A bustling street in the seat of batman. but why is it called batman?There are 25 MPs retiring at this year’s federal election, including the MPs for Barton, Scullin, Pearce, Rankin, Batman, Hume, O’Connor, Lyne, Gellibrand, Barker, Moore, Hotham, Kingsford Smith, Hinkler and Gilmore. Any ideas where these actually are? No, nor me.
There is no reason we should know; these are people not places. The Australian Electoral Commission’s guidelines demand geographic anonymity in federal politics. They state, ”In the main, divisions should be named after deceased Australians who have rendered outstanding service to their country.”
MPs are also retiring from the seats of Perth, Mallee, Bendigo, Newcastle and New England. A fairly rudimentary knowledge of Australian geography will locate them for the public as well as give a sense of their general characteristics. But the AEC actively discourages this type of name, which might help voters identify with a seat or find it on a map.
”Locality or place names should generally be avoided,” the guidelines warn. As well as naming seats for historically important figures, names from the original federation should be preserved. Hence Perth, New England, Bendigo and Newcastle have survived, among others. A third group of seats have Aboriginal names, which can be used where they are appropriate. Indi, Kooyong and Corangamite are all doubly protected, being both Aboriginal words and original federal electorates.
Other countries take the opposite view to Australia about naming seats for their location. Guidelines from the Boundary Commission for England state ”the name should normally reflect the main population centre(s) contained in a constituency”. Names across Britain reflect places most people there can identify, such as Bristol South, Kingston and Surbiton, Dundee West, York Central. The New Zealanders and Canadians are with the Brits on this one. Electorate names matter.
Not identifying a location helps perpetuate the gap between the public and federal politics. Many voters simply do not know what seat they are in, so may see their MP in the newspapers or on television, but never know the person is their representative in Parliament. Those with an interest in politics may find MPs a fairly amorphous mass because seat names effectively mean nothing.
Offering names based on geography gives important context to the views and policy interests of MPs. It may be useful to know if an MP represents a capital, provincial, regional or rural seat, or which state they come from.
The name of a random historical figure does not help as much as the name of a town, city or region. Among this year’s retiring MPs are independents Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor. Having been so closely associated over the past few years, they find themselves on opposite sides of the problem, through no fault of their own. The location of Tony Windsor’s seat of New England is fairly guessable while Rob Oakeshott’s neighbouring seat of Lyne could be anywhere. Even knowing who Lyne was will only get you to NSW.
William Lyne was premier of NSW and campaigned for a ”no” vote in the 1898 and 1899 federation referendums. Despite this, he tried to become the country’s first prime minister but failed to gain a parliamentary majority. I only know this because I looked it up.
Similarly, it requires a pretty detailed knowledge of political history to guess Pearce is in Western Australia because it is named after George Pearce, a leading ALP senator in the early years after federation and long-serving minister for defence including for most of World War I. This one I did know. Guessing where Pearce’s neighbouring seat of Perth is probably takes less knowledge. Besides all this, seeing the name Pearce or Lyne or any of the others gives exactly zero help in knowing who these historically important people are.
You either know them or you don’t, and only political anoraks like me will ever drag out a reference book, or Wikipedia, to find out. If officialdom seriously wants to educate the public about worthy Australians, this is not the way. More effective methods and a more fitting tribute might be a statue here and there across Australia, some information in a museum or two and the occasional program about Australian political history on television.
The best that can be said for naming seats after significant Australians is that there is no financial cost, but the price in political alienation may be big.
Dr Joff Lelliott is state director of the political think tank The Australian Fabians (Queensland).
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.