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Opinion

Having the right to choose our history

Opinion

Be it statues or the honours system, the people have a right to question the elite’s choices in building Australia’s historic narrative, argues Rainer Jozeps.

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Statues are tattoos on the community, or are they?

They’re there seemingly forever and, after a time we don’t pay them much attention. Unlike the tattooed however, we the community didn’t choose whether to have one in the first place.

The placement of a statue in a city’s CBD is controlled by local government, while the commissioning of a statue falls to one or two, usually powerful or influential, individuals with close links to money and high-end decision-makers. Mostly there is no community consultation involved at any stage of the process.

I quite like the idea of the sound of falling statues. We all know that history is commissioned or documented by the victor, or at the very least, its beneficiaries.

Many statues of colonial figures are offensive to first nations people, and some completely ignore character flaws in the subject that should not be ignored. Shakespeare said that ‘truth is truth, to the end of reckoning’, but if statues and our history more broadly are not reckoned with, then it could all be deemed ‘truth’ when it is not.

Statues in Australia seem to be largely populated by British royalty, early 19th century explorers, legal and political figures, pastoralists and philanthropists. There are very few women, and hardly any First Nations people.

As is happening in America, Australia needs to reckon with its statuary as well as its colonial and post-colonial history more broadly.

But is it right to have unchecked vigilantes tearing down statues they have issues with? No, it’s not, but you can feel some sympathy for this kind of activism in the face of apathetic and uninvestigated acceptance. A process of ongoing review of our statuary conducted over an extended period is required; it should be orderly and subject to contemporary social and community values.

If we’re not removing statues of questionable characters, we should be telling the truth about their activities, in situ, to the ‘end of reckoning’.

In 2014 the City of Perth and the Town of Bassendean both voted to remove their respective statues of Rolf Harris. And here’s the rub. Is it better to remove the statue altogether, or retain it with a plaque explaining that Rolf Harris was a convicted sex offender?

Anne Barton, the great-granddaughter of Australia’s first prime minister Sir Edmund Barton, recently announced her support to remove her great-grandfather’s statue from an indigenous burial site in Port Macquarie on the New South Wales mid-north coast. This not because of any specific mis-deeds of Edmund Barton, although she does refer to an unacceptance of the legal confection ‘terra nullius’ promulgated by her ancestor, but as a mark of respect for the views of current-day, Aboriginal Australians.

The counter argument is always the simplistic; “If we removed so and so’s statue for their transgression we’d have to remove most 19th Century recipients.” Well, if so, then yes, that’s what reckonings do. They’re uncomfortable, and that is the point.

This isn’t re-writing history. Rather, this is recognizing that there is no one single version of history, and that current generations should have the right to decide the version of history they wish to celebrate according to the values and standards of their day.

The issue of statues is not to be confused with war memorials. War memorials are unambiguously a unifying force for all Australians, indigenous and non-indigenous. They rarely recognise one singular individual over a group and commemorate battles, and the suffering endured, for which we are all beneficiaries.

Australia has an alternative system of recognising and celebrating the service of individuals. The honouring of individuals through the Queen’s Birthday and Australia Day Awards which is managed by a tiny office in the Governor-General’s Department.

Like statues, Awards are statements of recognition and gratitude from the community to the honoured. Over time, like statues, the system becomes a record of our nation’s story and identity.

There are four categories from the highest honour, the Companion of the Order of Australia, (A.C.) – of which three were awarded in 2020, including to Tony Abbot – to the lowest, the Medal of the Order of Australia, (O.A.M.), with 457 recipients in 2020.

The great majority of Awards go to wonderful individuals in our community recognised for their service while, for the most part, deriving their income from other activities.

But there are also recipients who receive an award, particularly the higher levels, for doing their job, albeit with distinction. As the nomination criterion require, it must be shown that the recipient has served in a capacity that is above and beyond what would reasonably be expected of someone in a similar capacity. So, based on this, how was Tony Abbot’s service measured such that is was above and beyond someone else’s service as Prime Minister?

It would be good to know who submitted Abbott’s nomination.

While this seems like witless pedantry, the cynicism underscores a continuing sense, like the 19th century nomination of individuals for statuary, that powerful elites control the telling of Australia’s historic narrative, in this case via our Australian Honours system.

And as is shown with the recent questions surrounding the alleged behaviours of Dyson Heydon who holds Australia’s highest honour (AC), what system exists for the removal of an award when recipients are proven to have questionable characters. If Heydon is proven to have assaulted the women now coming forward, will he lose his AC?

Have past award recipients coming into conflict with the law since receiving their award lost it subsequently?

As with statues of questionable characters, we can’t leave this interrogation to vigilante groups.

There needs to be an orderly process to allow current and future generations to participate in deciding who they wish to recognise and celebrate as outstanding Australians, whether they be statues or award recipients.

Rainer Jozeps has been an executive in Australia’s arts industry for more 30 years. He has held senior roles with the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, Adelaide Festival Centre, West Australian Ballet, Australian Dance Theatre and Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.

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