The Government Wants To Stop This Councillor Acknowledging Australia is “Stolen Land”

"It's a massive overreaction."

The federal government is trying to stop an elected councillor from referring to Australia as “stolen land” by threatening to remove some of the his statutory powers.

The assistant minister for immigration and border protection, Alex Hawke, has written to Brisbane councillor Jonathan Sri and threatened to revoke his authority to conduct citizenship ceremonies after the Greens councillor made comments referring to Australia as “stolen land” and referencing the genocide of Indigenous people that occurred after colonisation.

The letter from Hawke was sent in October, after Sri officiated a citizenship ceremony at the Brisbane Diwali Festival. In the letter Hawke writes that “It has been brought to my attention that at a ceremony… you made comments that constitute political expression and as such you have breached the [Australian Citizenship Ceremonies] Code”.

“Concerned Attendee” Complained To Government

Hawke says that the Department of Immigration and Border Protection was “contacted by a concerned attendee” who was “dissatisfied with comments made by Sri during the ceremony”.

Those comments include Sri identifying himself as a member of the Greens, rather than as a councillor (Sri is the first Greens councillor elected to Brisbane City Council), his suggestion that those at the event were meeting on “stolen land” and his use of the term genocide, and comments he made attributing the high cost and complicated citizenship application process to racism and xenophobia.

Sri Letter

Hawke went on to say that in light of these comments he was considering revoking Sri’s authorisation to conduct citizenship ceremonies. He also asked Sri to “provide an explanation” of his behaviour.

It’s not the first time Hawke has used his authority as assistant minister to pressure local councils. When Melbourne’s Yarra Council announced it would no longer refer to January 26 as Australia Day, Hawke suspended its ability to conduct citizenship ceremonies.

In a letter responding to Hawke’s threat Sri fired back, describing it as “deeply concerning”.

“It is bizarre and troubling that your government would attempt to censor and restrict public statements about immigration policy, or about the simple truth that Australia was invaded,” Sri said.

Sri also argued that Hawke doesn’t have the power to prevent him from officiating citizenship ceremonies.

“Under the relevant legislation, a decision to bar me from such events would have to apply equally to all Brisbane City Councillors,” he said. “You have made a deceptive threat that you don’t actually have the power to carry out, and I find it deeply concerning that the Department of Immigration issues letters which attempt to bully people for telling the truth about Australia’s racist colonial past.”

Hawke Should “Chill”

Sri told Junkee that he thought Hawke’s letter was a heavy handed and overly assertive response that included “direct threats”.

“I think he should chill, it’s a massive overreaction,” he said. “Whenever I give an Acknowledgement of Country I acknowledge we meet on stolen on land and that sovereignty wasn’t ceded. I don’t think that’s at all controversial in this day and age. It’s what I’d say at any other public event. The minister is out of step with where the community is at on these sorts of issues.”

“After the ceremony I had a lot of people who gave me quite positive feedback, including members of the Indigenous community who were in the audience.”

Sri is willing to admit that some people, including federal Liberal MPs, might disagree with his comments but he doesn’t think political disagreement should end in threats to have his powers as an elected councillor revoked.

“I think its fine and reasonable for people to have rational discussions about what tone of debate is appropriate at a ceremony,” he said. But “rather than sending me a polite letter saying maybe that was a bit out of line, he instead sent something much more assertive that included direct threats.”

Sri told Junkee that he was not going to be dissuaded from speaking his mind, but feared that Hawke’s letter would “have a chilling effect on a lot of people”.

“Some organisers of ceremonies who are seeking government support might decide not to invite me along because they don’t want to make waves. I think that’s a shame.”

Alex Hawke did not respond to a request for comment.

Update: A spokesperson for Hawke told Junkee that “Australian citizenship ceremonies are conducted in accordance with the Australian Citizenship Ceremonies Code (the Code). The Code states that Australian citizenship ceremonies are non-commercial, apolitical, bipartisan and secular. They must not be used as forums for political, partisan or religious expression.

Neither the Australian Government nor the Department supports the politicisation of Australian citizenship ceremonies.

Where this occurs, the Assistant Minister has the authority to formally revoke a person’s authority to preside at a citizenship ceremony. This is to ensure the focus remains on the conferees and their commitment to Australia and its people.

In the past, two individuals have had their authority to preside at citizenship ceremonies revoked. This occurred once in 1995 and once in 2008. In August 2017, all authorised officers from whole councils had their authority to preside at ceremonies revoked due to the politicisation of ceremonies by the affected councils.”