THE first step has been taken in facilitating broader, collaborative conversations about how to better acknowledge and recognise the truths and complex layers of Port Macquarie-Hastings' shared history.
Councillors unanimously agreed at council's July 1 meeting to acknowledge that Birpai people are the traditional custodians and recognise while Edmund Barton's role in forging the Federation of Australian states is acknowledged, it is incumbent on council to consider and respect Aboriginal history and identity in its decision making.
The decision comes as a result of a 4296-signature strong petition to remove and relocate the Sir Edmund Barton statue from Town Green in Port Macquarie which is an acknowledged Aboriginal burial site.
The petition also requested that inthe spirit of genuine reconciliation, council move forward in partnership with the Birpai traditional owners to ensure that public spaces are culturally safe and reflect cultural inclusivity.
The change.org petition, launched by Birpai woman Arlene Mehan off the back of the Black Lives Matter rally in Port Macquarie on June 6, has created intense, and at times divisive, broader community debate about the region's cultural and colonial history and how it should be acknowledged.
Ms Mehan said she had been overwhelmed with support around the push for the statue's removal and relocation to a museum. She said it was also an opportunity to boost understanding and for people to more deeply explore their knowledge and understanding of history.
Ms Mehan said there would be continual offence to First Nations peoples in this area if the statue remained on the Town Green.
Council has resolved not to make a decision on the statue, but instead commence discussions with the Local Aboriginal Land councils, leaders and traditional owner groups to establish processes for ongoing consultation on issues and decisions relating to Aboriginal heritage and culture.
It is in the present that we will determine what our future looks like. It's about respect and the respectful manner in which we do these things.Mayor Peta Pinson
Mayor Peta Pinson congratulated Ms Mehan for shining a spotlight on an important issue and agreed that council could do much better to acknowledge the region's shared history, particularly through its public art.
"(Arlene's) method was to shine a spotlight on the Black Lives Matter movement and bring attention to Edmund Barton, but she went much further than that. She created a conversation within our community, and through the media as well, which really invoked a lot of strong feelings," Cr Pinson said.
"From what our region has been through with floods, bushfires, droughts, COVID - we've been through so much. We're stronger together as a community. I know our Birpai elders want to walk together with community as well.
"I would hate to see a divisive nature to this discussion. I think we need to come together, we need to identify history as it happened.
"We need to tell more truth around the stories of the experiences of the indigenous people and how they were moved from their lands during colonisation and removed from their customs, their food sources and children were taken from parents as well. It's a terrible atrocity that did happen, but part of our history is also the colonisation.
"It is about walking together. The theme of the bicentennial is 200 Together - Celebrating Our Past, Our Present and Our Future.
"It is in the present that we will determine what our future looks like.
"It's about respect and the respectful manner in which we do these things."
We must have respect for each other. It's up to us as adults to take these principles through into our actions in every day life. I'm feeling quite optimistic about this.Deputy mayor Lisa Intemann
Deputy mayor Lisa Intemann, who consulted with both Aboriginal Lands Councils prior to the July 1 meeting, said respect and understanding must underpin a way forward.
Cr Intemann said there was a strong willingness from local Aboriginal leaders for all parties to work together more closely.
Any discussion about the removal or relocation of the statue may become a part of those broader and inclusive conversations with key indigenous leaders and groups, and must also come with extensive community engagement, Cr Intemann said.
"This issue has obviously generated lot of interest and a passionate response from people. It is beholden on us, incumbent on council, to consider these issues very closely," Cr Intemann said.
"Some people have asked if we are going to move the statue, not move the statue.
"I just want to remind people that one of council's main charges is that we must consult with the community regarding matters, and if anything is going to take place regarding this statue it will not be something that is done in an instant. It will have followed considerable discussion with the community.
"This is just such a huge topic and a huge weight is really on all of us to respect those matters. This notion of trust is absolutely important amongst all of us to function properly together.
"We must have respect for each other. It's up to us as adults to take these principles through into our actions in every day life. I'm feeling quite optimistic about this."
- "This is where we make things right" - 400 join Black Lives Matter rally in Port Macquarie
- Petition for removal of Barton statue launched
- Barton's great-granddaughter wants unifying decision on statue
- Sir Edmund Barton statue considered tribute to a history of racist ideology
- Councillors support call for conversations
Cr Peter Alley said it is important to recognise the strong community feeling on all sides of the debate, and this is the first step in moving forward.
"It starts a discussion with the Local Aboriginal Land Councils and the local Aboriginal community to find out their views on the matter and to more broadly look at the sorts of recognition that should be in the community - signage and other things, to remind us that this is the traditional lands of the Birpai people," Cr Alley said.
Anne Barton, great grand-daughter of Edmund Barton told the Port News this week that council should consider the kind of support that has been shown for the petition and its 4000 signatories.
"I think council needs to be really open about this matter and not have any preconceived ideas about it," she said. "Being on the right side of history is worth considering.
"I've written to council saying that this is a great time for leadership, for constructive discussion.
"Local government has such leadership potential around getting their community to understand the many truths about a place where they live.
"We need to be clear-eyed rather than defensive with regards our history."
Ms Barton suggested a community engagement project focusing on the indigenous population and European settlement would be a good start.
Her preference in the decision-making process would be to ensure everyone has a say, particularly the traditional owners.
Community submissions on the petition were received from Geoff Workman, Paul Dirago, Rachel Sheppard and Steve Bryson.
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