Armidale Regional Councillors have voted down a motion to install acknowledgement signs for traditional landowners at a disruptive council meeting.
Councillor Bradley Widders put forward his motion to pay respects and give mention to the local Indigenous landowners within the Armidale Regional area, with acknowledgement signs to be erected at the council boundaries.
“This is a motion I have been asked to do by the people in the community, but it is something I have wanted to do for myself,” said Councillor Widders.
“Driving around the state, in different council areas, when you drive in, they actually recognise the traditional owners of where their local government sits, and we don’t have that within Armidale Regional Council’s LGA, so I decided to some research and work towards getting that done and I have been fairly vocal and transparent with what I was doing.”
Councillor Widders, a proud Anaiwan man, has spent two years researching languages, history, exploring academic studies and using his own cultural experiences to put this motion together and present it to fellow Councillors.
“Our local government area sits in Anaiwan, Banbai and Dunghutti people with the potential to have Gomeroi in it based on a native title land claim,” said Councillor Widders.
“There is a native title claim from the Gomeroi people which reaches into our western boundary, so I had in my motion to have a changed sign if or when any and all native title claims are determined.”
“I wanted to use research, facts and the Aboriginal languages of these different groups to justify why I put my motion in, all because I want to move Armidale Regional Council forward and have that acknowledgement at our Council boundaries.”
The motion was comprehensively voted down, with Councillor Widders the only vote in favour.
Voted down, but why?
At the council meeting Councillor Margaret O’Connor was vocal about her opposition to this motion, before casting her vote against it.
“Hell will freeze over before I vote, as a non-Aboriginal person, but with historic colonial family connections to Aboriginal people in another place, hell will freeze over before I agree to exclude a major nation that has claims here, and I am speaking about the Gumbainggari nation,” Councillor O’Connor told the meeting.
“This is walking into a firestorm of cultural wars, which, with great respect, I am grateful for Councillor Widders for showing us the map and the reasons, but this is way, way too complex a matter for us to get involved with at this stage.”
Councill Widders said consideration was given to all claims for this motion.
“People believe Gumbainggari country comes to Armidale, and I considered them in my motion, but I also found other research from people in that family who have different beliefs and study also contradicts the view of the same lineage,” said Councillor Widders.
“This isn’t a community issue but more of a family issue, and I use Gumbainggari language to show where their boundaries go to because a language defines the land.”
Councillor Widders said there was no substantial reason given to vote the motion down, and this outcome will be a step down for Armidale Regional Council.
“The Aboriginal people want recognition for all of the lands our Council is on, and my motion achieves this,” said Councillor Widders.
“It brings pride, ownership, it brings the community together, it brings leadership for Armidale Regional Council that this is the way the world and Australia is heading.”
The Foreshadow Motion
Recognising the motion was not going to get up, Armidale Regional Council Mayor, Sam Coupland, put forward a foreshadow motion, altering the concept but keeping the conversation going.
“The sentiments behind Councillor Widders’ motion is widely supported, I’d say overwhelming supported by all Councillors, the only issue is around process and that is about Councillors being comfortable and consulted efficiently and giving people the opportunity to make representation on what is an important and can be an emotive issue as well,” said Mayor Coupland.
“It is quite noticeable that we don’t have acknowledgement signs when you enter our LGA and we just want to make sure when we do it, we do it properly.”
Councillor Widders is questioning what fellow Councillors intend to get from the foreshadow motion that the original could not deliver.
“The foreshadow motion does the same thing I wanted to do, but it takes out the responsibility, the timeline and puts in extra work to do studies that have already been done,” said Councillor Widders.
“Are they looking to rehash the same things or are they looking for confirmation bias on what they want to believe?”
Having been a council representative for five years, Councillor Widders claims something was not right.
“To have a foreshadow motion before I even got to put my motion in was out of the ordinary.”
“It felt preempted and disrespectful,” he said.
But Mayor Coupland says there was nothing untoward.
“I could see in the lead up that not every Councillor was comfortable with the process and that is why I had the foreshadow motion ready to go just in case Councillor Widders motion didn’t get up, because I think we would have really lost an opportunity,” Mayor Coupland said.
“If his motion had failed, there was nothing else to follow, it would have been a terrible outcome.”
Despite the outcome, Councillor Widders is calling out the disrespect in the chamber meeting, with Councillors seen talking over one another, outside of standard protocol.
“It is very frustrating, and watching the video back you can see in my own actions the frustration within my face and the way I am talking,” said Councillor Widders.
“This is not new to me, and I came into this [Council] hoping it wouldn’t happen again, but this is the first time I have seen it with this round of Councillors.”
While Mayor Coupland acknowledges the disruption, he claims this is an isolated case.
“Last night [latest council meeting] was the only meeting with disruption,” said Mayor Coupland.
“The last council meeting every item went through unanimously, so there is no tension there.”
Councillor Widders is calling for professional respect.
“I am a representative of all people on the council but more so, I am there to give an Aboriginal voice to the Council and being the most experienced Aboriginal voice on the council, I would have thought there would be some professionalism on this Aboriginal based issues and the need to respect my lived experience,” said Councillor Widders.
“They basically patronised me saying even though you have all of this experience, we know better, and we aren’t going to listen to you and here is a motion that looks and sounds like we are doing something, but we really aren’t doing anything.”
Where to from now?
With no timeline or discussion on who, what, where and when for the foreshadow motion, it is unclear where to from here.
“I feel embarrassed on where we are at the moment with that motion,” said Councillor Widders.
“We pride ourselves on being a progressive area, but it seems we are not.”
“At the start of each Council meeting we do an acknowledgement of country, and we say a line of we pay our respects to elders past, present and emerging, and I don’t feel comfortable sitting in that council chamber anymore, with that group, after the council meeting’s effort with those words being said.”
Council meeting minutes and recordings are available online for public viewing.
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