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Local councils dumping Australia Day events because of COVID-19 have been labelled "completely unacceptable and frankly un-Australian" by a Sydney mayor.
Canterbury Bankstown, Liverpool and The Hills are among Sydney councils that have blamed COVID-19 for their decision to cancel large-scale events on January 26, despite the National Australia Day Council offering grants up to $20,000 for local governments and event organisers to pay for increased health measures.
North Sydney and Inner West councils have also cancelled Australia Day celebrations, while the NSW government is still finalising its January 26 program.
Ben Morton, Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister and Cabinet, urged local governments and event organisers to hold their Australia Day events in a COVID-safe way, "rather than rushing to cancel them". The day was an opportunity to reflect on "our shared history and 60,000 year plus journey as a nation, its highs and its lows", he said.
Cumberland City mayor Steve Christou said his council was planning Australia Day celebrations next year even as neighbouring councils in western Sydney blame pandemic restrictions for their decision to shelve events on January 26.
"I think the decision taken by some councils to cancel their Australia Day events is completely unacceptable and frankly un-Australian, particularly if the events can be hosted in a COVID-safe manner," he said.
Federal Liberal MP Craig Kelly said that with infections so low, "to use COVID as a reason to cancel Australia Day smells of a bit of a smokescreen ... they'd perhaps like to see Australia Day cancelled altogether".
The City of Canterbury Bankstown will not hold Australia Day events including pool parties and a concert next year after the council decided they were not essential. Its Australia Day awards and citizenship event will be a "scaled back seated event with tight COVID controls and no catering".
A council spokeswoman said there were “significant risks” in holding large-scale events due to changes to pandemic restrictions may change or an increase in COVID-19 infections.
Liverpool City Council cancelled its outdoor 2021 Australia Day celebration because of uncertainty around the extent of public health restrictions in January, said acting chief executive Eddie Jackson.
"We will host a virtual invite-only Australia Day awards and citizenship ceremony and our events team is working on plans to host a possible digital version of our much-loved Australia Day celebration," he said.
The Hills Shire will hold an awards and citizenship ceremony on Australia Day, but has cancelled its Australia Day concert at Bella Vista Farm.
"With the restrictions in place – and in these challenging times of uncertainty – it was difficult for council to plan for this event," mayor Michelle Byrne said. "We would normally be well into preparation, but in the current climate, the financial risk is far too great and the health and safety of our residents is of the utmost importance."
Cr Christou, who resigned from the Labor Party last year and was elected mayor with the support of Liberal and independent councillors, said Cumberland City Council was in the early stages of planning an Australia Day event in Holroyd Gardens, "which will be held in a COVID-safe manner".
Australia Day has long been mired in controversy, with local councils criticised in the past for shifting citizenship ceremonies from January 26 out of respect for Indigenous Australians.
January 26 has also been labelled Invasion Day and been marked by large protests calling for the abolition of Australia Day.
The NSW government would not confirm whether the Australia Day ferrython on Sydney Harbour would be held.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Premier and Cabinet said the Australia Day 2021 event program in Sydney’s CBD will “change significantly” from previous years. But she said many councils were still planning to hold Australia Day activities.
A North Sydney Council spokeswoman said its Australia Day event, BBQ by the Bridge, had been cancelled due to significant Harbour Bridge works on the event site.
The Inner West Council dumped January 26 celebrations last year in favour of a summer-themed event not on Australia Day.
Inner West mayor Darcy Byrne said Australia Day was a day to be commemorated not celebrated. "Attitudes towards 26 January are changing in the community," he said.
"For Aboriginal people the date represents the beginning of colonisation, dispossession, the removal of children and the deliberate destruction of language and culture."