Push to change name of Tasmania's Batman Bridge, north of Launceston

a clock tower in front of a tree: Launceston City Council wants the Batman Bridge renamed. (ABC Northern Tasmania: Belinda King) © Provided by ABC NEWS Launceston City Council wants the Batman Bridge renamed. (ABC Northern Tasmania: Belinda King)

The Launceston City Council has thrown its support behind a growing push to rename the Batman Bridge in Tasmania's north as Aboriginal leaders call for "white-washed history" to be undone.

The bridge crossing kanamaluka/River Tamar, between the West Tamar and George Town municipalities outside of Launceston, was named after Australian grazier and explorer John Batman in the 1960s.

Known as the founder of Melbourne, people across the country have been forced to reckon with his legacy of massacring Aboriginal people in the 1800s.

In 2018, Indigenous activists in Victoria successfully campaigned for his namesake Melbourne electorate to be renamed Cooper, after Yorta Yorta activist William Cooper.

Bridge name 'inappropriate'

Now, the Launceston City Council (LCC) has voted five-three in favour of lobbying the state government to rename the bridge.

It passed a motion on Thursday acknowledging that the name of the bridge is "inappropriate for clear historical reasons".

Acting Mayor of Launceston Danny Gibson said he personally believed there needed to be a path to changing the bridge's name.

"The City of Launceston will now be following what the motion called on us to do and that is to writing to the state government and also seeking support from the councils on either side of the bridge to add their voice to the change of name," Mr Gibson said.

"We're hoping that by our council writing to the government, it will begin a process which will no doubt need to involve lots of consultation with the Tasmanian Aboriginal community."

Batman's dark past

While John Batman is perhaps best known for founding Victoria's capital, his legacy in Tasmania is a lot darker.

Historian Ian McFarlane said he was one of the key figures in the state's roving parties — groups dedicated to rounding up and capturing Tasmania's Aboriginal people.

"He was more notorious for his own words, when he admitted that two of the Aboriginal people in his group were badly wounded and they couldn't keep up with the party after capturing them and so he was obliged to shoot them in cold blood, which is murder," Mr McFarlane said.

"[Artist] John Glover summed him up pretty well, he said he was 'a rogue, cheat, thief, liar, murderer of blacks and the most violent man I've ever known', so that sums him up."

Rebecca Digney, manager of the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania, said the name of the bridge should be changed.

"It's a clear case of white-washing history, it's acknowledging somebody's achievements while completely ignoring the atrocities that they were involved in," Ms Digney said.

"Any name would be more appropriate than the namesake of a murderer." 

Pushback on push to change

Any path to a name change is long and bureaucratic — there would need to be agreement on a new name, which would have to be backed up by historical primary sources.

Then the name would have to be proposed to Tasmania's place names advisory panel, and if the new name was Aboriginal, the panel would cross-reference its thoughts with the Aboriginal and dual naming reference group.

It would also be advertised for public consultation, until the panel provides the Primary Industries Minister with a recommendation, who would give it the final green light.

The push to change the bridge's name has prompted debates about the role of history in place names, whether the history is good or bad.

Mr McFarlane disagrees with name changes.

"The idea of the past is to learn from it and the names themselves are important signposts of the past and if you remove them, you also remove ready access to the history associated with them," Mr McFarlane said.

"We've got a bridge named after Batman and that gives us a good reason to discuss him, so we can talk about his life and the reprehensible acts he's associated with."

Ms Digney disagrees.

"It's a falsehood … we've had the bridge named after John Batman for many many years and yet his atrocities haven't widely been acknowledged," Ms Digney said.

Push to change name of Tasmania's Batman Bridge, north of Launceston