The greatest stain on the Australian psyche is the unfinished business of Aboriginal reconciliation and the inherent discrimination many Indigenous people and communities still face. But for the key institutions of politics, law, police and media, reconciliation is a forgotten business where many structural impediments still exist and make it almost impossible for any meaningful change.
For sure, many of these institutions have reconciliation action plans, statements of diversity and make all the right noises about ‘commitments’ to advancing Aboriginal interests. But in most cases, these are perfunctory actions that assuage the guilt of authoritarian institutions that are more concerned about perpetuating the appearance of reconciliation, rather than implementing the real actions that could enable significant social change.
And the real reason behind the lack of action by these key institutions? In reality, for them, black lives don’t matter.
Political parties have long realised Indigenous people are not a substantial voting bloc that can make a difference to election results. It explains why Labor promises much about improving the lives of Aboriginal people, but delivers little when it sits in government.
It also explains why the Liberal–National Party can afford to be openly hostile towards Indigenous groups, make significant cutbacks to frontline services – $500 million in 2013 – knock back constitutional recognition at whim, and not lose political skin over it. Electorally, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up 3.3 per cent of the population; politically, very few people are prepared to change their votes primarily based on Indigenous issues.
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Of course, there is a substantial number of non-Indigenous people promoting reconciliation as a political cause, and have a strong desire to alleviate and correct the errors of Australian history. In 2000, 250,000 people walked across Sydney Harbour Bridge to show their support for reconciliation. According to polling from 2019, a clear majority of the Australian community supports a treaty, constitutional recognition, and actions that will advance reconciliation with Indigenous people.
Thousands of people – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – attended Black Lives Matter rallies, defying coronavirus restrictions to show their support, and AFL footballers were seen ‘taking the knee’ prior to bounce down last weekend, as a sign of solidarity.
But little progress will be made if one side of politics is openly hostile and dismissive of the political and social interests of Indigenous people; and the other side afraid of making courageous decisions, for fear of being dragged down into a quagmire by conservative and hostile right-wing media.
And for the other significant institutions controlled by the political system – law and police – they suffer from the same stagnation and cowardice. A fear of change, and a fear of ceding control. And a collection of systems that are almost impossible to change.
There’s a great deal to unpack from recent events. The catalyst for the Black Lives Matter rallies and protests in the US was the murder of George Floyd on 25 May by a Minneapolis police officer. Arrested after using a counterfeit $20 bill in a local convenience store, Floyd was then held down by police for over eight minutes until he asphyxiated.
Over the next week, there were rallies and protests against police brutality and black incarceration, primarily in the US, but spread to around 400 cities internationally, including a day of national action across Australia on 7 June.
In the lead up to the Australian rallies and protests, the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, issued a warning that if these went ahead, “the whole track back to economic recovery [would be] at risk” and the movement was “taken over by other much more politically-driven left-wing agendas, which are seeking to take advantage of these opportunities to push their political causes”. In addition, Morrison called on NSW Police to charge protesters.
Other ministers from the government were in unison with Morrison’s sentiments. In an obvious pitch to a mainstream and disengaged audience, they fuelled the issue further by claiming it was disturbing that ANZAC Day ceremonies had been cancelled, and funerals had been limited during the coronavirus lockdown, yet protestors were taking to the streets, risking lives and risking the economy.
Finance Minister Mathias Corman also suggested protestors were “incredibly self-indulgent” and “reckless,” while Queensland Liberal–National MP, Andrew Laming, called for the removal of JobSeeker and welfare payments from participants.
But different causes bring out different responses, especially from conservative governments. From 9 May onwards, there was a wide range of protests across Australia hosted by fringe conspiracy groups, including the radical QAnon and anti-vaccination groups, calling for, among many other issues, an end to the lockdown, social distancing measures, self-isolation, tracking apps and 5G towers, and, bizarrely, the arrest of Microsoft founder, Bill Gates.
There were many protests held over a three-week period in major cities and regional towns but the main events held in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane drew crowds of between 500 and 2,000.
When asked about whether he had any concerns about these numbers, Morrison deflected any concerns and offered sympathy: “I understand people’s frustration, with the anxieties and the frustrations that they’re feeling; it’s a free country. People can make their protests and make their voices heard.”
Morrison made no warnings about how the anti-vax/5G/lockdown protests would place ‘economic recovery at risk,’ or if anyone was ‘taken over by politically-driven agendas’. There were no calls for the police forces in those respective states to charge protestors or for Centrelink to remove JobSeeker benefits. And there were certainly no requests to the Supreme Court to classify them as illegal, as was the case for the Black Lives Matter rallies.
The anti-vax/5G/lockdown protests over several weeks received substantial media coverage, but no one in the media sought to query the Prime Minister or anyone from the government about the lapse in social distancing requirements, or whether there were any public health risks.
And for a full week after the Black Lives Matter rallies, no one in the mainstream media joined the obvious dots or even asked the obvious question: why were the anti-vax/5G/lockdown protests a democratic example of ‘a free country,’ yet Black Lives Matter rallies were ‘self-indulgent,’ placing economic recovery at risk, dangerous and needing the full force of the law and police to close them down?
The answer is simple, and the primary issue is skin colour: the anti-vax/5G/lockdown issues are predominantly white right-wing conservative niche causes; Black Lives Matter is a black social justice left-wing cause. And just like this Liberal–National government, the media clearly identifies and delineates according to skin colour, its own inherent subconscious biases and reflects the world through a middle-class prism.
How the media encourages racism
The Insiders is the ABC’s flagship political analysis program, broadcast every Sunday morning as a wrap-up of the weekly events in politics. It first aired in 2001 and, since that time, there have been nearly 800 episodes broadcast over a 20-year period. The number of Indigenous ‘insider’ journalists who have appeared as panellists? Zero. Absolutely none.
On the morning of 7 June, an all-white Insiders panel debated the relevance of the Black White Matters rallies to Aboriginal people and, after a significant public backlash – which pointed out the obvious problem evident to everyone except for the ABC – the ABC finally acted.
Last weekend, for the first time ever, the Insiders panel included an Indigenous journalist, Bridget Brennan. I’ve watched her career over the past few years, as National Indigenous Affairs and Europe correspondent for the ABC – Brennan is an excellent journalist, articulate and clearly on top of the political issues of the day. There are many other excellent Indigenous journalists working for NITV, New Matilda, Koori Mail; they are out there, and they are easy to find.
Why has it taken 20 years and almost 800 episodes for an Indigenous journalist to appear on the Insiders panel? And why did it take a public backlash for the ABC to realise a panel comprising one white Anglo man, one white Anglo woman, and one Greek–Australian women might not be the best way to convey an Indigenous perspective?
It’s the inherent biases at play. If politics is understood to be the domain of the white person, why would ABC producers even think about inviting a black person to interpret white persons’ business, even if the topic is as black as Black Lives Matter? For sure, Insiders has had the few Indigenous parliamentarians as guests, but that’s where it’s ended. The real test will be if Brennan – or any other Indigenous journalist – is invited to participate on Insiders to discuss other political issues of the day, not just at the time when Indigenous issues are prominent.
Yes, the ABC does have a dedicated Indigenous Programs Unit but aside from those voices speaking to their own, how many Indigenous or non-Anglo people are executive producers of the ABC’s many radio and television programs?
There are over 4,900 employees within the ABC, yet only 103 are Indigenous, and most of these are from within the Indigenous Programs Unit. This is 2.1 per cent of its overall staff, yet Indigenous people make up 3.3 per cent of the overall population.
The ABC should be doing far better in its presentation and employment of Indigenous people. It’s an embarrassment that it’s so low but in other mainstream media corporations, it’s far worse. For Seven West Media, Network 10, Nine Network and News Corporation, black lives don’t seem to matter at all, unless it’s a negative stereotypical news item used to boost ratings.
In the 2019 Seven West Media Annual Report, there are two references to ‘Indigenous,’ and they both refer to ‘incarceration’ and ‘football’. In the 80 or so photographs shown in the report, there is one darker-skinned chef and one person of Asian origin, and the only other image of anything remotely dark-skinned is a brown racehorse and one Sesame Street Muppet.
It’s a festival of whiteness, which explains why Seven West Media constantly invites One Nation’s Pauline Hanson to make regular and prominent guest appearances, and provides race-baiting entertainment on its Sunrise morning program.
It’s a similar story at Nine Network: no mention at all of Indigenous people in their 2019 annual report, although there are two photographs of dark-skinned people, and one person of Asian origin.
The Network 10 annual report: again, the only person of dark skin is Waleed Aly, but as one of their leading personalities, he would have been hard to ignore. And, of course, no reference to Aboriginal people, or what the corporation might be doing to improve Indigenous participation.
This is common within the mainstream media. And a media industry that ignores people of difference and Indigenous people is likely to reinforce its own prejudice and its own ignorance. A privileged middle-class white news journalist is unlikely to understand the issues of racism in Australia if they’ve never experienced it themselves and are a product of the white establishment that put them there in the first place.
Network 10 produces an off-beat news program which prides itself on ‘news presented differently,’ The Project. Last week, the panellists interviewed the actor/writer Nakkiah Lui, and academic/activist, Marcia Langton, who both talked about their experiences living in Australia as Indigenous people, the endemic and institutionalised racism that exists in Australia, deaths in custody and why the Black Lives Matter rallies were important as a focus on these many issues.
Two of the presenters, Peter Helliar and Carrie Bickmore, listened intently but seemed genuinely shocked by what they were hearing, as if they knew nothing about deaths in custody or race relations in Australia. To their credit, they thanked Lui and Langton for providing their perspectives and ‘letting them know’ about these issues, but the encounter left me wondering: the demographics for The Project are the 20–40 year age group, and the presenters themselves are in their late-30s, early-40s.
Surely Helliar and Bickmore should be more aware of these issues? Surely the teaching of Australian history had moved on from the inane and vainglorious representations of white explorers valiantly defeating the native savages, so typical of high school history education across Australia up until the 1970s.
Had they been so immersed in the pop culture of the past twenty years they haven’t bothered to investigate Aboriginal deaths in custody, or racism as an issue for many people in the Australian community? After all, they are news presenters presenting news differently but, perhaps, not differently enough.
The ‘us and them’ cancel culture
There are many examples of duplicity within Australian institutions when it comes to Indigenous issues. Just a few weeks ago, the mining company Rio Tinto detonated a 46,000-year-old Indigenous cultural site in the Pilbara’s Juukan Gorge – during NAIDOC week – even though they had been aware of the site for at least seven years, and were advised by the local Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura groups about the significance of the site.
It’s instructive to compare the destruction of this site in Juukan Gorge with the recent protection of monuments of Captain James Cook. During the recent rallies to raise awareness of Indigenous deaths in custody, a statue of Cook in Sydney’s Hyde Park was protected by 20 police officers, including four on horseback, to ward off any potential desecration of the statue. Cook’s Cottage in Melbourne is currently under 24-hour police guard. It’s a cottage transported from England, and it’s a dwelling Cook never actually lived in.
On one hand, we see the wanton and – in my opinion – deliberate destruction of an Aboriginal sacred site by a multinational corporation, with virtually no repercussions, but simulacra of oppression and a house Captain Cook never actually lived is afforded 24-hour protection.
Both the Aboriginal site and Captain Cook are worthy and sacred symbols for different sectors of the Australian community, but why is only the one symbol always afforded the protection by the state and revered in a much greater level than the other?
And why is achieving equilibrium of history viewed within such a negative frame? The recent proliferation of ‘cancel culture’ is not a new development: Aboriginal culture and heritage has been destroyed, cancelled and ignored for well over 230 years.
Removal of statues and other monuments are not the ‘vexed issue’ the media keeps telling us. Very few people cried or resisted removing the statues and busts of despots and dictators after the fall of communism across Eastern Europe in 1989. Even fewer were so concerned about the large statues of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein roped down by angry protesters in the streets of Baghdad in 2003.
Far from being ‘vexed,’ it’s an easy decision: remove all the offensive colonial statues and place them in an outdoor museum, similar to Memento Park in the Hungarian capital of Budapest, which houses old communist and brutalist statues. Hidden on the outskirts of the city, it’s part history, part kitsch, it’s out of sight and out of mind. It’s there for those who want to see, and if such a theme park was ever developed somewhere in Australia, it could be a small contribution to a post-COVID-19 economic recovery program.
And if the removal of these offensive colonial statues isn’t acceptable to the community, perhaps the placement of alternative statues or ‘counter-memorials’ placed upon existing statues would be acceptable.
Why not house a statue of the Aboriginal warrior Pemulwuy next to Cook’s statue in Hyde Park? Or placing a statue of the Aboriginal resistance fighter, Jandamarra, next to Governor Frederick Broome in the Kimberley region of Western Australia?
Or a plaque at the base of existing colonial statues reminding the viewer that Australia’s history is disputed and there are other versions of black history that have never been effectively presented?
One such example exists on the Explorer’s Monument in Fremantle. Created in 1913 in the memory of three white explorers who were killed by Aboriginal people at Le Grange Bay in northern Western Australia – Frederick Panter, James Harding and William Goldwyer – the monument completely varnishes over the reality of these attacks.
The original plaque mentions they were “murdered” by “treacherous natives” but overlooks the three were well-armed and shot and killed over 20 Aboriginal people, or the right for Aboriginal people to defend themselves while under attack.
In 1994, a plaque correcting this history was placed at the lower part of the monument by “people who found the monument before you offensive,” and indicated the original monument described the events at La Grange Bay from one perspective only.
If we’re a society so enamoured with statues and monuments, a shared space or an opportunity to rectify history is a positive step in the right direction. But it’s not so much the statues and monuments that need reform: these are collections of bronze and stone masonry that feel the whispers of wind and rain on their features, and provide resting spots for assorted birdlife, so they do have some use. Whether they stay or go can be debated by the many historical societies from around Australia.
The key issue is that none of the Australian institutions that created those statues in the first instance are fit for purpose.
Our institutions need change
The current Australian political system was developed by men with long beards and wide moustaches from the nineteenth century who imagined an ‘Australia for the White Man,’ and it’s a system no longer relevant for the needs of a country far removed from the federation world of 120 years ago.
But as inept and inappropriate as the system is, it’s the system we currently have and its ineptness permeates through to law, policing and the media. Modern Australia is trying to function on a system built for an antiquated time. It’s a system that needs to change.
Where do we go from here? For a start, the institution of politics is the sector that needs to take reconciliation far more seriously, starting from the branch level of all political parties, dedicated positions for Indigenous people within executives and working towards a representational model that removes barriers for Indigenous people – and other peoples currently excluded by Parliament.
Labor instigated a proactive female quota of 35 per cent in 1994 (lifted to 40 per cent in 2002). While it hasn’t achieved parity, its current level of female MPs is 44 per cent, far ahead of the Liberal–National Party, which has a current level of only 21 per cent. Based on these figures, it’s evident political parties will not make positive change of their own volition, but the Labor quota system shows that it can be achieved.
Mixed-member parliamentary systems in Germany and New Zealand result in a more inclusive parliament, and those countries are regarded as the best and most responsive democracies in the world. There are solutions out there, if the will does exist.
Politics, the media, law and the police need to change radically, and improvements for Indigenous people – if any – will continue to move at a glacial pace, until radical change is made. It’s no longer acceptable for these institutions for hold up their reconciliation action plans or their statements of diversity, like self-congratulation trophies of their earnest intentions, if nothing changes in terms of representation in positions of real power.
And if nothing changes in these positions of real power, these institutions will continue to define an entire culture through criminalisation and negative stereotypes and after each cycle of public awareness drops off, the situation just reverts to the way it has always been.
It’s not acceptable for the NSW Police Commissioner, Mick Fuller, to claim a police officer was ‘just having a bad day’ when he smashed the face of a 17-year-old Indigenous boy into the pavement of a Redfern park, and continue to gaslight the media by saying “most of the community” wouldn’t want the police officer sacked.
It’s not acceptable for Morrison, as Prime Minister, to claim “there was no slavery in Australia,” when there is clear recorded historical evidence to dispute this.
Key events influence the public mood momentarily, such as the murder of David Gundy by police in Redfern in 1989; the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991; the Mabo v Queensland decision from 1992 which overturned the legal concept of terra nullius in Australia; Paul Keating’s Redfern Park Speech; the Reconciliation Walks in 2000; Kevin Rudd’s Apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples in 2008; and now, the Black Lives Matter and deaths in custody protests.
These events prick the national conscience and lead to calls for further actions, but then recede into the distance until the next event of national significance occurs. And then we go through the entire repertoire again. More protests. More calls for action. More reconciliation action plans.
But until there are significant reforms in the areas where the real power is held, in reality, very little is going to change. It really won’t. And until that time, black lives won’t really matter either.
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