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A controversial statue of a 19th century Australian politician is one step closer to being torn down after a heritage council determined the impacts on the “historic cultural significance” of the area would be “acceptable”.

The 2.5-metre statue of former Tasmanian Premier William Crowther was erected in Hobart’s Franklin Square in 1889, four years after his death on April 12, 1885.

Crowther, born in the Netherlands, was a surgeon and businessman involved in various colonial enterprises, who briefly served as 14th Premier of Tasmania from 1878 to 1879.

But he is more widely remembered for mutilating the remains of Tasmanian Aboriginal man William Lanne in 1869, cutting off his head and sending the skull to the Royal College of Surgeons in London.

A report to council last year noted Tasmanian Aboriginal people had expressed their pain about the continued presence of the statue and there have been calls for its removal for several years.

Hobart City Council voted 7-4 to remove the statue at a historic meeting last August.

On Wednesday, Tasmanian Heritage Council gave its approval for the statue to be removed, The Mercury reports.

Permission was needed as Franklin Square is on the Tasmanian Heritage Register.

“The Heritage Council considers the historic cultural heritage significance of the place — in this case, the whole of Franklin Square,” Tasmanian Heritage Council chair Brett Torossi said.

“After careful deliberation, has determined by majority decision, that the impacts on the historic cultural significance of the Franklin Square that would result from removal the statue are acceptable.”

To minimise the impacts, the Heritage Council has imposed several conditions “relating to the removal and storage of the statue, and the conservation and maintenance of the plinth that remains”.

“The conditions provide protections for the statue and the remaining heritage fabric of Franklin Square,” Ms Torossi said.

The next step is for Hobart City planning authority to issue a permit for the statue’s removal.

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd in May 2020, a number of statues of historical figures were torn down in western countries.

Crowther’s statue was vandalised with red paint and draped in the Aboriginal flag in 2021.

Lord Mayor Anna Reynolds told the meeting last August that the decision “does not change history”.

“The records, the books, the articles, the stories all remain unchanged,” she said.

“We don’t want to celebrate a time in our history when scientists and doctors wanted to prove theories of European superiority [and] wanted to rank people by their race. It was an appalling tradition.”

Alderman Marti Zucco, who voted no, called for the public to be given a say on the removal at the next election, suggesting members of the community and some Aboriginal groups had not been consulted.

“That way we can actually see what the community of Hobart really wants,” he told the meeting.

His amendment was voted down.

Alderman Simon Behrakis, who also voted against the removal, said history should be preserved “warts and all”.

“That statue didn’t go up celebrating the horrors and appalling acts committed,” he said. “It celebrated a man’s contribution to the state. Removing the statue does sanitise history. We don’t learn anything from history if it is hidden away.”

But councillor Jax Fox, who uses they/them pronouns, said it was “such a small step to reconciliation”. “To say we’re committed to reconciliation and not do these little things is just ridiculous,” Fox said.

Councillor Dr Zelinda Sherlock gave an impassioned speech in support of the removal.

“Alderman Behrakis said we don’t learn from history by hiding it away, and while in essence I suppose that is certainly true, when we apply it to this particular context, I think the most important thing that the Royal Society of Tasmania said in their deputation was removing it was actually advancing knowledge,” she said.

“We can actually be talking about this, whether it’s there or it’s not there, we don’t take away history. It will always be there, it’s a fact. Removing the statue will not take that away, in fact it might actually help us to talk about these various things.”

She added, “We’re not destroying anything … it’s a partial removal.”

Cr Sherlock mocked “chicken little” fears that “if we take this statue down we will be taking another statue down around the city”.

“This particular statue is completely different to any other statue here in the city, simply because of the miasma that surrounds the legacy of Crowther,” she said.

“This is the zeitgeist of our times, whether it be globally, nationally or here in the context of Tasmania. The zeitgeist of our times demands that we talk about and we challenge systemic racism, we talk about and we challenge the structures of oppression, dispossession, colonialisation.”

Cr Sherlock stressed that “times have moved on” and described some of the other councillors’ comments as “very antiquated”.

“I think we must remember that sovereignty was never ceded and this was and always will be Aboriginal land,” she concluded, to applause from members of the public.

frank.chung@news.com.au

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