Stirling drops Noongar name plan

A young Gordon Stephenson. Image from the Gordon Stephenson papers, University of Liverpool Library.

AFTER more than a year of searching for an Aboriginal name for the new extension of Stephenson Avenue, it will be named “Stephenson Avenue”.

The Stephenson Avenue extension linking the road to the Mitchell Freeway and then further north to Cedric Street is the centrepiece of Stirling council’s plan to become a second city centre of Perth. 

In December 2020 mayor Mark Irwin won council’s support for his motion to find a Noongar name for the whole of Stephenson Avenue and its new extension, to “demonstrate council’s commitment to reconciliation”. 

He said: “Stephenson Avenue is the main road unlocking this land potential and future CBD developments. 

“Celebrating Stirling’s rich Aboriginal history and culture by renaming the main road will go towards demonstrating Council’s strong commitment to reconciliation. It will serve as a constant reminder that reconciliation is an ongoing process for all in the community.”

They researched suitable names and consulted the Reconciliation Action Plan Working Group, Landgate, and the intergovernmental project steering group, and came up with three names: 

• Koortaboodjar Avenue, after the Noongar word for heartland;

• Yellagonga Avenue, named for the Whadjuk Noongar leader and peacemaker who hunted in the area at the time of colonisation;

 • Wandjoo Avenue, after the Noongar word for welcome. 

But at the next council meeting in February 2021 former councillor Paul Collins tore into the renaming plan. 

He said once a road was named in a person’s honour, it was an insult to remove the name in the absence of wrongdoing, and it would “dishonour Professor Gordon Stephenson”, who co-wrote with Alastair Hepburn the 1955 Plan for the Metropolitan Region of Perth and Fremantle which is still influential in city planning today.

Backlash

That backlash seemed to put councillors off the plan: The idea was informally killed off behind closed doors at a secret elected members’ workshop held in May, and made official with a public vote from councillors this week. Even Mr Irwin abandoned the plan. 

Giving just the yet-to-be-built extension a Noongar name has also been canned, despite support from Landgate, the Project Steering Group and the RAP working group. A staff report to councillors says renaming just the extension could lead to “confusion for road users”.

Instead they’ll keep the three Noongar names on file for other spots in the new Stirling city centre, “such as public plazas and gardens”. 

Earlier this year Mr Collins also led the charge against now-shelved plans to rename the City of Stirling, which is named after Governor James Stirling who led the Pinjarra Massacre.

No schemer

COMPARED to governor Stirling, Gordon Stephenson is an uncontroversial figure to anyone except 1950s-era McCarthyists. 

Born into a working class Liverpool family in 1908, he had socialist leanings and visited the Soviet Union in the 1930s out of an interest in their large infrastructure projects, and when returning to Liverpool he joined a relief committee for refugees fleeing German fascism. 

Historians Jenny Gregory and David L.A. Gordon wrote that Stephenson believed rational town planning was the key to building a just post-war society. 

After co-writing the 1955 plan for Perth he attempted to take up a job at MIT. 

But his socialist sympathies and trips to the Soviet Union saw him fall under suspicion by McCarthyists and he was unable to secure the job. He’d eventually return to Perth and pen plans for Midland and Joondalup town centres and plan the Murdoch university and the expansion of UWA, and lived here until his death in 1997. 

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