LETTER TO THE EDITOR
The City of Ballarat fireworks on Sunday are controversial for valid reasons. This year they could easily have been postponed without financial loss.
They should have been moved to a more appropriate time of year for two compelling reasons (one recent and one long-standing) that would demonstrate respect, compassion and sensitivity.
As a mark of respect for those impacted directly and indirectly by the trauma and devastation of the bushfires across the country and the state it would have clearly been the right thing to do in this instance.
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This year has highlighted that fireworks across the country during peak bushfire season are perceived as contentious, insensitive and disrespectful by many, regardless of add-on fundraising activity.
Also we should not be having fireworks on a date that for many First Nations people's marks the commencement of colonisation, Frontier Wars, massacres across the country, as well as ongoing dispossession and systemic oppression.
These two reasons demonstrate strong arguments to postpone this year and not continue future fireworks events on January 26.
An online petition to Ballarat City Council asking for cancellation of the fireworks on similar grounds gained about 8000 signatures.
The unprecedented bushfires in recent months have caused immeasurable physical, mental and environmental harm and the recovery will take years.
Many near to us and afar are impacted by grief and trauma.
At last count more than 30 lives have been lost, over one billion animals have died, more than 2000 homes lost and tens of millions of hectares of bushland and habitat turned to ash. It's estimated at least more than half of Australia's population has been impacted.
Ballarat has had bushfires around the fringe of the municipality in recent weeks and the smoke haze on several days has been impossible to ignore.
The full extent of the human, environmental and financial costs are still mounting as we are faced with a least two more months of peak bushfire season.
Surely the enormity of this should have prompted a rethink about the sensitivity of a celebratory fireworks display here in Ballarat as it did elsewhere across the country.
As recently as a week ago, both Melbourne and Geelong's January 26 fireworks were cancelled out of respect and recognition of the enormous toll of these unprecedented bushfires have had.
Councillors were urged with a strong City of Ballarat organisational recommendation back in September 2019 to not proceed with fireworks for January 26 as it is peak bushfire season and an increasingly challenging time of year for the organisation assisting in emergency situations.
Unfortunately, a majority of councillors did not support this recommendation.
There was another opportunity in early December to reconsider January fireworks in view of the commencement of an unprecedented dangerous fire season.
Rescheduling at that point would have avoided financial loss but, again, a majority of councillors did not support rescheduling.
As recently as two weeks ago, a decision could have been made to postpone the fireworks with minimal financial loss but, again, a majority of councillors would not agree.
Instead, a decision to frame the event as a fundraiser was made. On the face of it, that sounds reasonable.
However, the reality is there are multiple other ways to contribute funds to assist bushfire relief that have been utilised such as the City of Ballarat $20,000 donation to bushfire relief and collection of funds at other summer events.
There are a multitude of alternative means to raise funds that could still be used rather than rattling donation tins at an event considered insensitive by many.
Events and celebrations on January 26 have been culturally contentious for many years.
During my time as a councillor, I've listened closely to our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community members about the impact of January 26 and continue to learn more all the time about their broader history and experiences.
I have been outspoken in advocating for their voices to be heard as co-chair of our Koorie Engagement Action Group (KEAG).
KEAG has worked with City of Ballarat on our Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP).
We've made some positive steps forward but it's clear that we still have much work to do.
Throughout the plan there are many practical actions as well as symbolic ones.
Both are extremely important as we work together and build relationships in order to bring along the whole community. This includes City of Ballarat as an organisation, the elected councillors and the broader community.
Whilst progress is being made in many areas of the RAP to acknowledge, support and walk together with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community members, concerns around January 26 have remained a sticking point.
Australia Day celebrations and particularly the fireworks on the day have been at odds with the vision to acknowledge through actions - as well as words - the fact that celebrations on this date have been insensitive to the experiences of Indigenous community members.
Put simply, there has been stubborn resistance from a majority of councillors to "walk the talk" when it comes to changing the status quo around Australia Day celebrations.
This has not just emerged close to the date each year. It's been bubbling away for years.
KEAG instigated a January 26 working group 12 months ago in order to work stridently towards changing the way the date is recognised in Ballarat.
Without the support of a majority of councillors, this has been a work in progress. KEAG has, however, gained strong organisational support and City of Ballarat CEO Justine Linley has made a written commitment to KEAG to undertake the recommendations of Reconciliation Victoria around January 26 to strive to acknowledge the day in a different way. Her written commitment has been made public and she should be applauded for her leadership.
It is also significant and historic that we will have the first Survival Day Mourning Ceremony ever held in Ballarat on Sunday.
This event is being led by KEAG and community supported by City of Ballarat, also supported by Wadawurrung Traditional Owners and Ballarat and District Aboriginal Co-operative (BADAC).
It is in line with our Reconciliation Action Plan and stance as an Intercultural City. It's been incredibly heartening to see the announcement of the event so positively received.
This inaugural event brings into sharp focus the insensitivity of planned fireworks on the same day. It would never be considered appropriate to have fireworks on ANZAC Day, Remembrance Day or any other date marking significant loss and trauma.
Survival Day Dawn Ceremony will be held on Sunday between 5.30am and 6.30am at View Point, Lake Wendouree.
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