HON AARON STONEHOUSE (South Metropolitan) [1.13 pm]: I move — That the house —
(a) expresses its concern over increasingly radical and divisive attacks upon Western Australia’s heritage and culture, in particular —
(i) the City of Perth’s attempted cancellation of the Christmas nativity event;
(ii) recent calls to remove statues and monuments;
(iii) the vandalisation of statues and monuments;
(iv) proposals to rename various locations and structures that bear the names of historical figures;
(v) recent and renewed calls to change the date of Australia Day; and
(b) rejects policies and proposals that divide Western Australians on the basis of their racial identity or religious beliefs.
Comments and speeches by various members
HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [2.00 pm]: I rise to indicate that the Greens will not support this motion, principally because we do not accept the premise upon which the motion has been established. We will not support motions that are pretty much a grab bag of confected outrage from a series of right-wing Facebook memes. I think we can do better than that in this chamber. It is astonishing that this motion calls for an expression of concern about radical and divisive attacks on our heritage and culture, yet no-one here has spoken about the actual destruction of Aboriginal heritage that we saw occur in Juukan Gorge or the erosion of the World Heritage–listed rock art on the Burrup Peninsula for the sake of gas corporate giants or the various ongoing failures of the Aboriginal Heritage Act that mean that real heritage is being destroyed for corporate profit.
It is ridiculous that consultation and informed public debate about what the priorities of the city’s small businesses for Christmas have identified, the crimes and atrocities committed by some of the people we honour with monuments and statues and placenames, and all the implications of the current date of Australia Day are seen as somehow being attacks on heritage and culture. This motion suggests either that our culture is not strong enough to withstand a genuine and inclusive debate about our past, our future and what we want Australia to be, or that those who have concerns should simply shut up, sit down and stop talking about ways to make Australia and our society better. I do not agree with either of those premises.
Let us talk about Australia Day. We literally could have any date for Australia Day. It is entirely up to us. We have had different dates for Australia Day since Federation. We could pick any number of meaningful days in our history at any point. Frankly, I would like to have another public holiday during the second half of the year instead of crowding them all into the first six months of the year. I give a shout-out to our union movement that has ensured that we have public holidays in the first place. Australia Day has not always been held on 26 January, or even in January for that matter. Australia Day started as a fundraising effort for the First World War and was originally held in July. Because so much of this debate seems to be about people wanting to ensure that their own heritage is acknowledged, I would like to say that I had two great-grandfathers who fought in the First World War. One fought in Gallipoli and lost an arm. He died when I was six. The other great-grandfather fought at Villers-Bretonneux and lost an eye. He died when I was a baby. Just to be clear, my Australian heritage is well entrenched.
This motion talks about how things are divisive, yet it supports keeping Australia Day on 26 January, a date that is just as easily claimed as Invasion Day. That is what First Nation people are telling us. It has been marked as a day of mourning in First Nation communities since as far back as 1938. That is how far back that was recognised as a problematic date. That is part of our history as well. Being told that celebrating Australia Day on 26 January is a problematic date is not new, yet people are insisting that we have to cling to it. They are denying the hurt, the harm and the divisiveness that is at the heart of celebrating that particular date as the date on which we acknowledge that we are one as Australians. It is a choice that we keep making to pretend that there is not a problem. It is far more divisive, I think, to cling to a bad date and pretend that those who have a legitimate complaint about it are acting in bad faith. That is more divisive than to openly discuss how the current date represents many things, some of which, frankly, are very bad things for many Australians. We are talking about a history of land theft, massacres and rapes— atrocity after atrocity. These are a real part of our history. It is really that simple, and it should not be that big a deal to acknowledge the serious issues and to change the date.
Hon Colin Tincknell interjected.
Hon ALISON XAMON: Shoosh! The member will get his time. I want to talk about the alleged cancellation of the Christmas nativity. The context of this from the City of Perth is that we are talking about holding a mass gathering event in the midst of a pandemic. Although it is less well attended than other events—that is a fact—the risks are still considered to be high, as are the resourcing implications, including for the police, who would need to substantially increase their presence to ensure security and, importantly, maintain social distancing. The police would need between eight and 10 weeks to plan for the event. It is unfortunate that the City of Perth, like every other local council, has to think about which activities it will run in light of the pandemic, because it is so uncertain and we do not know what will happen, particularly around Christmas time. The council has had to think about how it will spend its money and how that will affect the residents and ratepayers of the City of Perth. I thought that the one thing the mover of the motion would have wanted would be for the market to determine what people think is valuable and worthwhile. The City of Perth minutes of 26 May this year show that it undertook broad consultation to identify priority projects to assist with the rebound of the city’s economy. The council felt that it was important to consult on and be responsive to what people said they wanted if the council was to spend public money on a public event. The Christmas nativity simply was not identified by its stakeholders as a priority. That is not because anyone is trying to kill Christmas; it is just that, on the scale of things, it was not considered to be the highest priority.
I have looked at what was considered a priority. People supported holding the Christmas concerts because they feel they are very family friendly and they want to see them continue. The Christmas lights trail continues to be very popular, as were markets and school holiday events. There are, of course, a huge number of ways to incorporate the nativity story into other projects that the city is doing and a range of ways to tell the nativity story, and the city has committed to doing that within both the city and its small local communities. I have taken a particularly keen interest in this issue because I am a churchgoing Christian. My congregation is the Uniting Church in the city. For members who do not know, that consists of Trinity Church, Wesley Church and Ross Memorial Church. I am so active in my congregation that I am a member of my church council. Members would think that if anyone would be outraged by what is not happening with Christmas in the city, it would be my congregation and my church council. I can tell members that no such outrage exists. We do not feel like we are being stopped from doing anything that we want to do to celebrate Christmas. In fact, we are looking forward to doing a range of things to celebrate Christmas. I have skin in the game on the issue of celebrating church and Christmas in the city, and I can tell members that it is not an issue.
I have read the City of Perth’s report on the social value, risk factors and returns for the various mass gathering events that we usually have through the holiday season, and it is a very thoughtful piece that really looks into how the city can provide cultural and financial value while minimising risk and maintaining flexibility, in line with the state guidelines on events. I am guessing that the mover of the motion either did not read it or does not accept that the city’s first responsibility is to the people and the businesses within it, who are paying their rates.
With regard to the survey I discussed earlier, almost all respondents indicated that they wanted the city, as a priority, to do more to provide support and advocacy for people who are experiencing homelessness. That is what the survey indicated, and that is a real thing, as opposed to the idea that the City of Perth is trying to kill Christmas, because it simply is not.
I want to say something about my personal heritage as well, because it seems to be pertinent to this debate and what we are trying to talk about here. My personal heritage goes back to the Swan River settlers. I am a direct descendant of Richard Barndon, Frances Friend and Walter and Tabitha Jones; I am a seventh generation Western Australian. In fact, on my father’s side, my ancestry goes back to the Port Phillip settlers and I am pleased to say that I finally found some convict heritage as well. One of my ancestors founded Thomastown in Victoria. I am also a direct descendant of James Brittain, who was my great-great-great-grandfather. He was responsible for building the Barracks Arch, the Cloisters and the church that is my church—the Wesley Church, formerly Methodist, now Uniting Church, in the city. I have a great personal attachment to the history of the European establishment of this state. It is my history and my blood, and it is where I come from. However, I think it is really important that we talk about monuments and memorials to the people who established this state, including those who are my ancestors.
I am sorry if people do not like hearing that some of the people we commemorate with statues and other memorials have a problematic history, but the fact is that they do, and I am not sorry enough to not talk about that and to enable other people to talk about it. It is really important that people are able to speak, and I am certainly not sorry enough to suggest that people whose families have been directly affected by some of the more shameful acts in our history should simply sit down and shut up.
The suggestion that calls for statues to be removed are divisive is a position that one can hold only if one wants to deny the reality of our history and what it means to lionise these people through public art and monuments, and to not engage with the confronting and difficult parts of their actions and legacies. I do not personally support the vandalising of such statues and monuments, but I at least understand the impulse to do so. The conversations that need to be had are being denied, and this motion is part of that denial.
I would like to instead see more public art to contextualise what we have, rather than vandalism. I am reminded, for example, of how the Fearless Girl statue, facing the charging bull statue on Wall Street, impacted on the perception of the bull. Even the artist said that the presence of Fearless Girl turned the bull into a villain, despite the fact that Fearless Girl was effectively an advertising stunt. But that kind of installation costs money; vandalism is a more direct expression of the outrage people feel, especially when even the mere mention of calls for things to be different is met with responses like this motion. I do not support vandalism, but I do understand it.
On the issue of place names, there are two issues with naming places after historical colonial figures. One is an issue similar to that which I discussed earlier, about the memorialisation of people with statues. For example, I welcome the recent decision to rename the King Leopold Ranges the Wunaamin Miliwundi Ranges. I hope I pronounced that right; if I struggle to pronounce it correctly, it is a reflection of how much more we need to bring First Nation languages into our everyday life. But it is ridiculous to stand here and suggest that those ranges should continue to be named after someone responsible for the deaths of millions for the sake of shipping commodities. It is ridiculous to say that we should not have a conversation about what it means to name places after people who committed massacres, who stole land, and whose presence introduced untold disease and death.
It is ridiculous for this motion to suggest that if we dare to have a conversation about these issues, it is inherently divisive. That is effectively to pretend that the division does not already exist, and that even if it does exist, it does not matter. I cannot figure out how to reconcile that, unless the corollary is that our First Nation people and their history do not matter. I think they do.
The other issue is that we often obscure and overwrite the existing First Nation names. If members are concerned about attacks on culture and erasing language and place names, I point out that when we erase First Nation names, it is most certainly an attack on history and culture. I welcome moves to undertake the dual naming of a range of areas in Western Australia. I think that is really positive. I get very excited when the range of history is made available. For example, Exmouth has done a really wonderful job of incorporating its entire history, from First Nation people’s history right through to how the town was established. It has embraced all of that. Increasingly, one can learn about the extensive, comprehensive history of many places. I do not think that is a threat to white history; it is simply value-adding to include the entire history. Sometimes that will mean that some of the history of white settlement will not be positive and might even be ugly; but it is really important, for the sake of history, to be honest and be prepared to put everything out there.
I am proud that we have come so far as a society that those who have been without voices for so long are finally able to say, “The status quo excludes and undervalues me; I am a citizen of this country, and I deserve to be treated as such.” Although it is no surprise to me to see a motion like this, which basically cries out to social conservatives and pretends that the Australia of the 1950s was fair and reasonable for anyone other than white, heterosexual, Christian men, it does surprise me to see it coming from a libertarian. Libertarians are supposedly focused on individual freedoms, but this is a straight-up call to the kind of conservatism that limits freedoms only to the chosen few and ignores and denies the experiences of everyone else. Telling people that they cannot have a voice and that they should sit down and shut up when they finally start to express concerns about ongoing decades and centuries of exclusion is the last thing I would have expected of this party.
This is not about attacks on heritage; it is about attacks on white, heterosexual, Christian heritage of a very particular flavour. Giving others a voice does not equate to silencing one’s own voice. This white, Christian heritage is my heritage, and I do not feel silenced or shamed about where I come from. It is part of who I am and part of my background. As a Christian in this city, I do not feel that I am being shut down by anyone from being able to celebrate Christmas. There was one thing that the mover of the motion said that I completely agree with, and that is that other people are not calling for the erasure of Christmas—particularly the Jewish and Muslim communities. That is true; that is completely the case. The only people making the claim that Christmas is being killed are far-right and QAnon troublemakers who have far too much time on their hands and who spend too much time on their keyboards and not enough time actually out and about, doing good work and trying to actually listen to what people are saying.
There is plenty for libertarians to be outraged about, not least the steady decline of our civil liberties, Western Australia’s slide into becoming a police state, and ongoing attacks on our democracy. That could have been a motion; nevertheless, it may be a motion for another time. However, I do not accept the premise of this motion. I do not accept that giving people a voice who have not had a voice for so long is about silencing anybody else. I do not feel that history is being shut down. I feel that people are calling for a broader history and I welcome that as someone who is a descendant of the Swan settlers and I welcome that as a Christian.
Comments and speeches by various members
Question put and a division taken, the Acting President (Hon Adele Farina) casting her vote with the noes, with the following result —
Question thus negatived.