), said it was important that Australians came together to acknowledge the pain Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples had experienced as a result of European colonisation.

"While Australia Day is a day of celebration of our great country and all we have achieved and all we have become, the Aboriginal and the Torres Strait Islander flags will be flown at half mast on Australia Day as a mark of respect and empathy for those for whom January 26 is a day of mourning."

But other councils and government agencies aren't following Glen Eira's lead and will fly their flags as usual.

A Department of Premier and Cabinet spokesman said when it came to flag protocols, government buildings followed the advice of the federal government, which sends out a notification recommending that the Australian flag be flown at full mast on January 26.

Bayside mayor Laurence Evans said Australia Day was a day to reflect on the nation's history.

"Bayside celebrates the day, not the date."

Bayside Council will hold COVID-safe invitation-only citizenship and awards ceremonies and will not fly the Aboriginal Flag at half mast. "But we also recognise that January 26 is not a day of celebration for all Australians. We encourage people to consider the implications of this day on our First Nations Peoples," Mr Evans said.

Stonnington Council will hold an Indigenous Welcome to Country as part of its citizenship ceremony and will fly its flags as usual. Council has not voted on or even debated the issue, a spokeswoman said.

Some mayors, including Mr Evans and Stonnington mayor Kate Hely, have been invited by Port Phillip Council to attend a "mourning reflection event" – We-Akon Dilinja – at St Kilda’s Alfred Square.

The City of Melbourne will not be lowering its flag to half mast and will support NAIDOC Victoria and its dawn ceremony event. It will hold a citizenship ceremony at Town Hall for about 40 new citizens, with entertainment from the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Choir.

Yarra, Moreland and Darebin councils ceased Australia Day celebrations in 2017 and are active members of the "Change the Date" campaign, which calls on the federal government to change the date of Australia Day.

Monash Greens councillor Josh Fergeus is campaigning for his council to fly its Aboriginal flag at half mast on January 26.

"It is a day of mourning for many First Nations people," he said. "While it looks like there will not be any changes to council policy this year … I will be pushing for this in the year ahead."

Mark Chou, an associate professor of politics at the Australian Catholic University who has researched local councils and their approach to January 26, said councils in more socially progressive areas had taken on more of a leadership role. "They have felt more empowered to tackle these issues," he said. "They are trying to represent their residents."

He said other more conservative councils believed their role was to tackle roads, rates and rubbish. But he said it was a myth that just a handful of radical inner-city councils were tackling the complexities of Australia Day.

"There are a whole range of councils out there debating what to do," he said. "They might not make a decision now or make a definitive decision in one go, but they're actually doing small things over a long period of time to try and make some headway on this issue."

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