It’s the age of culture wars and gender sensitivities but at first thought, you mightn’t have expected the Australian Electoral Commission to find itself in the thick of them. You’d be wrong.
Mostly, the AEC battles with boundaries, balances, and squawking MPs who find margins sliced or seats scrapped. But it also names electorates, and in the current redistribution that has thrown up controversy.
It was a no brainer that “Batman” be changed to honour an Aboriginal figure. “Cooper” was chosen, after William Cooper, a Yorta Yorta man who was a campaigner for Indigenous rights.
But the proposal to rename the Victorian electorate of Corangamite “Cox”, after a Mary Cox “for her lasting legacy in teaching swimming and lifesaving to Victorians” ran into immediate flak, even though women are greatly underrepresented in names of seats (partly reflecting history – for instance the dead prime ministers take up quite a block).
Multiple objections were lodged. Among them, the AEC reported, was that “‘Cox’ is an unfortunate double-entendre and will open the electoral division and the local member to ridicule”.
Corangamite’s Liberal MP Sarah Henderson was particularly exercised. “I don’t really want to put ‘delivering for Cox’ on my corflutes,” she told Sky. “There are all sorts of things that happen in Parliament, including when a member might be asked to withdraw.”
The AEC was (sensibly) sharp in dismissing such thinking. “It is unreasonable to suggest that worthy individuals who have names that a small section of the community may consider suggestive should not be recognised,” it said.
It considered “Australia a sufficiently mature and open-minded society to recognise the achievements of a worthy individual over any subjective innuendo in name.”
But Henderson’s corflutes will be protected from any sniggering. The AEC was swayed by the arguments about retaining what is an Aboriginal name, and one the seat has had since federation.
Far more intense was the row that flared about the proposal to name the new ACT seat “Bean”, after Charles Bean, chronicler of Australia’s role in the First World War, a forger of the ANZAC legend, and the driving force behind the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
His career was remarkable. A journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald, he was elected by his peers in a ballot to be the official war correspondent (beating Keith Murdoch) and landed with the Australian troops on Gallipoli; later he went to the Western Front.
After the war, Bean spent two decades working on the official war history, writing six of the dozen volumes and supervising the overall project. In the early years, the history team worked at Tuggeranong, a homestead now within Canberra’s suburbs.
But Bean was a man of his era. He supported the White Australia policy. And there was an element of anti-Semitism in his vehement opposition to the promotion of the outstanding general, John Monash to lead the Australian Corps on the Western Front.
A trenchant opponent of calling the seat Bean was Mike Kelly, a former army officer and now the Labor MP for the NSW seat of Eden-Monaro, which is adjacent to the ACT.
Kelly wrote in his submission to the AEC: “While no one is perfect and people should be viewed in the context of their time, those who we name divisions after should be people who have been shown to have stood out against what were clearly significantly wrong attitudes of their day. … Bean had a clear record of racism throughout his life and most particularly was stridently anti-Semitic.”
Kelly described as “perhaps the most heinous aspect of Bean’s efforts” in opposition to Monash’s appointment “that he had no expertise, experience or professional knowledge that qualified him to make such a judgement. He did not fight in the war, did not command troops and had no role whatsoever in any aspect of planning or management of the war or logistic aspects of it.”
While acknowledging Bean seriously misjudged Monash, this seems a very harsh assessment. Bean had seen up close a great deal of the war. Politicians who are actually making the decisions on defence and military matters in wars often have no first hand experience.
As for his racism and anti-Semitism, Bean’s attitudes on race changed in later years. He conceded he’d been wrong about Monash. In the 1940s he supported the idea of a Jewish refuge in Australia.
Brendan Nelson, director of the Australian War Memorial, wrote in his submission: “Claims by a number of objectors that Bean was a lifelong anti-Semite and should not have an electorate named after him due to his ‘racist and anti-Semitic’ views, based upon Bean’s early treatment and writings in relation to General Sir John Monash, ignore much of the man’s life, contribution and character.”
“Contrary to claims that naming the new ACT electorate for him would be an embrace of old attitudes, it would be a sign in this context that the shedding of prejudice and intolerance, and in turn learning to accept and embrace diversity, are values treasured by Australians,” Nelson said.
On Tuesday the AEC announced that, in a vote of 4-2, it was sticking with the proposed name; it criticised the “derogatory views” about Bean expressed in a number of submissions.
Bean’s large legacy had prevailed.
POSTSCRIPT 4 July
Professor Diane Gibson and Adjunct Associate Professor John Goss from the University of Canberra have compiled this information on the breakdown of electorate names - including gender and geography:
Electorates Removed: Port Adelaide (geography)
New Electorates: Bean (man); Fraser (man)
Name Changes: Wakefield (man) to Spence (woman); Batman (man) to Cooper (man); McMillan (man) to Monash (man); Melbourne Ports (geography) to Macnamara (woman); Murray (geography) to Nicholls (married couple)