Renaming is more common than you might think in Australia. Sometimes it is done quietly, and at other times with great fanfare. Sometimes it is accompanied by apologies and the shaming of the name concerned, but on other occasions, like when it applies to the naming of federal electorates, it is driven by a practical desire to refresh the range of public recognition afforded to certain individuals. In these situations, history moves on. Sometimes when it applies to public venues like sports grounds it is driven by a commercial imperative. Invariably it causes pain and argument.
Debate about renaming and shaming is now raging around the world in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement. Protestors in Bristol and elsewhere have taken direct action into their own hands by dismantling statues commemorating slave traders and owners. Other statues have been defaced, including statues of Captain Cook in Australia. The defacing has extended to statues of certain political leaders. Some offenders have been charged.
Renaming is not new. Following decolonisation of the great empires, including the British Empire, countries and cities have been renamed. Think Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) or Myanmar (formerly Burma) well as Mumbai (formerly Bombay) or Chennai (formerly Madras). Debate about the memorialisation of figures like the colonist Cecil Rhodes has been under way for many years.
The heat of World War I led to renaming of German-origin towns in my native South Australia. Petersburg became Peterborough, for instance. Some of the name changes have been reversed, but many remain.
The most famous name change in Australia has probably been the renaming of Ayers Rock as Uluru to recognize prior Indigenous ownership. At the time it was contentious, but that is no longer the case.
Commercialisation means that sporting venues are regularly renamed in recognition of a new commercial sponsor, and sporting events like big horse races have the name of the sponsor appended or sometimes even replacing the original name. It is so widespread that it is hard to keep up. Here in Canberra, Manuka Oval has had several new names in recent times purely for commercial reasons.
There is considerable community attachment to the status quo, and many people who consider matters like renaming to be a low priority - certainly not a bread and butter issue.
Renaming has also been a general issue in the ACT. The commemoration of names like the controversial British figures, Slim and Haig, have been challenged, while alleged left-wing bias in the naming of streets has been claimed by the opposition. The replacing of the federal electorate named Fraser with Fenner and the naming of the new electorate of Bean were both highly controversial. This shows that naming, not just renaming, is often highly political.
Renaming does not apply just to public spaces and buildings. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has called institutions, including but not restricted to the Catholic Church, to account. Wholesale renaming of the buildings and other spaces named after criminal perpetrators in schools and church premises has occurred, as well as the removal of plaques and other memorials.
The question is not just whether renaming and shaming should occur, but under what circumstances. In some cases, at least from our perspective, it may appear clear-cut. We applaud, or at least tolerate, statues of Saddam Hussein or various Communist leaders being torn down following regime change, but then deny it applies in Western societies to slave traders or violent colonisers when history is rethought.
Putting commercialisation to one side, which is a debate in itself, there are many other different drivers behind the renaming movements, including anti-colonialism, nationalism, feminism, and Indigenous and other minority rights.
Generally, there are two sides to any assessment of an historical figure who is memorialised. Their dark side, whatever it is, is often accompanied by positive achievements. This applies to local figures as well as to big historical names. Can some blemishes, no matter how serious, be overlooked in favour of greater achievements? Should a racist nation-builder or wartime hero be memorialised?
There is also the argument that heritage matters more than anything and that new perspectives on history should not be introduced under any circumstances. Let bygones be bygones. Preserve the historical record at all costs.
Renaming, and in some cases shaming, is inevitable and will be a feature of the 21st century as times change and social movements issue challenges. As we look around us it is already happening regularly for diverse reasons. This will mean some changes which will be divisive, and many other occasions in which the status quo will prevail. Whatever the outcome, there will be pain on many sides and lack of consensus.
There must be public leadership and due process within governments and institutions. Either big public enquiries, which call for public submissions, or work behind the scenes by committees at the local level will be required.
Building public trust is important, because these sorts of changes can produce great disquiet and public upset. There is considerable community attachment to the status quo, and many people who consider matters like renaming to be a low priority - certainly not a bread and butter issue.
The process should not just be transparent but should consider alternatives to outright renaming, removal or dismantling. These include rebranding to include fresh historical perspectives, relocation of offending items to a less public space or even to a museum, and building additional new memorials to directly counterbalance the older ones.
More dramatic decisions, which will prove sometimes to be necessary, will mean outright obliteration of the offending name or item after due process. Whatever happens, leaders will need to be brave - because any step they take will be controversial while passions run high.
- John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.