Heated council debate over a new Aboriginal acknowledgement statement to be adopted by the City of Bunbury has the Mayor distancing himself from councillor comments, while others described them as “horrific”. A motion for an updated version of the City’s Welcome to and Acknowledgement of Country statement was endorsed 9-3 at the Tuesday meeting, but not without lengthy and heated debate. The newly adopted statement, from consultation and agreement from the South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council, was that: “The City of Bunbury acknowledges its traditional owners of the land, the Noongar Wardandi people and their continuing connection to the land, waters and community. We pay our respects to all members of the Aboriginal communities and their cultures; and to Elders past, present and emerging.” Cr Michelle Steck was the first to speak against the motion, saying she felt caring for the environment was a job for everyone and that the statement took away her freedoms. “I don’t believe that waters and things like that are owned by a certain group in the population of the community,” she said during the meeting. “They are provided by nature, and it is responsibility of everyone to look after them. “It’s kind of ironic because this is about the freedoms that we’re taking away from the Stolen Generation, but in fact, it’s also taking away freedoms from me to a country I was born in and raised children.” Cr Betty McCleary then went on to describe the statement as “lip service”, saying while it was important to recognise the Aboriginal community, she would not like to recognise those who aren’t “pure”. When questioned by a fellow councillor what she meant by the term, Cr McCleary clarified “pure in soul and in heart” describing the existing statement as “quite sufficient”. Things became heated when Cr Gabi Ghasseb — who expressed his support for the original statement and the intent of the new one — said he had personally spoken out against “racism” within the council. Mayor Jaysen Miguel asked Cr Ghasseb to retract the statement, to which he responded “I will not retract, it’s the truth”. Other councillors said they were “horrified” by some of the comments made during the debate while Mr Miguel disagreed with the claims made. “Elected members are entitled to their opinions, I wholeheartedly think that all elected members have the right to debate ... in regards to any claims made I wouldn’t be agreeing to any of those,” he said. “As a council we’re always trying to make our reconciliation the best we can and I think that was a common theme ... the most important thing from the City’s point of view is to continue our intent to acknowledge our traditional elders. “The City is committed to its reconciliation journey and we have come a long way, but still have a long way to go and are always looking to learn.” Speaking to the Times after the meeting, Cr Steck said she upheld the decision of the council but wanted to clarify the intent behind her comments. “Land and water is a descendant of Mother Nature itself, not a particular ethnic group or person, it’s manufactured by the planet. It’s up to everyone to take care of the planet,” she said. “Equality is for everyone, and everyone to respect everyone ... (the statement) offends me in the sense of taking away my freedoms, because in my freedom, I accept everyone for as they are,” she said. “Equal rights for everyone, equal choices, equal opportunities of freedom to be able to achieve in this country, no different than anyone else. “There’s disparity in divisions and for me, I care about disparity. “I just think that everyone has a right to be heard and be respected, and that we shouldn’t segregate groups, because that creates a division in the community — that’s where I was coming from and I passionately believe in that.” When also later asked by the Times about claims of racism in the council, Cr Ghasseb did not want to comment but emphasised his support for the council’s decision and the Indigenous community. “I strongly support the Indigenous community,” he said. “As a migrant I am deeply grateful for the traditional owners for accepting me into their country and would like to encourage more Indigenous people to run for council.” Cr McCleary was contacted for comment but did not respond before going to print.