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There is a renewed push for Port Macquarie-Hastings Council to acknowledge the Birpai significance of Port Macquarie's Town Green by taking steps to relocate the Edmund Barton statue.
Aboriginal community members have questioned why the relocation of a Wauchope Birpai sculpture called Zoetrope appears to have gained more traction within council.
Port Macquarie-Hastings Council commissioned the Edmund Barton sculpture from renowned artist Carl Merten in 2001, as part of the centenary of Federation celebrations.
For many First Nations people, Australia's first Prime Minister represents racist ideologies and the statue's position on a traditional Birpai burial site is considered offensive.
Among the first acts of Barton's government in 1901 was instituting the White Australia policy, enacted through the Immigration Restriction Act.
In 1995 a Birpai burial site and artefacts were discovered on Town Green.
Birpai woman and Port Macquarie-Hastings resident Arlene Mehan gathered about 5000 signatures, from Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal community members, on a petition to remove the statue in 2021.
The petition went public after the local Black Lives Matter rally.
However, Ms Mehan is disappointed council has not taken any further action towards its relocation.
Ms Mehan said discussion about the issue provides council with an opportunity to give visibility of different histories in public spaces.
However, Port Macquarie-Hastings Mayor Peta Pinson said she's against the relocation of the statue, which is situated on reclaimed land.
"We aren't ever going to reconcile a community or as a nation if people are hell-bent on holding others to account over the history of the world," she said.
Cr Pinson said she's focused on leading the community in a holistic way and debate about the statue will only cause division.
"There's an unhealthy focus, I think on this statue," she said.
"It [discussion] will only cause a divide that is not necessary in a community like ours."
Discussion paper written
Janet Cohen was the cultural development officer at Port Macquarie-Hastings Council from 1998 until 2004.
She's written an indepth discussion paper regarding the history and the significance of the Town Green site to the Birpai people.
The paper will be presented to Port Macquarie-Hastings Council and other community groups, to inform and educate.
In 1999 Ms Cohen said she was handed the Edmund Barton project, after stepping into the role with a background in public art planning and policy.
"I never felt comfortable professionally with the project," she said.
"It didn't sit right with me as a community project and as an expression of that site."
Significance of Town Green
Aunty Rhonda Radley is a representative community member of the Marrungbalbu Group, which advises council on issues which impact First Nations People in the Port Macquarie-Hastings area.
"For me it's [Town Green] a very sacred area," she said.
"It's a place where my ancestors have walked and left footprints for others to walk in."
Aunty Rhonda said she urges council to listen to the community, given the amount of people who have supported the relocation of the Edmund Barton statue.
She said the statue was put in place without appropriate consultation with Aboriginal people.
Ms Mehan said she doesn't feel culturally safe at Town Green because of the racist beliefs the statue represents.
She said her heart goes out to families who were impacted by the White Australia policy, which came about by racist beliefs, which were held by Barton and others.
John Heath is a Birpai traditional owner and author of Healing the Spirit: A Birrpai Perspective on the Port Macquarie Penal Colony and its Aftermath.
Mr Heath said the issue of relocation should be considered within the context of a nationwide movement which is pushing for truth-telling, reconciliation and possible treaties.
"We really need to look at all aspects of our history," he said.
"And hence, figures such as Edmund Barton come into the equation."
Mr Heath said Edmund Barton's statue location is situated on recognised graves of Birpai people.
"[It] is and always has been inappropriate," he said.
Aunty Rhonda said she and others had questions over why the relocation of Zoetrope had appeared to gain more traction with council, in contrast to the relocation of the Edmund Barton statue.
Zoetrope is a Birpai sculpture situated on the riverbank in Wauchope. It was installed as part of the Wauchope Bicentenary Riverside Sculpture Trail.
"Does the council acknowledge and respect Aboriginal culture, history and heritage?," Aunty Rhonda said.
"That can only be answered by the actions of council."
At the September 15, 2021 council ordinary meeting Cr Sharon Griffiths raised residents' concerns that Zoetrope obstructed views of the river and surrounding reserve area.
According to the October 10 council business paper, alternate locations for the Zoetrope installation have been discussed by the Local Aboriginal Land Council Board.
Formal confirmation of their decision is to be provided to council.
Zoetrope artist Stephen Gale said each plate of the sculpture is a glimpse into the world and experience of First Nations people.
"Much like the original spinning Zoetrope though, it is nothing more than a small glimmer of an immense and beautiful culture," he wrote in his artist statement.
Mr Gale said the sculpture was designed for people to give thought to the idea of reconciliation.
"Reconciliation. What is it? How can it be achieved?," he wrote.
"Without it, we have the scars of bitterness and regret weighing upon us. We attain reconciliation by listening, understanding, forgiving and embracing."
Ms Cohen said there was very little consultation when she was working within council for the Edmund Barton statue to be installed.
"Primarily the subject and the site had been chosen before the wider community was informed," she said.
Ms Cohen said she didn't want to lay blame because the standards of that time were different to how they are now.
"Council [staff] wouldn't do that today," she said.
"They do thorough community consultation [now]."
Ms Cohen said the site needs to appropriately acknowledge the cultural significance of the Birpai people.
She said the 1995 discovery of Birpai skeletal remains could have been celebrated as the town's connection to one of the oldest living cultures in the world.
Council's action and response
Ms Cohen said she wrote the discussion paper to raise conversation and present historical facts to Port Macquarie-Hastings Council about the town's colonial past and impact of European occupation on the Birpai people.
Ms Mehan said she hopes action for relocation of the Edmund Barton statue might be taken once the discussion paper is tabled by Port Macquarie-Hastings Council.
She wants councillors to be aware of the whole story of Town Green's significance to the Birpai people.
Cr Pinson said history is in the past and doesn't want debate about the statue's relocation to cause division.
She said she can't speak for other councillors and has questioned why the issue has been brought up now.
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