Thousands of people have signed a petition demanding the removal of a statue of Australia’s first prime minister, Sir Edmund Barton, from a traditional burial site in NSW.
Port Macquarie woman Arlene Mehan, of the Mid North Coast’s Birpai people, is leading the campaign to force Port Macquarie-Hastings Council to move the statue from Town Green park on the banks of the Hastings River.
The seven-day-old petition has more than 2100 signatures and comes amid global action by the Black Lives Matter movement to tear down statues of white historical figures.
Ms Mehan said the Barton statue had always been an issue with her family.
“You wouldn’t put a statue of Hitler in a Jewish space, so it’s been a bit of a thorn,” she said.
“It’s a burial site and you’re putting a figure of white Australia on an Aboriginal burial site – it’s just not appropriate.”
The statue of Australia’s first prime minister is close to a small monument on the burial site.
“Everyone knows that statue but not everybody knows the monument to the burial site, which is located only 10 metres from that statue,” Ms Mehan said.
Remains at the burial site are more than 1800 years old, she said.
“As a Birpai woman, I’m looking for something to dismantle in the local community that represents racism and the statue does,” she said.
“Consider what this statue means for us as a community and what message we are giving to, not only members of the community, but visitors as well.
“It brings up a lot of trauma for people, how we glorify these figures.”
Ms Mehan said she would present the petition to the council and was open to talks on the statue’s future.
“The onus is on the council, who had put it there without community consultation in the first place in 2001, the onus is on the council to remove it,” she said.
Forerunner to White Australia policy
Port Macquarie Historical Society President Clive Smith said he there was “absolutely no reason” it could not be moved.
“In some ways, as being Australia’s first prime minister and a connection with the area, maybe it is appropriate to have a statue of him somewhere in the vicinity but probably not at that location,” he said.
Sir Edmund, a member of the Protectionist Party, was a local state MP before federation in 1901 when he became the nation’s first PM.
He played a key role in drafting the national constitution and his government passed the Immigration Restriction Act, forerunner to the White Australia policy.
He later became a founding member of the High Court.
“I can see why it would not be considered appropriate by probably a good percentage of the population when he was one of the authors of the constitution, which basically wrote the Aborigines out,” Mr Smith said.
“I don’t have any particular opinion on statues, except that I often think there are too many statues to dead white men whose achievements get reviewed from time to time and are perhaps not as great as they were once thought to be.”
The Port Macquarie-Hastings Council said it was not appropriate to comment on a petition it had not received.