On the afternoon of Friday, June 12, the prime minister held his first press conference since the Black Lives Matter protests saw tens of thousands of Australians around the country march for racial justice, and against police brutality.
Protesters expressed solidarity with the American Black Lives Matter movement, but the focus in Australia was very much on this nation’s appallingly high rate of Indigenous incarceration – which increased by 41 per cent between 2006 and 2016 – and on the hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have died in custody during the past few decades.
Demands ranged from the full implementation of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, released in 1991, to law reforms to reduce the prison population, greater accountability of police and, for some, the full abolition of the police force and carceral system of justice.
At the press conference, after a number of questions on economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, the prime minister was asked by one journalist about the failure of governments at all levels to reduce Indigenous incarceration rates. Morrison acknowledged the problem, but didn’t outline any new ideas or policies, instead brushing the issue off as “an incredibly complicated area”.
The next question was about “cancel culture”, specifically the decision of a United States streaming platform to temporarily remove the 1939 film Gone with the Wind, as well as the move by Netflix to remove a number of Chris Lilley’s TV shows featuring black- and brownface.
That was it. There were no more questions or statements about the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement or the specific calls from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for fundamental political and legal reform.
In a matter of moments, one of the biggest social movements in recent history had been reduced to a question about an 80-year-old film.
This wasn’t a one-off. In recent weeks, a lack of focus by many journalists and politicians on the actual concrete issues raised by the movement – of racialised inequality, a discriminatory justice system and police violence – has become the norm.
Prior to this press conference, the prime minister had taken part in two interviews since the protests – both on commercial talkback radio. On 2GB, Morrison was asked one question tangentially related to the Black Lives Matter campaign. The interviewer, Ben Fordham, then asked him about the removal of statues commemorating figures linked to slavery and colonialism.
Morrison’s response, now infamous, declared “there was no slavery in Australia”. He went on to say the protesters had a “fair point” when they raised “people’s treatment in custody, or things like that” but even this came with a caveat: “Now it’s being taken over by other much more politically driven left-wing agendas,” he said.
On 3AW, Morrison was asked a number of questions about statues and the potential renaming of federal electorates by Neil Mitchell. The only time the actual, tangible demands of the campaign arose, Mitchell’s question was rhetorical: “There is a sadly high level of Indigenous incarceration … but black deaths in custody, I mean, that’s a furphy, isn’t it?”
These examples provide a perfect case study of how a real grassroots campaign – which has been able to mobilise more people than any other in recent history – can be subsumed into a reactionary cultural war. Where the big questions about how we can reimagine society free from the legacy of colonialism, racism and generational disadvantage are quickly narrowed to statues and TV shows.
And the responsibility lies both with our political leaders and the media.
First, it was clear even before the protests that the prime minister had no desire to seriously engage with the structural issues of racism in Australia, particularly in regard to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and how they manifest through the justice system.
As both Democrat and Republican politicians in the US are reckoning with their history of racism and racist policing, Morrison argued that while Australia had “issues in this space”, there was no need for the kinds of actions that had taken place in America.
“We don’t need to draw equivalence here,” he said.
And he’s right. There is no equivalence. All the metrics suggest the situation when it comes to the racialised nature of incarceration in Australia is demonstrably worse than in the US.
Of course, the prime minister probably knows this.
His denial isn’t genuine – it’s a strategy designed to deflect. If he were to admit that Australia actually does have ingrained, structural racism – targeted at Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, rooted in hundreds of years of dispossession – it would be impossible for him to avoid outlining measures to rectify those issues.
But since those transformative measures go against his ideological world view, and that of his base, the easier thing is to deny and obfuscate.
If you want further evidence of his unwillingness to reckon with the problem, look at who he decided to talk to immediately after the protests: conservative, talkback shock jocks who aren’t known for their willingness or ability to discuss the kinds of issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement.
If the prime minister was genuine about wanting to engage in a conversation about how to change things, why not do an interview with NITV, Australia’s Indigenous broadcaster? Why not make himself available to any journalist, specifically to talk about the issues raised by the campaign?
Instead, he retreated into the safe space of 3AW, 2GB and the parliamentary press gallery, where he knew the conversation would be focused on the tangential issue of statues and “cancel culture”. Where he knew he could get away with describing the raw passion and frustration of protesters as concerns over “people’s treatment in custody, or things like that” without any pushback.
The morphing of a campaign focused on policing, justice and structural disadvantage into a culture war over statues, movies and TV isn’t an accident. It’s a deliberate attempt by conservatives – both in politics and in the media – to shift this debate onto terrain where they are more comfortable fighting.
None of the demands raised by organisers of the Black Lives Matter rallies related to renaming federal electorates, felling statues or cleansing Netflix’s library of blackface material. Those debates didn’t emerge organically from the movement – instead, they were injected into the conversation by the media.
On June 12, the same day as Morrison’s press conference, the front page of The Daily Telegraph was dominated by a story headlined “Gone with the whinge”, which focused on the temporary removal from streaming of Gone with the Wind, in the US, and Little Britain, in Britain.
This is an Australian newspaper that – instead of interrogating the actual demands and claims made by local Black Lives Matter campaigners – chose to devote most of its front page to decisions made by streaming platforms in other countries. The hand-wringing over “censorship” has gone on to dominate the coverage in Australia, particularly in News Corp titles.
Again, it isn’t an accident. These stories, these questions at press conferences, the decision by Morrison to avoid real scrutiny by doing soft interviews on talkback radio are all part of a strategy to deprioritise the bigger issues and turn this into a debate about “cancel culture” and the right of Australians to watch whatever they want, whenever they want.
The statue issue is more complex, because there have been regular demands from a number of campaigners for statues memorialising figures who played an active role in the genocide and dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be taken down. But this time around, that debate has been a focus for figures in the media, far more than for the movement. And without a doubt, there’s been more discussion about statues than the root causes of our intensely racialised justice system.
Not everyone’s motivations in this debate are a strategic attempt to undermine the campaign for racial justice. Many people want to unpick Australia’s racist history, but far more Australians are familiar with statues and Chris Lilley’s shows than they are with the reality of our justice system. So, faced with complex questions about policing and incarceration, they stick with what they know: representation in TV and film.
The obvious question is why can’t we debate all these things at once? Why can’t we grapple with the structural problems, as well as the issue of statues, and racist depictions in film and TV?
In the US, enormous cultural and political change is taking place across a range of spheres. Police departments are being defunded and abolished. Senior media figures are resigning after being accused of racism. Statues are coming down. All of which suggests it’s possible to tackle these things simultaneously. After all, the celebration of colonialism, racism in the media and the racism that underpins our approach to policing and justice are different manifestations of the same problem.
But in terms of our capacity to seriously engage with our history of racism, Australia is decades behind the US.
Our politics is more insipid. Politicians, from both major parties, can still get away with denying that Australia is racist. Our media is shallower, more concentrated and dominated by a right-wing behemoth that controls the national discourse.
With these constraints, it’s a struggle to get structural questions on the agenda. And even when they do get there, they are quickly overtaken by debates over things more visible but less consequential.
We should be able to debate all these things at once. But as long as the prime minister is asked the same number of questions about Gone with the Wind as he is about Indigenous incarceration, it proves we aren’t there yet.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 20, 2020 as "Cancelling the real debate".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription