A fiery debate between councillors has resulted in consideration for Queanbeyan’s Showground to be listed as an Aboriginal Place.
Requested by the Ngambri Local Aboriginal Land Council to Heritage NSW, the suggested listing has been labelled a positive step towards reconciliation and recognising the long history at the Showground.
But the decision was not without controversy.
Councillor Bryce Wilson moved the motion at a recent Queanbeyan-Palerang Regional Council (QPRC) meeting, stating council should agree to the listing as long as current uses of the Showground continued “unfettered” and Heritage NSW prepared an Aboriginal Place Management Plan in “full consultation with council and other relevant stakeholders”.
He said this request was a test for the council to show its commitment to reconciliation, given the Showground’s well known importance to local Aboriginal people.
“[If we don’t], what would that say to people who are trying to walk a reconciliation journey?” he said.
“Quite frankly, it’s nothing short of 1990s tokenism.”
Cr Wilson noted while consultation with the community had not occurred yet, this proposal opened up the opportunity for consultation and showed the council’s commitment to reconciliation.
“We need to reflect on [the council’s] Reconciliation Plan, reflect on the opening at every meeting we have,” he said.
“Often it passes by, but what does it actually mean to us?”
However some councillors expressed they wanted consultation to occur before granting Heritage NSW permission to begin considering giving Queanbeyan Showground an Aboriginal Place listing.
Cr Jacqueline Ternouth said the site was already under protections as it was listed on the NSW State Heritage Register and she didn’t think it was fully understood how an Aboriginal Place listing could impact the site’s usage.
“Given the restrictions the management plan could have, I suggest we defer the proposal so we can consult fully with stakeholders,” she said.
“There does not appear to be any formal agreement between relevant stakeholders on what this means.”
Cr Mareeta Grundy also voiced her concerns that there were “too many unknowns”.
“It’s almost retrofitting consultation, which in itself undermines consultation,” she said.
These comments lead to a passionate speech from deputy mayor Esme Livermore.
She acknowledged while she was not a traditional custodian of the land, she was aware of its history and this was an issue close to her heart.
The Showground was a significant burial site, as well as a ceremonial, spiritual and meeting place. Once settlers arrived, the surviving Ngambri people used it as a major gathering, camping and corroboree ground through to the 1860s.
“Consultation should be going to the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, the traditional custodians of the lands we are on,” Cr Livermore said.
“It’s so funny to sit here and listen to people talk about car shows [held at the Showground] and everything. Well let’s throw a car show on the cemeteries and see how everyone will react to that … events happening up there every day, they’re on burial sites of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and not once does anyone give a damn about this.
“All we’re asking for is a bit of recognition …”
She said this was a chance for positive change.
“This act will recognise and protect Aboriginal cultural heritage but does not restrict the many community activities that take place at the Showground,” Cr Livermore said.
The motion was passed nine to two.
Heritage NSW would now prepare an Aboriginal Place Management Plan in consultation with the council, the Ngambri and Ngunnawal communities, the Showground Society and the community.
A Heritage NSW spokesperson said while such a declaration was primarily about acknowledgement, recognition and celebration of Aboriginal cultural heritage, it would also provide protection.
“Once land is declared as an Aboriginal Place it receives the same protection under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 as an Aboriginal object,” they said.
“That means any activities that will damage, destroy or deface the Aboriginal Place cannot be carried out unless Heritage NSW grants specific consent. Such consent can only be granted after consultation with local Aboriginal groups.”
Queanbeyan Showground’s current listing on the NSW State Heritage Register acknowledged the site as “a rare example of a place where large annual gatherings were held involving Aboriginal groups from surrounding districts and as far afield as the coast, the lower Lachlan and the Murrumbidgee Rivers.”