Call to update colonial statues in Australia

There were calls to add plaques to monuments acknowledging Australia's indigenous history after a statue of Captain James Cook was defaced in Sydney's Hyde Park.
There were calls to add plaques to monuments acknowledging Australia's indigenous history after a statue of Captain James Cook was defaced in Sydney's Hyde Park.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

SYDNEY • A war of words over colonial-era statues in Australia has taken a further twist, with calls for the addition of plaques acknowledging the nation's indigenous history.

Debate over statues of early British explorers, including Captain James Cook, was sparked after several monuments were defaced following protests in the United States against Confederate statues that hark back to the nation's slave-owning past.

In Australia, the focus has been on the role of Aborigines, whose cultures stretch back tens of thousands of years before Cook's arrival in 1770, and the colonisers' treatment of indigenous people.

The controversy ratcheted up a notch over the weekend when vandals defaced Sydney statues, including one of Cook with the words "change the date" in reference to Australia Day, which marks the 1788 arrival of the British First Fleet.

The vandalism sparked a furious response from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who again brushed off calls for the statues to be torn down.

"It is also part of a deeply disturbing and totalitarian campaign to not just challenge our history but to deny it and obliterate it," he said. "This is what Stalin did. When he fell out with his henchmen, he didn't just execute them, they were removed from all official photographs."

A different solution was instead raised by opposition Labor MP Linda Burney - the first Aboriginal woman elected to the Lower House of Parliament - who called for Cook's plaque to be updated to reflect that he had not "discovered" the nation.

She was backed by Labor opposition leader Bill Shorten, who said the country "doesn't need to have an 'us and them' debate between Aboriginal Australians and other Australians". He said: "So an additional plaque on Captain Cook's statue is fine by me."

But Mr Turnbull said yesterday such changes were "basically rewarding vandalism", and the statues had value in providing one perspective of Australian history.

"A free society does not burn old books, it writes new ones. It doesn't tear down old statues, it builds new ones," he told Adelaide commercial radio station FIVEaa.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 30, 2017, with the headline 'Call to update colonial statues in Australia'. Print Edition | Subscribe