‘January 26 is still Australia Day’: High commissioner cancels London gala over ‘sensitivities’
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London: Anthony Albanese’s hand-picked high commissioner to the UK, Stephen Smith, has closed the doors of Australia House to organisers of an annual Australia Day fundraiser, citing sensitivities around celebrating the national day.
It is part of a wider purge of what Smith believes are “parties without purpose” that he has told visiting Labor MPs he has killed off since taking up residence at his luxurious manor, Stoke Lodge, next to Hyde Park, on Australia Day last year.
Kylie Minogue in J’Aton Couture at the 2015 Qantas Australia Day Gala Dinner in London.Credit: Getty Images
The Australia Day Gala dinner run by the not-for-profit Australia Day Foundation is a fixture on the London calendar and has previously attracted some of Australia’s biggest names, including singers Kylie Minogue, Natalie Imbruglia, Peter Andre, Tim Minchin, Philip Quast, Delta Goodrem, Tina Arena, the boy band Human Nature and entertainers Barry Humphries, Clive James and naturalist David Attenborough.
The black-tie event, which is widely regarded as the London version of G’Day LA, also honours Australians and Britons who have contributed to the bilateral relationship and has showcased food cooked by Australian chefs, including Maggie Beer, Neil Perry and the Michelin-starred Brett Graham.
The dinner has been held in the marble Exhibition Hall of the Australian High Commission on Strand on the Saturday evening closest to January 26 for two decades, and in recent years it has begun turning a profit, which organisers have used to fund scholarships for young Australians to study in Britain.
But when organisers went to confirm arrangements for the 2024 celebration, the first to be held under the reign of Stephen Smith, they were told by the high commissioner that it wouldn’t be appropriate to hold the Australia Day event around January 26, which marks the First Fleet’s landing in Sydney in 1788 and some Indigenous campaigners call Invasion Day.
Stephen Smith, Australian high commissioner to the United Kingdom, at Australia House in London in March. Credit: Hollie Adams
“I was very disappointed to be told that it was not appropriate to have a function around Australia Day that might be interpreted as insensitive back in Australia,” Phil Aitken, founding member of the foundation told this masthead.
“It’s been supported by the High Commission for 20 years, so it’s very sad.”
Advertising legend Bill Muirhead, who was also a founding member, said it was “un-Australian” to cancel Australia Day.
“The last time I checked, January 26 was still Australia Day,” Muirhead said.
The High Commission of Australia wanted to charge the charity a minimum of £29,000 ($55,000) to hold the event, instead of operating costs, impose a curfew of 11pm and proposed that the Australia Day Gala be held in March instead of near Australia Day, leaving organisers with no option but to cancel.
“It is well known that Australia Day touches on sensitivities for some Australians,” a spokesman said in a statement.
“The high commissioner is happy to acknowledge that was part of the decision-making process with respect to the various alternative dates suggested by the foundation.”
The spokesman hit out at former high commissioners, who include career diplomat Lynette Wood, former attorney-general George Brandis, former South Australian premier Mike Rann and Australia’s longest-serving foreign affairs minister, Alexander Downer.
“On High Commissioner Smith’s arrival at the Australian High Commission in January 2023, there were no defined, published strategic objectives for the Australian High Commission London,” the spokesman said.
“High Commissioner Smith circulated a clearly defined set of strategic objectives to all staff of the Australian High Commission and Australia Centre on May 17.”
The list of strategic objectives is topped by AUKUS and the Australia-UK free trade agreement, which were signed during Brandis’ tenure.
Opposition foreign affairs spokesman Simon Birmingham called on the federal government to overrule Smith’s edict, saying events like the gala were “more than just parties”.
“It’s not a high commissioner’s place to unilaterally change the date of Australia Day,” Birmingham said.
“Stephen Smith doesn’t just look like a killjoy who’s ashamed of Australian history but is also trashing a prime event that promotes investment, travel and trade with Australia.
“Penny Wong and Don Farrell should overrule this ridiculous decision that burns the goodwill and reputation of an event built up over many years by proud expats happy to give their time to promote our nation.”
Opposition foreign affairs spokesman Simon Birmingham.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen
Smith was believed to be Albanese’s third choice for high commissioner as the government struggled to fill the post for almost a year.
Along with former treasurer Wayne Swan, Smith headed a factional grouping called the Roosters and played a key role in toppling Kevin Rudd as prime minister during the Rudd-Gillard Labor leadership wars.
Rudd, after being reinstated, kept Smith in his cabinet as defence minister. Smith retired from federal parliament in 2013, the year Labor was booted out of office after its ill-discipline.
Three years later, Smith spectacularly and unsuccessfully tried to resurrect his political ambitions by attempting to oust Mark McGowan, complaining that the West Australian Labor leader was unelectable.
McGowan prevailed and not only won at the ballot box in 2017 but went on to all but eliminate his political opposition when re-elected premier in 2021, before retiring in 2023 at the height of his power.
McGowan’s popularity helped boost federal Labor’s fortunes at the 2022 election, after which newly crowned Prime Minister Anthony Albanese appointed Smith for the plum posting in London.
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