Filling the Gap with Tokenism

Indigenous disadvantage resides not in the affluent City of Mitcham in the foothills of Adelaide, but in the usually out-of-sight remote communities which continue to perplex us with their lack of progress and opportunity for many of their trapped and desperate residents. This long-term, seemingly intractable set of issues is worthy of national attention, and debate, and action, as it is. This is where our focus as a nation must be if we are to find new and effective ways to assist those in need to create better lives for themselves and their families. The tried and proven failures of sit-down money, endless layers of ignored consultation with too numerous claimants, and fortunes spent on administration and endless futile programs, may one day be in the past.

In the local government area of Mitcham, the 2021 Census illustrates that there is little if any gap. Indigenous residents here have much higher numbers of university graduates, fewer one-parent families, higher levels of home ownership, greater workforce participation than the South Australian average, and comparable numbers on some measures to the rest of the affluent Mitcham population. “The gap” is clearly not here, it is elsewhere.

The Mitcham City Council, mindful of some community sentiment towards all things indigenous, was determined to display its progressive credentials when it came to naming a new library in the suburb of Blackwood. The library was the love-child of the hills-based Mitcham mayor, who tapped into a long-standing resentment among hills dwellers of a perceived bias against them by a plains-dominated council. Indeed, the council only approved the name of the new library/community facility on her casting vote, which has a fitting symmetry, as the council’s commitment to the building of the new library was also passed on the casting vote of the mayor.

The decision by Mitcham council to give the new Blackwood library a Kaurna name signals a new height of folly for a council seemingly determined to push its progressive agenda onto its community. Essentially, by all state and federal election results, it is a conservative electorate, though with some pockets green and woke.

The blindingly obvious fact is that the main investment, and community use, is in the library. Attached to it will be other facilities, but without the library the building would not be there. In the Kaurna past there are no libraries, no books, no literacy. A library is in its entirety a creation of our culture, not the Kaurna culture. So why give a Kaurna name to such a non-Kaurna creation? Perhaps because the community wanted to?

Local councils pride themselves on consultation, but my guess is that often a decision is made and the consultation is then shaped to fit that decision. The preferred council name was first suggested, supposedly by Kaurna elders, in a kick-the-dirt on-site construction meeting. Council officers liked it and that was it.

The consultation about the name was never really with the main users, the Blackwood community. It was open to any responder (who registered online, so I wonder where they live—it will be on the records), poorly funded, badly designed, and included just three leading questions and “an online brainstorming”. Many of us know just what those “brainstorming” approaches yield: never a Nobel Prize or a revered symphony, but more like a cacophony of kindergarten shrieks. The survey numbers were small, in fact a full thirty-four respondents out of 65,000 showed a preference for the name “kumangka” (meaning “coming together”). The outcome was always predictable, and in line with what some on the woke council and its officers wanted. No face-to-face discussions were held, no community groups contacted directly, nor businesses, residents in person, and indeed the hard copy of the council’s own community news carried nothing of it.

A simple suggestion I made to a council officer was to ask, in person, users of the old library what name they preferred—and will use. Blind Freddy could see that the common usage will be “I am just slipping up to Blackwood library to pick up some books.” The council would have us believe that their Blackwood residents will now be “slipping up to Tiwu Kamangka to pick up some books”. “What?” “Sorry, the Blackwood library.”

Mitcham council has flexed its progressive muscles, as it seems to be developing a wont to do, and we will now have a new library using the same name as a disgraced boys’ home in North Adelaide. Kumangka was cited in the Mullighan inquiry into state-based sexual abuse, as pointed out by the Kaurna Yerta Aboriginal Corporation contacted by the council. But the library will have the prefix Tiwu, to celebrate the apparent return of the yellow-tailed black cockatoo (extant from Tasmania to Queensland). I wonder what the Kaurna word for galah is.

In fact, the Kaurna Yerta Aboriginal Corporation initially refused to “bestow” the preferred Kaurna name, because it was used elsewhere, and had no particular connection to the new facility. This position is completely in line with South Australian government guidelines, which the council is obliged to follow. The local indigenous land council seems to be a lot more savvy about naming than Mitcham council.

Only after some further communication and a one-day workshop with the mayor, Mitcham council’s CEO and relevant responsible officers and the board of the Kaurna Yerta Aboriginal Corporation, was a slightly altered name approved, or “bestowed” as it was described. Then, it was recommended that further opportunities, for renaming various localities, for more art work, a preferred collection of Kaurna books in the library, indigenous interpretive and art installations, and employment opportunities for indigenous artists, were tabled. Should the council take any of these demands seriously, let’s hope this time the ratepayers get a genuine say.

The 400 or so citizens of Mitcham who claim indigenous heritage (a bit under 1 per cent, about a third of the national proportion) may feel some sense of recognition or reconciliation, though of course none of them are Kaurna speakers, and indeed the overwhelming majority of these 400 have their ancestry with other mobs, according to the 2021 Census.

But of the 65,000 non-indigenous citizens of Mitcham, many will question this new library’s name as tokenism, which will contribute nothing to the serious issues of indigenous disadvantage. It doesn’t close any gaps, and just might open a few.

At the last gasp, four councillors voted against the new name, and seven for it. No need for the mayor’s casting vote—she missed a third opportunity to show her progressive colours. One councillor told me that despite reservations, there was a feeling that the Kaurna Yerta Aboriginal Corporation who (reluctantly) “bestowed” approval might be offended if the name was not approved. Well, quite a few ratepayers are offended, and my guess is that the indigenous group also will be offended if their special further recommendations don’t come through.

Oh well, those indigenous folk who really live the gap, and need a leg up, could always get the train up to Blackwood next time they visit Adelaide, and gaze upon the new sign, outside the beautiful new library, that says “Tiwu Kumangka”. That should fix it.

Paul Mabarrack lives in Adelaide

One thought on “Filling the Gap with Tokenism

  • Joseph says:

    Prospect Council, also in Adelaide, has decided to look south for inspiration and the Kuarna word ‘payinthi’ has been chosen as the name for its new building. This word apparently means ‘good prospects’. I think I can see a connection. This council has been keen on Kuarna names for various facilities in the district and took advantage of the rebuild of its offices and facilities to use the word payinthi. How this was decided is a bit of mystery. I did ask a councillor how the name was chosen but he mumbled something about a special council meeting and then changed the topic. As is the case in this article a library is involved and in fact is the key feature of the new building. There are several other facilities available in the building and this is all listed in tiny placard attached to a wall that is easily missed. In fact it was soon clear that the name payinthi offered no clue as to what was available in this building. Hence for awhile people wandered around wondering if they were in the right place. At one stage the library put out a small children’ s blackboard on the footpath pointing to the location of the library. Us locals have got wise now and we can readily locate the facility we need but good luck if your from out of town. You will not fail to spot the Payinthi sign which is perhaps two stories high, but you will not see a sign for the library as you drive along Prospect Road.

Leave a Reply