Council / Interview

‘To do nothing would have been a really shameful thing’

Moreland Mayor defends going ahead with a name change without community debate

Moreland Mayor Mark Riley outside the council offices in Coburg.

Mark Phillips
Friday, January 7, 2022

MARK Riley had been in office for less than 48 hours when he was confronted with the issue that is likely to define his term as Mayor of Moreland.

His first community meeting as Mayor had been booked in prior to his election on November 17, but when Cr Riley and the council’s chief executive officer, Cathy Henderson, sat down to meet with representatives of the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation, they had no idea of the bombshell that was about to be dropped.

They were presented with such compelling evidence that the name ‘Moreland’ was inextricably linked to the history of slavery and Aboriginal dispossession that by the end of the meeting Cr Riley had no doubt that the name of the municipality would have to change.

It has since emerged that concerns about the name were raised when Moreland was formed through the merger of the cities of Brunswick and Coburg in 1994, but it was the first time Cr Riley had been made aware of the slavery connection.

In an interview with Brunswick Voice, the new Mayor said it was an easy decision for him to agree to advocate for a name change, and he was determined to lead the way to get the majority of his council colleagues to support the decision.

The council voted 6-3 (two councillors were absent) on December 13 in favour of changing the municipality’s name. The first council meeting of 2022 in February will sign off on a process for doing so, which Cr Riley hopes will be completed within six months.

Despite it being a bolt from the blue, Cr Riley is not worried about the council’s agenda being blown off course by the renaming of the municipality.

“No, I think it’s pretty much core work, really. We’ve been committed to this work around reconciliation, truth telling and reparations works since 1998. So we do quite a bit of work in the area already.

“So while it’s a pretty significant and prominent matter, in a way it’s going to help us sort of delve further into those issues. I think it’s kind of an opportunity as much as it’s a challenge. Certainly more of a challenge for some people than others.”

Cr Riley said the engagement with the community about the name change must be rigorous and thorough, but defended the decision to move ahead without any public debate or referendum.

To have delayed for any period of time would have been “a really shameful thing”, he said.

“I know some people have been saying, ‘Why didn’t you go out and ask us whether we should change the name?’

“But I’ve found by talking to people, since then, once you ask them what they know about why we’re doing this, they start to come on board, they’re more likely to go ‘Oh, okay, I see where this is coming from’.

“Because we were actually asked to do it by the Wurundjeri has another level of importance, I think.”

He also sees it as consistent with Moreland’s avowed leadership on human rights issues.

“I’ve found by talking to people, since then, once you ask them what they know about why we’re doing this, they start to come on board, they’re more likely to go ‘Oh, okay, I see where this is coming from’.”

“I’ve found by talking to people, since then, once you ask them what they know about why we’re doing this, they start to come on board, they’re more likely to go ‘Oh, okay, I see where this is coming from’.”

For Moreland Council, the last two years have been dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and Cr Riley expects this will continue to be the case over the next 12 months.

He said the pandemic has tested the Moreland community’s resilience and a major priority for the council over the coming year will be to continue to help people, and especially businesses, rebuild after two years of lockdowns.

While official data continues to show Moreland having one of the lowest vaccination rates in Victoria, Cr Riley believes this is partly due to a statistical quirk that has failed to take into account depopulation by foreign students and overseas workers. He stands by the council’s record in facilitating vaccinations across the municipality.

“I’ve lost track of how many pop up vaccine sites [the council has run], and we engaged a whole range of community connectors to actually help get the messages out there about vaccinating and talking in their community languages, and influencing and encouraging people to really resolve those misconceptions or questions. That’s something that we’re really proud of.

“And we want to keep that going, that community connection work beyond COVID because for all of the wellbeing and mental health issues, that’s going to be critical, I think, to helping people cope in the future.”

He is excited about the prospect of overseeing a number of major projects in the city, including the development of a new arts and community precinct based around Saxon Street in Brunswick, but admits that the pandemic has stretched the council’s budget.

First Gay Mayor

First elected to the council for South Ward in 2016, Cr Riley spent several weeks in 2021 as acting Mayor while Annalivia Carli Hannan was on parental leave after the birth of her second child.

He celebrated his appointment by draping himself in a rainbow flag and declaring his pride at being the municipality’s first openly Gay Mayor – a statement that may appear unnecessary in 2021, but was important for Cr Riley’s own personal journey.

“I grew up Catholic, [and] I did deal with all of those coming out issues and struggles in the ‘80s under the other big epidemic of the 20th century, which is HIV/AIDS that was a struggle for a lot of us.

“So whilst my sexuality isn’t the most important thing these days for me as a public figure, I know it’s a really important aspect of many people’s lives. And it’s still difficult for people to deal with many of the sexuality and gender issues even now, and I want to be able to just celebrate that, as well as encourage people to go ‘you can do it too’.”

The 60-year-old’s political awakening was the Tampa and SIEV X incidents of the early-2000s, which led him to joining the Brunswick branch of the Australian Greens but with no aspirations at that time to run for public office.

Cr Riley grew up in West Gippsland and trained as a primary school teacher and school librarian and until the end of  2021 continued to work part-time at Princes Hill Primary School.

He spent 15 years in the community sector on housing and education programs, including a period working for the Victorian AIDS Council, and has also worked in urban planning.

He has now lived in Brunswick East with his partner, an artist, for about two decades and says he is proud of the area’s diversity and history of progressive politics and human rights.

“I do love the mix of people, the fact that people do embrace each other, largely regardless of their backgrounds and cultures, and they celebrate it, really,” he said.

Read Part Two of the interview with Mark Riley.