AEC ignored arguments supporting woman's name for new ACT electorate
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AEC ignored arguments supporting woman's name for new ACT electorate

Two members of the Australian Electoral Commission's augmented committee argued in favour of naming the ACT's newest federal electorate after Aboriginal reconciliation activist Ngingali Cullen over war historian Charles Bean, a new report shows.

The final 77-page report from the Commission on the redistribution of the ACT's electoral boundaries in order to introduce a third seat shows two members of the committee argued naming the new electorate after Bean didn't fit with previous decisions where names were not chosen if the person had undertaken an action which could cause controversy.

Ningali Cullen, a prominent Aboriginal activist who was co-chair of the National Sorry Day Committee. Two members of the AEC's augmented committee argued in favour of naming the ACT's newest federal electorate after her.

Ningali Cullen, a prominent Aboriginal activist who was co-chair of the National Sorry Day Committee. Two members of the AEC's augmented committee argued in favour of naming the ACT's newest federal electorate after her.

Photo: Supplied

It was previously only known that four members of the committee had voted in favour of retaining Bean and two had voted against it. The report shows the two wanted the name Cullen instead, believing it would balance out the names in the federal electorates of the ACT.

"The two members are not making a judgment on Charles Bean regarding his comments but note that progressing his name is inconsistent with the approach taken in the previous Australia Capital Territory redistribution when names were not supported if the person had undertaken an action that might cause controversy," the report said.

The controversy over Bean's actions was different to controversy over whether the name was preferred over another name, the members said. Naming the electorate after Bean led to widespread objections from members of the community who believed he was anti-semitic.

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Ngingali Cullen was the former co-chair of the National Sorry Day Committee, and at the forefront of Canberra's preparations for the first ''sorry day'', on May 26, 1998. She died in Canberra in 2012.

Charles Bean and the initial borders of the three new ACT electorates.

Charles Bean and the initial borders of the three new ACT electorates.

Photo: Fairfax Media

"Having electoral divisions name ‘Cullen’, ‘Canberra’ and ‘Fenner’ would have meant that the Australian Capital Territory would have had a name related to an Aboriginal woman, a place and a man," the report said.

The name would also reflect the issue of reconciliation, its place in the ACT through Reconciliation Place and as a contemporary priority "and reflects a positive approach to a difficult situation".

The report also sets out how the committee acknowledged the objections to naming the electorate after Charles Bean, as well as set out rebuttals to the objections.

Professor Kim Rubenstein from Australian National University's College of Law is an expert in citizenship law and gender and the constitution, and made a submission to the redistribution process. Professor Rubenstein believes the report shows the need for the guidelines to be changed to encourage more electorates to be named after women.

"That does lead me to recommend that the guidelines for the naming of new electorates takes into account the numbers of women who have been recognised in those regions and that that should be a significant criterion for making a decision," she said.

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Professor Rubenstein said taking such opportunities was particularly important in the ACT when so few chances to name an electorate after a woman existed.

"Coming from a small region these become even more poignant reminders of the necessity to properly recognise and take into account the significant contributions of women as active citizens," Professor Rubenstein said.

It is unclear who on the committee voted for or against keeping the name Bean, but it is known there were just two women on the six member committee. Professor Rubenstein says more women and more Indigenous Australians should be involved in the decision making process.