Tasmanian Treasurer Peter Gutwein steps in over request to remove ‘offensive’ plaque

Treasurer Peter Gutwein has quashed plans to remove a commemorative plaque from a Launceston building.

A development application from the Department of Treasury was advertised this week to remove a plaque from the government-owned building, which commemorates Dutch explorer Abel Tasman’s discovery of Tasmania.

The application followed a complaint from the Tasmanian Aboriginal Corporation to the City of Launceston council, which said the plaque presented “a white view of the history of Tasmania”.

However Mr Gutwein has stepped in, asking for his department’s application be withdrawn, on the basis that it was not government policy to remove historical markers or plaques.

“I have tremendous respect for the Tasmanian Aboriginal community and acknowledge the terrible injustices they have suffered, but we need to acknowledge the facts of our history, not shy away or remove them,” Mr Gutwein said.

The tablet was placed on the heritage building at 55 St John Street in 1942 by the then-government, and the premises is still in use today as an Office of the Premier.

In a letter to Launceston mayor Albert van Zetten, TAC acting chief executive Lisa Coulson said the wording of the plaque was offensive to Tasmanian Aboriginal people.

The plaque states: “This tablet … commemorates the discovery of the island by Hon. Abel Tasman in the year 1642”.

Ms Coulson said the use of the word “discover” in this context could “easily be interpreted” as meaning Tasmania was not known about, or inhabited, by people prior to Abel Tasman’s arrival.

The plaque could suggest the original inhabitants of Tasmania were not considered to be people, in the same way that Abel Tasman was considered a person, she wrote in the letter.

“When Abel Tasman arrived here in 1642, Aborigines were here, and had been here for well over 40,000 years,” Ms Coulson said.

“We urge you to have the plaque removed so that Launceston can be a city that is inclusive of its proud Aboriginal population, and for its betterment, generally.”

Initially, Treasury Department secretary Tony Ferrall wrote to the council in support of the request and said the plaque did not specifically relate to the history of Launceston.

He said it was considered to have “no identifiable historic significance to Launceston” or to the building.

The removal of the plaque would not contradict the council’s planning scheme relating to heritage places, Mr Ferrall said.

“In my opinion the removal of the plaque would not be detrimental to the streetscape or to the exterior of the building facade,” he said.