Fraser naming controversy reminds us of how seat names are never set in stone

Jim Fraser was the federal member for the Australian Capital Territory from 1951 until 1970. When population growth gave the ACT two seats in 1974, the northern seat was named in his honour and the southern seat became Canberra. Later, in 1996, when the ACT briefly had three seats, the new seat was named Namadji.

Now the Australian Electoral Commission, which decides these matters, has renamed Fraser, which will now be called Fenner in honour of the renowned ANU scientist, Frank Fenner. The name Fraser has been 'retired', to accommodate a new seat of Fraser in Victoria, in honour of former prime minister Malcolm Fraser. It is one of the AEC's guiding principles to name electorates after deceased prime ministers, as well as honouring the original 'Federation' names used for electorates in 1901.

This latter principle explains why the name of the seat of Hunter has replaced the name Charlton, used to honour a former Labor Party leader, Matthew Charlton, after Hunter was abolished when the number of seats in NSW fell by one. At the same time the seat of Throsby, named after the pioneer and explorer Charles Throsby, was renamed Whitlam in honour of former prime minister Gough Whitlam.

All this shows how seat names cannot be static. Nor can the boundaries of the seats. The voters of Reid, my own suburb, will find themselves in Canberra rather than Fenner at the next election because of the changing distribution of the ACT population.

All of these name changes create controversy. Unlike some people, including former chief minister Jon Stanhope, the AEC decision doesn't enrage me, nor do I think it is an insult to Jim Fraser's family.

The need to introduce Malcolm Fraser to the pantheon of electorates is persuasive, despite Ian Warden's creative suggestion that we should have an ACT seat called Jim Fraser and one in Victoria called Malcolm Fraser. However, the supplementary AEC argument that Jim Fraser is also honoured by a Canberra suburb and inclusion in the ACT honour walk is unconvincing.


Population change and other factors will mean that electorate names will continue to change. Eventually we will have electorates named Hawke, Keating, Howard, Rudd, Gillard, Abbott and Turnbull if current policy persists. Some states, like South Australia and NSW, will continue to lose electorates in favour of the faster-growing Queensland and Western Australia. SA has already lost famous electorate names like Bonython, Angas and Hawker as a consequence. In total about 70 federal electorate names have now been retired.

The local controversy does remind us more broadly of our penchant for honouring people by the use of their names. The names of Canberra suburbs are a case in point, with many named after fathers of federation and former prime ministers. This is done to good effect in the national capital. Many street names honour individual people too.

But it doesn't stop there by any means. Sports stadiums these days contain named stands, gates, bars and rooms (note Menzies, Bradman, Hawke, Meninga, Gregan, and Larkham). The National Library boasts the Patrick White Lawns. The Australian Open tennis final was played on the Rod Laver Arena.

Everything that moves has to be given a personal name it seems. In the right circumstances it is appropriate but it can be overdone.

At least it beats the commercial names, which are now taking over. Manuka Oval is better than StarTrack Oval, the name used to honour the sponsor, a subsidiary of Australia Post. So-called naming rights are big business now and much-loved names are commonly replaced by those of the company that writes the cheque.

Names are also political as evidenced by contemporary controversies with political overtones, including the renaming of part of Parkes Place as Queen Elizabeth Terrace recently, and the debate about whether Haig Park, named after Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, was still appropriate. There are similar debates world-wide, about the use of famous but now controversial names including Cecil Rhodes and various American presidents.

These controversies show us that all such names have shelf-lives and should be revisited from time to time and sometimes retired. There are various reasons why names may be changed, some of them post-colonial as in the new names of countries like Sri Lanka and Myanmar, but others just with the passing of time. After a while many names fade in significance anyway and their meaning has been forgotten by current citizens.

In the case of the naming of electorates there are also very good alternatives which may be squeezed out by the use of individual names.

The first are geographical names, even if they themselves have been named after individuals in the dim distant past. It would be a shame to lose names like Eden-Monaro, Melbourne Ports, Riverina, Mallee and Hume even if they are replaced by the name of a former prime minister. One advantage of geographical names is that they have somewhat greater name recognition and people might even be able to guess where they come from. One possibility for the ACT electorates would be just Canberra North and Canberra South.

Here in the ACT the local Legislative Assembly electorates are blessed by very attractive names because the Electoral Commission has taken a different direction. With the expansion of the Assembly to five electorates the locally evocative new names, derived from Aboriginal meanings, are Brindabella, Ginninderra, Kurrajong, Yerrabi and Murrumbidgee.

There could be a push one day to change these admirable names, perhaps even in favour of former chief ministers or other prominent Canberrans. Until then they remind us of the complex dynamics of the naming game.

John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University, where there is a John Warhurst Room in the School of Political Science and International Relations