Black Lives Matter leaves Australia grappling with troubled past

Demonstrators at a Black Lives Matter protest last week in Perth, Australia, in solidarity with US protesters. They were also demanding an end to Aboriginal deaths in custody. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Demonstrators at a Black Lives Matter protest last week in Perth, Australia, in solidarity with US protesters. They were also demanding an end to Aboriginal deaths in custody.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

In the midst of recent anti-racism protests in Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison controversially suggested that concerns about the legacy of historical and racial injustice in the United States do not necessarily apply in Australia.

"There was no slavery in Australia," he told 2GB Radio.

But in reality, as Mr Morrison later admitted, there was slavery in Australia.

More than 60,000 southern Pacific islanders were brought as slaves to work in Queensland's sugar plantations between 1863 and 1904. The islanders were transported on more than 700 ocean voyages. About 15,000 died in the plantations. Aboriginal Australians were also forced to work as slaves in the cattle and pearling industry.

Indeed, after Mr Morrison's slavery comments, descendants of the South Sea Islander slaves invited him to travel to Queensland for a meeting.

Mr Moe Toraga, who was born in Fiji and now lives in the Queensland town of Bundaberg, said the evidence of the slave trade could be seen in the unmarked graves which still lie in former plantations across north-east Australia.

"I'm really gobsmacked that in the midst of all this civil movement at the moment (Mr Morrison) came out with this," Mr Toraga told ABC News. "I'd like to see him come up here... sit with the South Sea Islander elders to hear their stories and how it still affects them."

Mr Morrison later qualified his comment and apologised, saying his remarks about the absence of slavery referred to the original British colony of New South Wales.

"My comments were not intended to give offence," he said. "This is not about getting into the history wars... I acknowledge there have been all sorts of hideous practices that have taken place."

But the incident reflected the ongoing debate in Australia about the need to grapple with some of the darker episodes of its past and to address the ongoing inequalities which are still experienced by Aboriginal Australians.

The enslavement of the South Sea islanders, for instance, remains a relatively unknown feature of Australian history.

A prominent Aboriginal leader, Mr Mick Gooda, accused the Prime Minister of "whitewashing" the nation's history.

"To say there was no slavery in this country is wilful blindness and a continuation of the myths about Australia, and a continuation of the denial of what happened here," he told The Australian newspaper.

Since protests broke out in the US following the police killing last month of African American George Floyd, solidarity rallies have been held across Australia to demand racial equality. Tens of thousands of people have attended.

In Australia, a disproportionate number of Aboriginal people are in jail, live in poverty and face poor health outcomes. The average life expectancy of indigenous Australians is about eight years less than that of non-indigenous Australians.

But the country's ruling coalition has been critical of the recent protests, saying they violated Australia's measures to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mr Morrison acknowledged there were legitimate issues about the high numbers of deaths of Aborigines in custody but said the protests had been "hijacked by... noise-makers who just want to make an attack on Australia and its society".

Australia has been winding back its Covid-19 lockdowns in recent weeks as new case numbers have fallen. The country had recorded 7,391 cases and 102 deaths as of Thursday. During the past week, Australia has had an average of 15 new daily cases, but most have been returning travellers who are in quarantine.

Protesters have insisted that their message should be heard and that they can demonstrate safely. At rallies, organisers have provided hand sanitiser and thousands of face masks.

Public Health Association Australia, which advocates for public health measures, has supported the right to hold protests, saying Black Lives Matter and Covid-19 were not "competing imperatives".

"If the same commitment made by Australians and their governments to control Covid-19 was applied to eradicating racism and improving the circumstances of our First People, Australia would be an enormously advanced nation," the association's chief executive, Mr Terry Slevin, said in a statement.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 20, 2020, with the headline 'Black Lives Matter leaves Australia grappling with troubled past'. Print Edition | Subscribe