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Moreland Mayor: Why I defied the Immigration Minister.

Moreland is an inner-city multicultural community and home to many recently-arrived migrants and former asylum seekers – who often go on to become Australian citizens in moving ceremonies, hosted by the Mayor. Recently, Mayor Meghan Hopper decided not to read aloud a message from Minister Scott Morrison during citizenship ceremonies because of the government’s controversial asylum seeker policies.

Mayor Hopper writes for Mamamia about her council’s decision and the Minister’s response that threatens the annual Australia Day citizenship ceremony…

In my first speech after being elected Mayor of the City of Moreland, I was stopped twice for applause. Once was when I reflected on gender equality in politics. The other was when I spoke about Moreland’s enduring commitment to asylum seekers.

I’m very proud to represent one of the most diverse, eclectic and progressive municipalities in Australia. Moreland is a city in Melbourne’s inner north that is home to a thriving arts and cultural scene, the longest shopping strip in the Southern hemisphere, and some of the best baklava you’ve ever eaten.

Mayor of the City of Moreland Meghan Hopper. Image via Twitter.

It’s also home to generations upon generations of immigrants from all across the globe – from the Greeks and Italians who built Brunswick’s early industries, to the Indian, Lebanese, Turkish, Pakistani and Nepalese communities who make suburbs like Coburg, Fawkner and Pascoe Vale their home today.

And while my family first made their home in Moreland four generations ago, I know that for many of our residents, the reality is very different.  Theirs has been a reality of hardship and persecution.  A reality that has brought them to Moreland, perhaps over rocky seas, seeking a better life.

When I became Mayor I made a commitment to uphold Moreland’s support for asylum seekers.  It’s a commitment I intend to honour.

One of the aspects of the role I was most looking forward to was hosting our citizenship ceremonies.  Citizenship ceremonies mark the beginning of a new chapter for our newest residents.  They are a time to be celebrated with loved ones, to reflect upon the circumstances that led to the beginning of a new life in Australia.  They are an apolitical ceremony, intended to commemorate the unique and patriotic commitment between citizen and country.

Citizenship ceremonies are funded and organised entirely by the Local Governments who host them.

When I found out that the then-Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Scott Morrison MP, had provided a statement that he wanted the Mayor to read out at citizenship ceremonies, I knew immediately that I didn’t feel comfortable doing it.  And I wrote to the Minister and told him simply that.

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I wrote that I was not comfortable reading words from a Government whose policies in many ways do not represent the policies of my Council, or my own beliefs.

I said I did not find it fitting that at a once-in-a-lifetime ceremony, I should read a message that was not my own to new citizens, some of whom have come across the seas as asylum seekers.

I firstly sought advice from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.  They advised me that while many sections of the ceremony’s agenda must be read in order to confer citizenship, there is no legislative requirement to read a message from the Minister.

Cr Hopper at a recent citizenship ceremony. Image via Facebook.

The issue for me therefore is not the content of the message.  It is being required to read it when it is not necessary.  It is the concept that one elected representative can force another to act as a mouthpiece for a Government whose policies she and her local Government do not agree with.

I don’t speak for new Minister Peter Dutton, or for Minister Morrison.  I likewise wouldn’t expect or ask the Ministers to speak for me.

On his last day as Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Minister Morrison responded to my letter.  He sent me a one-page contract to sign, declaring that I will read his message.  If I do not sign it by January 10, he will remove my ability to preside over citizenship ceremonies in Moreland, as well as the ability of our Deputy Mayor and General Manager to preside, on January 20 – just 6 days before our Australia Day citizenship ceremony.

As Immigration Minister Scott Morrison threatened to revoke the rights of the Moreland council to conduct Australia Day citizenship ceremonies.

My very first priority is to ensure that the 80 Moreland residents who are due to receive citizenship on Australia Day still get that opportunity.

If I must read the Minister’s message on January 26 to ensure the ceremony goes ahead on that date, I will.  But I am seeking advice in relation to future ceremonies.

My intention was never to draw political attention to what should be an apolitical process.  In the previous two ceremonies I have hosted, I quietly skipped over the message from the Minister.  It has rarely been noticed and I have left it at that.

But the letter I received from the Minister is an ultimatum.  It is an attempt to hold up the citizenship of 80 people, all over the reading of a message.  And I’m not okay with that.

Every time I sing the national anthem at a citizenship ceremony, I get teary at the lines

For those who’ve come across the seas

We’ve boundless plains to share…

That’s what our citizenship ceremonies should be about.  Not empty messages.

The only message I wish to read to our newest citizens, is one of welcome.