There was warm and heartfelt praise in the Victorian Parliament from all sides this week on the condolence motion for the Hon. Fiona Richardson MP who died last month. The leader of the Opposition, Mathew Guy, drew attention to her efforts to build “bridges” as the State’s first Minister for the Prevention of Family Violence:
She sought to build bridges to educate people about family violence, its impact and its cost, and she sought to build bridges in our community by bravely talking about her own experience with the scourge with her family on Australian Story.
Mr Guy used the “bridges” metaphor to suggest naming the new bridge currently under construction on the Chandler Highway in inner Melbourne in her honour, as “a small token of appreciation saying that our state will not forget”.
I’m not questioning Ms Richardson’s personal worthiness or Mr Guy’s sincerity, but this isn’t a good idea for a number of reasons.
There are plenty of examples of infrastructure named after politicians, e.g. Bolte Bridge, Cahill Expressway. That’s expected as names reflect the interests of those in power at the time. It means though that there are fewer examples of pubic works works named after others. This convention crowds out recognition of worthy individuals from other walks of life whose contribution to society is at least as laudable and not half as contentious.
The recent brouhaha over statues in the US and Australia shows how fraught honouring any individuals by naming public places after them can be. In a world where even Mother Theresa has feet of clay and the failings of the royals are continuously and forensically documented, there’s no one who mightn’t be beyond criticism as community views change over time.
The risks associated with people are amplified many times over in the case of politicians. There’s great potential for them to be divisive figures because they’re prominent, they’re vocal, and they’re necessarily associated with a particular set of values that isn’t shared by everyone.
Politicians have an incentive to use their power and influence to obtain naming rights, not so much perhaps for themselves but to curry political favour with others. The current controversy over “jobs for the boys/girls” in the Turnbull Government also highlights the scope for institutionalised patronage and cronyism in politics (see Too many heads in the trough).
Not that it’s necessary for a bridge to even have a name; they don’t need labels to aid navigation like a railway station does. There are plenty in my neck of the woods that, according to Google Maps, don’t have a name, like this one and this one. The existing bridge over the Eastern Freeway on the Chandler Highway – which is 200 metres from the new one under construction – doesn’t seem to have one either. Nor, as far as I’m aware, is there any plan to name all the new road/rail bridges being constructed as part of the Government’s program of removing 50 level crossings.
But maybe we’re missing something by not naming more landmarks? Perhaps a more liberal approach to names would add to the richness and interest of the city. If so, we should avoid naming them after people, especially politicians. There are better options that could enhance the character of the city e.g. indigenous place names.