Post-coup, it’s time to stop naming electorates after politicians

After all the excitement of Canberra’s latest production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the reviews have emphasised, among other things, vindictive egos, the sheer joy of the dark arts of duplicity and cunning, and a failing of honour.  Solutions such as a Federal ICAC are being promoted.[1]  It is reasonable to ask what we, the audience, i.e the voters, have done that encourages or at least fails to deter such foolery.  Has 30 years of neoliberalism so alienated us from the places we love and identify with that we no longer care?[2]  Are these questions related?

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One seemingly innocuous change in the backdrop, and one small change we can now reverse, is that federal (and other) electorates should stop being named after old politicians.  This must surely be one of the greatest vanity projects devised by parliamentarians.  It has zero benefit to the electors, and offers no identifiable benefit to the workings of parliament or democracy.  It does, however, provide plenty of opportunities for chicanery and general in-the-bubble argumentativeness – energy that could, instead, be being directed to better governance.  It also contributes to the cynicism, despondency and anger among voters when they see their representatives behaving as perfidiously as they have been, yet still seek to keep their spoils and look for more.

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The Liberal contenders held the seats of Dickson, Cook and Curtin.  Where are these places?  What state or territory are they in?  Are they even real ‘places’?  In 1901, of the 75 federal electorates only 15, or 20%, were named after a person.[3]  In 2018, 76% of federal seats now bear a person’s surname.[4]  The AEC guidelines for seat naming, based on parliamentary recommendations, state

In the main, divisions should be named after deceased Australians who have rendered outstanding service to their country.  When new divisions are created the names of former Prime Ministers should be considered,

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Locality or place names should generally be avoided.[5]

The result is clearly evident in Western Australia, for example, where the original five seats in 1901, all with toponymic names (two Aboriginal), have been replaced in 2018 with 16 seats of which at least 8 bear an old politicians name and none have an Aboriginal name.

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The AEC guidelines do state “Aboriginal names should be used where appropriate, and as far as possible existing Aboriginal divisional names should be retained.”[6]  ‘Names’ in this sense seems to mean either personal names (e.g. Lingiari, established 2001) or words derived from Indigenous languages (e.g. Kalgoorlie, abolished 2008).  Former ALP president Warren Mundine recently argued against the continuing loss of Aboriginal electorate names, and noted that less than half the original 19 Indigenous electorate names from 1901 still survive.[7]  Its an old story, repeating.

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The trend is clear.  Place names (toponyms) and Indigenous names (whether eponyms, toponyms or other nouns) as federal electorate names are rapidly being replaced by the surnames of old politicians and political dynasties.  This has not gone un-noticed, and has hardly been a popular trend.[8]  However, at least one state electoral body is also looking at emulating federal naming because it is “becoming more difficult to achieve stability in the naming of districts” due to rapid population growth requiring frequent redistributions.[9]  Apparently, constantly changing surnamed electorate names will be OK, but not toponymic names that actually identify the location of an electorate.  Perhaps dazzled by the patronage possibilities of the federal system, this State move is just as deaf to the increasing alienation and consternation in the community at the behaviour of politicians and others ‘in-the-bubble’.

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I live in the federal seat of Hasluck, and while I mean no disrespect to its namesake, I’m sure most of its electors could more readily identify their federal seat and its local representative if the seat was named something like Perth Hills or Darling Scarp or Helena & Swan or Mundaring or Moorda.  My State lower house seat is Midland, and upper house seat is East Metropolitan – hardly difficult to identify on a map or in the streets, or comprehend in my mind as the place I live.  But Hasluck … where actually is that place?

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Returning to the old practices of naming parliamentary seats with geographical place names and Aboriginal names might help revive a sense of place and locality in voters, and help reduce feelings of discombobulation in a dislocating world.  It might even have some effect on the politicians elected by those voters by reminding them that ‘their’ seat is a real place, inhabited by real people, with real world concerns, and not some imaginary estate to which they are entitled, bearing the name of one of their own like a heraldic device.

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Now and for a long time in the future, naming electoral seats after old politicians just looks like a self-absorbing privilege, an amusing divertissement, for a tin-eared political class.  But we elect our parliamentarians, and so cannot evade some responsibility – we need to demand the end of this pernicious practice.  One thing is certain, returning to proper geographical electorate names will not actually hurt or inhibit those parliamentarians who do actually perform their duties, and no doubt there are some.

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[1] Bernard Keane, ‘Six things Morrison must do to be competitive against Labor’, Crikey, 27 August 2018

[2] Bernard Keane, ‘The death of Homo Economicus: how neoliberalism fuelled the rise of identity politics’, Crikey, 27 August 2018

[3] ‘Australian federal election, 1901’, Wikipedia

[4] AEC, Classification of electoral division names, 12 July 2018

[5] AEC, Guidelines for naming federal electoral divisions, 11 April 2018

[6] AEC, Guidelines for naming federal electoral divisions, 11 April 2018

[7] Samantha Hutchinson, ‘Keep our electoral indigenous names, says Warren Mundine’, The Australian, 7 June 2018

[8] ‘Throsby electorate division to become Whitlam electorate’, Southern Highland Times, 18 January 2016; John Warhurst, ‘Fraser naming controversy reminds us of how seat names are never set in stone’, Sydney Morning Herald, 3 February 2016

[9]Naming of Districts’, WA Electoral Commission, 2015