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Byron Shire
August 12, 2022

First Nations place-names under Ballina council spotlight

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Pat Morton Lookout sign, Lennox Head. Independent Ballina Shire Councillor Jeff Johnson says he is ‘riled’ every time he drives past. Photo David Lowe.

Greater efforts at reconciliation with First Nations people in the Ballina Shire when it comes to place-names is to happen after furious agreement at June’s council meeting.

Nearly an hour was spent on debate at last week’s ordinary meeting before the council unanimously agreed to set up a protocol with the shire’s local First Nations people.

The protocol is to identify and use Indigenous language in the naming of roads, public places and geographic features in the shire.

Councillors agreed on the following considerations for establishment of the protocol:

  • Incorporation of the protocol into a partnership agreement or similar document with the Jali Local Aboriginal Land Council;
  • Identification of a process for consultation between Council and Aboriginal stakeholders in relation to name selection;
  • Establishment of an agreed set of Indigenous terms that can be used to name roads, bridges and public places;
  • Approach to the naming of key geographic and cultural features in Ballina Shire based on Indigenous language, including the use of dual naming.

Ballina councillors prickle during racial reconciliation debate

The majestic Wollumbin used to be known as Mt Warning. Photo Ray Richardson

Anyone who has visited New Zealand would be familiar with the practice of dual-naming of places, from landmarks to streets, and the meeting heard other local government jurisdictions in Australia had adopted the system.

There are also many examples of places that have had Western place names replaced with Indigenous names.

Despite ultimately agreeing on Independent Councillor Rod Bruem’s motion minus one of his original five points, councillors took the opportunity of a discussion themed around racism to accuse one another of insensitivity when it comes to local First Nations people.

Greens Cr Kiri Dicker said she suspected egos were at play, Independent Cr Phil Meehan said the discussion was getting too political and Independent Cr Jeff Johnson was obliged to withdraw an assumption made about councillors’ racial identities as a point of order in discussion.

If it ain’t broke… business as usual

Ballina Cr Phil Meehan. Photo supplied.

By the time at least a couple of amendments had been raised and lost with the always-exciting ‘vote to vote’ bureaucratic twist, the debate could have been seen as a throw-back to sepia 1980’s British political satires were it not for the sensitivity of the topic.

Coincidentally, NAIDOC week is next week.

Cr Meehan was the first to move an amendment, seconded by Cr Jeff Johnson.

Cr Meehan said council staff notes on the agenda item showed the council was already working towards the spirit of Cr Bruem’s motion.

Staff said the previous council, replaced in December last year, had already agreed to develop a partnership agreement with Jali Aboriginal Land Council as part of its draft 2022/23 to 2025/26 Delivery Program.

Crs Meehan and Johnson suggested the council note ‘the

importance of Indigenous language in the naming of roads, public place and geographic features’ and ‘affirm’ its ‘key action’ in the Delivery Program concerning a ‘partnership agreement with Jali Aboriginal Land Council’.

That agreement was to ‘progress greater recognition and awareness of the cultural history of the Ballina Shire’, they said.

Their suggestion was a far cry from a deleted point included in the original motion from Cr Bruem to include targets for Indigenous street names in new developments.

Deputy mayor uses casting vote

Independent Ballina Shire Cr Eoin Johnston (PIC SUPPLIED)

But the amendment was lost, with Mayor Sharon Cadwallader and Cr Nigel Buchanen absent from that part of the day’s meeting.

Crs Eva Ramsey and Stephen McCarthy voted in support.

Greens Crs Kiri Dicker and Simon Chate voted against, along with Independent Crs Rod Bruem and Eoin Johnston.

The four-four result meant the deputy mayor had to make a final casting vote.

‘Yeah, I’m not in favour of the amendment,’ the deputy mayor said without elaborating.

‘I’ll get a casting vote, so I’ll cast a vote and I’ll go with original motion.’

The vote to vote

Cr Jeff Johnson. Photo David Lowe.

Cr Johnson then tried to put forward his own amendment to the motion, for which a ‘vote to vote’ had to happen and as is customary, councillors agreed.

But as can be the irony of such democratic processes, the vote for the vote was followed by a vote against the vote.

After unanimously agreeing to vote on Cr Johnson’s amendment, a majority of councillors then voted against the amendment itself.

The independent councillor, who campaigned strongly for the position of mayor last year but lost to Cr Sharon Cadwallader, wanted councillors to invite members of the local First Nations communities in for more discussion about the proposal.

Independent councillor ‘riled’ by Lennox Head lookout name-sake

‘I drive past Lennox Head lookout, it riles me,’ Cr Johnson told the meeting, ‘I can only imagine what it does for the Aboriginal community’.

Cr Johnson said the popular Pat Moreton lookout was named after someone who grew up in Lismore but moved to Mosman where he became the mayor before becoming the Liberal Member for Mosman in state parliament and later the Minister for Local Government and Minister for Highways.

Cr Johnson said he felt ‘uncomfortable’ with the namesake, was hoping for ‘some big changes in terms of naming places’ and was ‘surprised’ Cr Bruem hadn’t specified whether his motion was intended to rename places or was ‘just about new developments and stuff.’

‘Can you clarify that that is the intent, to rename significant sites and places?’ Cr Johnson asked.

‘Absolutely, that was part of my intention in bringing this forward,’ Cr Bruem said, ‘but the motion was about not being prescriptive and about having the conversation first as part of the partnership’.

Council votes against more meetings with local First Nations community

Cr Rod Bruem. Photo David Lowe.

Cr Bruem said he was in ‘two minds’.

The independent councillor said he ‘clearly’ wanted to ‘progress this stuff’ but was also aware of a local First Nations elders’ circle and felt the council should be ‘getting some more feedback from the representatives and community’ the council was ‘looking to make decisions on’.

‘I feel uncomfortable,’ Cr Bruem said.

Cr Johnson suggested the council invite representatives from Jali Local Aboriginal Council and local Aboriginal Elders to a briefing to discuss what the best way forward was to receive greater recognition of Aboriginal culture, including renaming significant sites and recognition of culture.

But his amendment failed after winning support only from Greens members Crs Dicker and Chate.

Councillor defends ‘best’ intentions on First Nations motion

Councillors then voted unanimously in support of Cr Bruem’s motion, with the councillor expressing lament at the sustained debates in his closing statements.

‘I brought this motion with the best of intentions,’ Cr Bruem said, ‘and with the very helpful advice, wonderful advice from council staff who’ve been working with the Jali local Aboriginal land Council on many matters’.

Cr Bruem said staff had advised him his motion was the best way ‘to go to start the conversation in a respectful way ‘.

‘It’s suitably vague for that reason,’ he said.

‘I would have liked it to be more prescriptive,’ Cr Bruem continued, ‘I would have liked, for example, to have tackled what Cr Johnson raised around issues like Pat Morton’.

‘I would have like, as I said, a set target.

‘But the advice I was given was, that’s the wrong approach and this is the right way to start a conversation in a respectful way,’ Cr Bruem said.

Cr Bruem referred to suggestions from other councillors that egos and politics had polluted the agenda item’s discussion.

‘I think the last thing I want to do is let my ego get into this,’ Cr Bruem said ‘I haven’t come in here lightly or flippantly to move a motion like this and the last thing I would seek to do is be disrespectful or impose things in any way and I’m sure none of us wish to do that’.

Cr Bruem said he respected the previous council had ‘touched upon part of’ his motion.

‘But again, the advice I’ve been given is that this doesn’t firmly put it on the table,’ Cr Bruem said, ‘and as again Cr Dicker wisely pointed out, we often revisit things from previous councils, and so I would implore my fellow councillors to support the original motion because the professional advice from council staff is, this is the right way to go and all this does is give a little kick along if you like’.

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  1. Just put in a clause that they have to provide written proof that a name was indeed the one that was marked on Aboriginal Maps back in the day, so that we know they aren’t just making stuff up.


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