Opinion / Editorial

What’s in a name?

Renaming Moreland is the right decision, but the council should not be afraid of debate about the issue
Tuesday, December 14, 2021


CHANGING the name of the city of Moreland won’t mean better rubbish collection services, it won’t fix poorly maintained footpaths and roads, and it won’t create more green space and parklands.

But local government does not exist solely to provide services to ratepayers.

Local government can set an agenda and provide direction to a community, and far-reaching changes in public attitudes often begin at a local level.

Think, for example, how Moreland has led the way on policies to tackle climate change so that it is well ahead of its 2030 renewable energy targets, while the federal government is paralysed by its own ineptitude. Or how Moreland has long held a progressive stance on multiculturalism and diversity, when xenophobia and racism have been cynically exploited by federal and state politicians to whip up hatred and divide the community in the pursuit of votes.

It is because of the latter that councilors have no choice but to set in train a process to come up with a new title for the city to replace one that is now tainted by both its connections to slavery and to the dispossession of this area’s traditional occupants, the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung people.

It would be completely hypocritical to retain the name Moreland and still espouse the values of tolerance and diversity.

As we now know, Moreland was named after an 18th and 19th century sugar plantation in Jamaica that used slave labour. When the Scottish migrant Farquhar McCrae arrived in Victoria in 1839, he quickly set about amassing landholdings north of the settlement of Melbourne. This land was sold to him without the consent of its traditional owners, who were forced off their country by both threats and acts of violence.

McCrae chose to celebrate his good fortune by naming his new landholdings after the slave plantation in Jamaica which his forebears had operated. So in one word, Moreland, we have both a reminder of slavery and of dispossession.

Some have sought to trivialise this connection by arguing that slavery ended more than 200 years ago and present day citizens should not have to pay for the sins of earlier generations. Others hurl around the inane comment that addressing the historical impact of slavery is part of a “woke agenda”.

But the slavery issue is actually the less important of the two. The most heinous part of our area’s history was the cruel and violent way in which the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung were stripped of their most precious asset – their land – and reduced to begging for food and then were forcibly removed to missions under white control.

The pain and trauma of those events continues to this day, and if a symbolic act to change a name can contribute to healing and reconciliation, that can only be a good thing.

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The case against changing the name boils down to two arguments: cost and consultation.

At $500,000 over two years, the cost of rebranding Moreland’s websites, signage and other assets is not insignificant. But if it is considered in the context of the 2021-22 council budget of $198 million, it is just 0.25% of total expenditure and hardly a reason not to make a change.

When it comes to the argument that there has been a lack of consultation, the council is on shakier ground.

The majority of councilors on Monday night agreed not to allow a public debate about the pros and cons of a name change because it would be “divisive, hurtful, and unnecessary”.

Cr Adam Pulford, who is Queer, reminded his fellow councilors that the marriage equality plebiscite in 2018 was painful and demeaning for his community.

But surely on such an important decision as changing the name of the municipality, the views of residents and ratepayers should be paid more than lip service? It is somewhat arrogant and anti-democratic not to allow open public discussion about the merits of a name change; indeed, a period of consultation and feedback could have provided an opportunity for greater awareness and education about the dispossession of the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung.

Some residents will have valid reasons to be cautious about change, and it is not helpful to immediately write them off as being racist or pro-slavery.

Councilors may well be wary of allowing our municipality to be another battleground in the culture wars, but through strong leadership they could have fostered a civilised debate while still achieving the same result.

The odds are that if there had been proper consultation, residents and ratepayers would have chosen to change the name anyway. It is untenable for the city to continue to be known as Moreland, which was a poor choice of name for a myriad of other reasons also back in 1994.

On the other hand, some will argue that councilors are elected to make important decisions on our behalf and you cannot govern by holding a plebiscite on every council action.

And others will say that Moreland is an artificial name that is not representative of an area that also includes Glenroy and Pascoe Vale anyway; that there was no proper consultation when it was adopted by the Kennett government in 1994; and that it has only been in use a little over a quarter of a century in any case.

At this stage, criticism of the way the council has handled the issue has been muted, suggesting most residents agree that there is no reason for debate, but going forward, the council must strike the right balance on what is undoubtedly a polarising issue and hopefully, residents will be consulted more fully about what name replaces Moreland.

This publication hopes it will be a Wurundjeri word, perhaps Merri Merri, which is the traditional name of the main waterway running through the municipality.

Whatever replaces it, it seems certain that at the end of the day, few will mourn the disappearance of the name Moreland.