Power pools in the blandest of places. I’m shambling aimlessly around a hotel foyer that could be any hotel in any country. The urn coffee tastes exactly like it always does, everywhere. Across the room, a former Attorney-General and the Member for Bruce are poring over maps of their electorates. The Member for Melbourne walks in, grabs a seat, and starts checking his iPhone. A nattily-dressed Liberal apparatchik takes a phone call: ‘Oh, I’m just here conferring with some of our Coalition partners, actually.’
I recently turned 40. The political staffers suddenly look unsettlingly young. The even younger Australian Electoral Commission worker in charge of the sound recording is wearing nicer cufflinks than me. I was that guy once. Dress for the job you’re still not quite sure you want.
We walk into the largest of several meeting rooms. A panel sits at the far end. This panel is entirely white, entirely male, and all middle-aged or older. As, I guess, am I. Among them I recognise the nation’s chief statistician from when he fronted the cameras to announce the results of the marriage equality survey.
Facing the panel, at a distance of maybe four feet, is a table bristling with microphones, and a single chair. ‘Are you now or have you ever been…?’
This is a hearing of the ‘Augmented Commission’ of the Australian Electoral Commission. The electoral map of Victoria is due for its periodic refresh. Boundaries are being redrawn, names retired and replaced. Politicians, businesspeople, and ordinary citizens have assembled here to haggle over the shifting of lines. The shifting of power. Margins.
As a quick glance at gerrymandered US congressional districts will tell you, we do this sort of redistribution fairly well in Australia. It’s the symbolic stuff we struggle with. Most people are here this morning to talk about boundaries. A few of us are here to talk about names.
Philosophers don’t get to do stuff like this very often. A recent Meanjin piece has led to me speaking to an objection I lodged to the recommendation of keep the name of John Batman on the electorate I live in. A white man sitting at a table of whitest melamine, imploring other white men to acknowledge the pain of Indigenous people: this might just be Peak Australia.
We are a long way from Tasmania. We are a long way from the country John Batman emptied, killing and imprisoning as he went.
We are not far from the mouth of the Yarra, where Batman declared ‘This will be the place for a village.’ We’re not so far from the streets that Batman’s Indigenous helpers wheeled him around, as syphilis gnawed through his face and wrecked his body. Over the committee’s shoulders you can see the slightly slapdash cornice work on the late nineteenth-century buildings across the road.
We are an infinity away from Van Diemen’s Land, from the scrub and chill, from the tang of gunpowder and the snarl of dogs.
The Member for Batman herself is here, the Mayor of Darebin too. The Mayor will shortly speak eloquently in favour of changing ‘Batman’ to ‘Wonga.’ Our MP tweets about the whiteness and maleness of the panel. The trolls swarm predictably but quickly lose interest.
In its recommendations, the commission had proposed removing the name of Angus McMillan from the Gippsland seat named after him, which was also the district where he led massacres of Gunaikurnai people in the 1840s. The decision to retain Batman was thus doubly inexplicable, and no explanation was given. If not ethics, then at least rational consistency should have demanded both names be withdrawn.
I’m called to speak. My presentation is meant to be forensic but I suspect ends up being numbingly dry. I conclude by asking precisely how many people someone has to murder before they don’t get to have an electorate named after them. Meant to be uncomfortable, the line instead gets an unwanted chuckle. Then we’re back to deliberations about whether Travancore is inner city or not and whether communities in the south-eastern suburbs should have to deal with two MPs instead of one, and whether ‘the Member for Cox’ is a cruel joke to play on its present and future incumbents.
I’m struck by how friendly it all is. The process is civil and surprisingly unbureaucratic to engage with. It is also quintessentially Australian: the voices of First Nations people absent or filtered, objects instead of subjects, spoken for instead of speaking. The room is warm and violence is somehow always elsewhere and elsewhen, the reckoning always deferred. Melamine democracy.
Patrick Stokes is senior lecturer in philosophy at Deakin University, and a Melbourne-based writer and comedian. His books include The Naked Self (Oxford, 2015), and Kierkegaard’s Mirrors (Palgrave, 2010).