In a later 3AW interview he said the “very high level of Indigenous incarceration” was a genuine issue, but the Member for Cook — the electorate named after Captain James Cook, whose legacy is currently under review in the United Kingdom — wanted Australians to focus on that rather than broaden the protests into other agendas.
“What has begun with, you know, very important issues and important issues here in Australia, is now getting hijacked by the usual sort of band of noise-makers who just want to make an attack on Australia and its society,” he said yesterday.
Mr Morrison’s commitment to Cook’s place in Australian history was proven by his decision as Treasurer to approve $50 million to revamp the site of the Endeavour’s landing at Botany Bay.
University of Queensland historian Clive Moore said Mr Morrison’s claim was “strictly speaking” correct in what was an ongoing debate among historians over the definition of slavery, but urged the Prime Minister to choose his words more carefully.
“It’s a fraught area of history,” he said. “The Australian, New South Wales and Queensland governments have acknowledged that the Pacific labour trade was unsavoury at best and slave-like at worst.
“Add to that First Nation Australians who were held against their wills and not paid for work, or paid in rations and once more we hit up against definitions of what is slavery. The Prime Minister would do better to use his words more carefully.”
At least 60,000 South Sea Islanders were taken, often against their will, to Australia from 1857 to 1908, where they worked largely in cotton, sugar and pastoral industries in a process named blackbirding.
A figurehead of the country’s South Sea Islander community has called for legendary civil rights activist Faith Bandler, whose father was blackbirded and who was central to the 1967 referendum on Indigenous Australians, to be memorialised in bronze.
“She was a descendant of slavery,” said Emelda Davis, chair of Australian South Sea Islanders – Port Jackson, the ethnic group’s national body. “She changed the face of Australia through that 1967 ‘yes’ vote.”
Protesters in the United States and the United Kingdom have pulled down statues of confederate figures and slave owners, a trend edging towards Australia after Black Lives Matter demonstrators called for the removal of statues of Lachlan Macquarie and Captain Cook’s statues in Sydney and Melbourne, which have been vandalised previously.
Ms Davis called for a statue of Ms Bandler to be commissioned in Pyrmont, the location of the wharf at which unrefined sugar cane product farmed by blackbirded South Sea Islanders would enter Sydney.
“Why is there not a monument down here that recognises her?”
Professor Moore said the late Ms Bandler, who campaigned for equal pay for Indigenous workers from 1945 and who organised popular petitions and meetings in the lead up to the 1967 referendum, was one of Australia’s most significant 20th century figures.
“I reckon Faith’s one of the 10 greatest Australians of the 20th century,” Professor Moore said. “She was the face of the referendum in 1967. If you look at the footage you will see Faith everywhere.”
“Commemorating her would be a very sensible thing to do. She’s the greatest South Sea Islander hands down,” he added. “A statue of Faith in a sensible place would be important to South Sea Islanders.”
Shadow minister for Indigenous affairs Linda Burney earlier urged Mr Morrison to seek “a greater understanding and awareness of our nation’s history,” and author Bruce Pascoe labelled his remarks “denial” of Australia’s history.
Max is a journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.