Caitlin Fitzsimmons, Sydney Morning Herald, October 27, 2022
A NSW city is grappling with whether to dump a statue of Australia’s first prime minister erected for the centenary of Federation in 2001, because of his “explicitly racist” legacy.
Critics of the statue of Sir Edmund Barton in Port Macquarie on the NSW Mid North Coast point to his role drafting the Australian Constitution, which deliberately excluded Aboriginal people, and as an architect of the White Australia policy.
The bronze likeness shows Barton seated on a park bench in Town Green, the town’s main public square, and a campsite and burial ground for the local Birpai/Birrbay people before white settlement.
Birrbay woman Arlene Mehan said Town Green had always been a gathering place and the statue of Barton made it less welcoming for the town’s diverse community.
“Barton was explicitly racist and known as one of the fathers of the White Australia policy,” Mehan said.
“The presence of the statue says that we’re stuck in the past, and it’s a past where Birrbay people are not included.”
As prime minister, Barton was one of a number of politicians who spoke in favour of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, better known as the White Australia policy. He described non-white races as “unequal and inferior”, adding that no one in parliament would need convincing of this.
“I do not think either that the doctrine of the equality of man was really ever intended to include racial equality,” Barton said.
Mehan collected about 5000 signatures for a petition asking for the statue’s removal when the Black Lives Matter movement kicked off in 2020. She also campaigned against a mooted new statue of Governor Lachlan Macquarie because of his role in ordering massacres.
Now some community members have mounted a renewed push against the Barton statue and are hoping to force Port Macquarie Hastings Council to vote on the issue.
Council’s former cultural development officer, Janet Cohen, who oversaw the Barton memorial project in 1999-2001, has written a discussion paper, now circulating among members of the council’s Aboriginal advisory group. The paper, obtained by The Herald, will be tabled at the group’s next meeting to vote on a recommendation to council.
The paper suggests the courthouse could be a better location for the statue, given Barton also served as a High Court justice. Another option was keeping the statue in place, but adding interpretative signage.
The paper also discusses how to rectify the fact the only acknowledgement for the Birrbay/Birpai people was a “modest memorial plaque” in a garden bed near the Barton statue.
Port Macquarie Hastings Mayor Peta Pinson, who has previously opposed removing the statue, said the statue was installed in 2001 with community support and sponsorship from local business but “much had changed” since then.
“As the mayor of a diverse and growing community I recognise that we have a long way to go to understand the many layers and perspectives,” Pinson said. “I look forward to hearing the views of the community.”
The Birpai Local Aboriginal Land Council did not respond to requests for comment.
Dozens of statues around the world have been toppled by protesters or removed by authorities since the killing of George Floyd in the United States in 2020 and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Targets include slavers such as Edward Colston in Britain, King Leopold II of Belgium who led an exploitative and violent colonialist regime in the Congo, and Confederate figures in the United States. In Australia, statues have been vandalised, such as Captain James Cook in Sydney’s Hyde Park.
The NSW government recently renamed Ben Boyd National Park on the South Coast as Beowa National Park because Boyd was involved in blackbirding, which involved kidnappping Pacific Islanders and using them for forced labour. This is now acknowledged as slavery.