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Why the statues must fall

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By any measure, such conduct is monstrous, and yet the Hyde Park statue memorialising Macquarie gives no clue to this violence. The inscription on Macquarie’s statue begins with the words, “He was a perfect gentleman, a Christian and supreme legislator of the human heart.” And Macquarie is further memorialised in colonial geography: we have both the Lachlan and Macquarie rivers, Lake Macquarie, Port Macquarie, Macquarie Island, and Macquarie Pass. In Sydney alone, there is Macquarie Street (home to the NSW Parliament no less), Macquarie Place, and the suburb of Macquarie Fields.

Mainstream politicians defend these monuments for their educational value. Claiming they are “part of our history”, there is “much to be proud of”, and the view, espoused by former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull in 2017, that “trying to edit our history is wrong”. In recent days, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has told people calling for the removal of Captain James Cook statues to “get a grip”, arguing that, in his time, Cook was “one of the most enlightened people”.

None of these arguments holds weight. History is edited all the time. What some may have considered enlightened more than 200 years ago can be reckoned with as atrocity today.

It is certainly not the case that, as a nation, we hold all history in the same high regard. In contrast to the reverence shown towards statues of white colonists, the few public memorials to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history have been repeatedly vandalised. In Perth, for example, the statue of Noongar resistance fighter Yagan, whose head was sent to England after he was killed by white settlers in 1833, was itself beheaded when vandals took to it with an angle grinder in 1997. The statue was repaired, but was later beheaded again.

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More galling still is the recent destruction of 46,000-year-old caves in the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara by mining corporation Rio Tinto. There, 40,000-year-old artefacts and objects sacred to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura People were destroyed in pursuit of resources and profit. While Reconciliation Australia felt moved to “suspend” Rio Tinto from its Reconciliation Action Plan program, the Prime Minister had remarkably little to say about the destruction. Asked for his views days after the caves had been destroyed, Morrison replied, “I haven’t got a brief on that particular project, or the circumstances surrounding it.” Venturing an opinion without such a briefing, he claimed, “Wouldn’t be wise.”

Without political leadership, it is up to the rest of non-Indigenous Australia to do the work of reckoning with our history. All of it. Despite, in some instances, standing for well over 100 years, statues to colonists do not educate, they do not inform, they do not move us closer to justice. They are a foil used to help erase colonial violence and replace it with tales of virtue and heroism. They must fall.

Professor Sarah Maddison is co-director of the Indigenous-Settler Relations Collaboration at the University of Melbourne.

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