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Save Parkes place: why symbols matter

By Benjamin Jones - posted Thursday, 1 November 2012


An international visitor to Australia would be excused for thinking this country is still a British colony under the control of the royal family. Evidence of the British royals can be found in every state and territory (indeed two of our six states are directly named for a British royal). Streets, buildings, statues and other memorials named George, Edward and, of course, Victoria are literally everywhere. The present monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, who recently enjoyed her diamond jubilee, has hardly been forgotten. Hospitals, parks, suburbs and roads across the country all bear her name and, of course, her image is on the reverse of every Australian coin. Many schools and defence force buildings also have a portrait in honor of the monarch. The British royals are nothing if not revered.

In contrast, Australians take a humbler approach to our native heroes. With a cultural distrust of politicians, we are more inclined to endure our leaders than celebrate them. Henry Parkes, who more than anyone deserves to be called the father of our country, is one of the scare few who have risen above our perpetual tall poppy syndrome to achieve near-universal applause. Parkes, like the Queen, does have many memorials, especially in Canberra. But what message does it send when a road named in his honor is renamed for the Queen?

I started the Save Parkes Place petition on 23 October 2012 when I read in the Canberra Times that Charles and Camilla planned to visit the capital to ‘officially rename Parkes Place as Queen Elizabeth Terrace’. There were a few comments expressing disapproval but overall it seemed that people were quite happy with this arrangement. I was furious. Could you imagine a Gandhi memorial being renamed in India? Could you imagine a Washington memorial being renamed in the United States or a Mandela memorial in South Africa? Whether a person approves of the monarchy or not is irrelevant. If a generic Main Street or South Street was dedicated to the Queen few eyebrows would have been raised but to take away a street named after the father of federation is scandalous.

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The day after I launched the petition just 70 people had signed. Significantly, the story had been picked up by The Canberra Times with the headline, ‘Parkes Place renaming sparks a royal row’. Even better, the article was republished in The Age. The comments were extraordinary. Some people were for the change, but it was heartening to see that I was not alone in wishing this country paid more respect to the men and women who have tirelessly worked to make it the envy of the world.

Sam from Adelaide stated: ‘Sir Henry Parks was a founder and the father of our nation, to remove his name from a land mark in the nations (sic) capital is an insult to every Australian, past, present, and future’. A Canberran using the name Merit not birth right claimed, ‘The honor of having a place named after you should be based on merit and there are plenty of deserving Australians who have real achievements’.

In response to the petition, the National Capital Authority was quick to point out that, ‘only the stretch of Parkes Place skirting Lake Burley Griffin would be renamed Queen Elizabeth Terrace’. The open space where the Aboriginal Tent Embassy sits will still be called Parkes Place. This misses the point entirely. As ST from Sydney put it, ‘I don’t care how small the part of Australia is – a road, a suburb/town, a park – it is insulting to overlook our own history in reverence to our one time overlords’.

While the news coverage has been wonderful the petition itself has attracted just 250 signatures. Most people are still not aware of the renaming much less the protest. Still, it is clear that many people simply do not care enough to take 90 seconds out of their schedule. The stinging truth about democracy is that you tend to get what you deserve. As a patriot and a nationalist, I love this country and I want to see it mature into a vibrant, tolerant meritocracy where we place value and honor on those who selflessly work for the community and nation. Australia has historically looked outwards for inspiration, especially to our great and powerful friends in the United Kingdom and United States.

It is important that we do not forget to honor also our first Australians and the migrants from every corner of the globe who have settled here. We rightly acknowledge the mistakes of the past but we must also celebrate the things we have done well. Parkes’ vision of a united country set the wheels in motion for a federation he would not live to see. I urge you to take 90 seconds and sign the petition at Change.org. Let’s Save Parkes Place. To sign the petition please Click Here

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About the Author

Dr Benjamin Thomas Jones is a Visiting Fellow at the Research School of Humanities and the Arts at the Australian National University. He has worked as a historian at the Museum of Australian Democracy and has taught at the University of Sydney and the ANU. Primarily interested in the development of democratic theory in the nineteenth century British world, his doctoral thesis explored the role of civic republicanism in colonial Australia and Canada. Benjamin has been published in leading history journals including Australian Historical Studies and the Journal of Australian Colonial History and has presented at several academic conferences. Benjamin publishes regular articles on history, politics and philosophy on his website ( www.benjaminthomasjones.com) and is currently co-editing a book on Australian republicanism with Mark McKenna which will be published in June 2013.

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