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It’s not about statues or Chris Lilley...

Jun 25, 2020 • 16m 48s

Osman Faruqi on how politics in Australia deliberately recasts racism as a matter of symbols and gestures - and how the media helps.

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It’s not about statues or Chris Lilley...

251 • Jun 25, 2020

It’s not about statues or Chris Lilley...

RUBY:

Os, what is this story about?

OSMAN:

I think this is a story about Australia's inability to talk about race and racism in any kind of meaningful way. And we've just seen a global movement that took off in Australia, that was about interrogating our history of colonialism and racism and how that still manifests today.

And in just a number of days, it not only petered out, but was transformed from something quite structural to one that became about television shows, movies and statues.

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

The Black Lives Matter movement has reignited calls for action on Indigenous disadvantage and incarceration.

But in this country, the movement was quickly derailed by a media and political class more focused on culture war debates.

Today, Osman Faruqi on why Australia struggles to talk about race.


RUBY:

Os, you went to one of the Black Lives Matter rallies earlier this month. Can you describe what it was like?

OSMAN:

Yeah, I was at the Black Lives Matter rally in Sydney and it was enormous, which was pretty interesting considering that, you know, a lot of people thought that there was a risk of being fined by police and 70 people had been cooped up in the homes are a bit anxious of going outside for the first time. But there were tens of thousands of people at the rally.

RUBY:

Osman Faruqi wrote about Black Lives Matter for The Saturday Paper.

OSMAN:

I've been to lots of rallies in Sydney and in that particular part of town in town hall. This was one of the biggest. It was one of the most diverse crowds as well in terms of age and cultural background.

Obviously, the movement was inspired by what we saw in America with the death of George Floyds. There were signs and chants about police brutality and police violence more generally. But in Australia, there was a real focus at this rally on the high rate of indigenous incarceration.

Archival tape -- rally:

Defund the law enforcement so that my children can breathe in this society.

OSMAN:

There were a lot of signs pointing to the more than 430 indigenous deaths in custody that had occurred since the royal commission in the early 90s.

And also people calling for either the abolition of the police force totally or its defunding and a different way of policing and justice that wasn't punitive and violent.

Before the protests that even happened, the prime minister had kind of nailed his colours to the mast, I guess.

He said there was no direct comparison between the two countries. Australia didn't have the same kind of issues as America did.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

We shouldn't be importing things that are happening overseas to Australia. I'm not saying...

OSMAN:

I guess it wasn't that surprising that after the protests kind of doubled down on that kind of rhetoric.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

And we know we don't need to draw equivalence here. We should just be Australians about this.

OSMAN:

His first interview after the rallies was with Ben Fordham, a host of the commercial talkback station to 2GB.

Archival tape -- Fordham:

PM, good morning.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

Good morning Ben.

OSMAN:

He was asked not about the issues, I guess the rally had raised, not about indigenous incarceration or policing, but Ben Fordham asked him, Prime Minister, you know, we've seen this debate around statues of slavers and those people who supported colonization be pulldown in America and the UK. Do you think that should happen in Australia?

Archival tape -- Fordham:

How do you feel about the removal of these statues?

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

Well when you’re talking about Captain James Cook, in his time, he was one of the most enlightened people on these issues...

OSMAN:

You know, while there's been bad things done in Australia. We didn't have slavery...

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

… When Australia was established. Yes, sure. It was a pretty brutal settlement. My foremother and forefathers were on the first and second fleets it was a pretty brutal place, but there was no slavery in Australia.

OSMAN:

And he basically said he didn't agree with taking down statues. He didn't think Australia had that much to to reckon with in terms of colonialism. And there wasn't much of a conversation at all about the real tangible demands of the Black Lives Matter movement.

And that was the same pattern we saw play out on. And his next interview later that day with Neil Mitchell, another conservative talkback host…

Archival tape -- Mitchell:

You’re a member for Cook.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

Yes.

Archival tape -- Mitchell:

Should we rename the electorate?

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

No, absolutely not. And look, I think people better get a bit of a grip on this. I mean, look, let's just remember Australia's history.

OSMAN:

The only time the actual issue of Black Lives Matter came up was when Neil Mitchell brought up the issue of black deaths in custody.

Archival tape -- Mitchell:

That is true. There is a very sadly high level of indigenous incarceration, about 30 per cent compared to three per cent of the population. But black deaths in custody. I mean, that's a furphy, isn't it? I mean, since the royal commissioner…

RUBY:

Okay, so then, on June 12, Scott Morrison gave his first press conference, since the Black Lives Matter rallies. Tell me about what happened there?

OSMAN:

Yeah, I was really interested to watch this press conference because this movement, Black Lives Matter, was a huge movement that had already affected political and social change in so many countries. Most obviously, America, where it was first reignited and this was the first opportunity for journalists beyond commercial talkback hosts to put questions to the prime minister to, to, I guess, reflect what was quite widespread community concern on these issues.

There was one question from a journalist about the incarceration rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and how, in fact, they had increased in the past couple of decades. And the prime minister, you know, he acknowledged that that was a problem, but he didn't outline any new ideas or policies or, you know, suggest a way forward. He sort of brushed off the issue as one that was very complicated, required governments of all sides.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

This is a complex issue. David, there is no shortage of funds being thrown at this issue. But clearly, the application of funds by governments over decades and decades and decades is not getting the results we want. I can assure you it's not through a lack of will...

OSMAN:

The immediate question after that wasn't about this topic. I had thought, you know, perhaps naively, that, OK, we're getting into this section where the prime minister will start to feel a bit of heat on this issue.

No, the next question about that was about the decision of a streaming platform in the United States to remove the 1939 movie Gone with the Wind and the decision by Netflix in Australia to remove a number of shows by the comedian Chris Lilley because they feature black and brown face.

Archival tape -- reporter:

On a modern extension of this issue we’re seeing cancel culture, with Gone with the Wind, Chris Lillie's projects, for example, being pulled from streaming services. Is that something you're worried about?

OSMAN:

So we had gone in the space of just one question from one journalist that was about the issue of Indigenous incarceration to the decision of a streaming platform in another country to remove an 80 year old film.

And, you know, that wasn't a coincidence, that was a front page story of The Daily Telegraph, that day, was ‘Gone with the Whinge’.

So I was watching in real time this campaign be transformed from one about structural racism and the way that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are discriminated against, to one about television shows and how they might not be as easy to watch on certain streaming platforms.

RUBY:

We'll be back after this.

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RUBY:

Os, we're talking about Australia's response to the Black Lives Matter movement and the focus on culture war symbolism, the way that this is playing out in the U.S., though, is quite different. So can you talk me through that?

OSMAN:

Yeah so, I've been taken aback by the pace of change that we're seeing in the U.S... It's only been about a month since this movement reignited. And since then we've seen, you know, the city of Minneapolis, which is where George Floyd was killed to vote to defund and completely transform its system of policing.

Archival tape -- reporter:

Minneapolis city council members at a rally about an hour ago have announced a plan to disband the Minneapolis police department….. their main message was to invest in the community and not the police.

OSMAN:

We've seen cities like Los Angeles and New York who have never, ever before decreased police budgets.

Archival tape -- reporter:

Last night, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the city has identified $250 million dollars in budget cuts.

Archival tape -- reporter:

Those dollars need to be focused on our black community here in Los Angeles.

OSMAN:

We've seen change taking place in a bunch of different spheres, not just policing. We have seen enormous change, particularly in the media. We've seen editors from publications ranging from The New York Times to lifestyle publications forced to resign because of accusations of toxic workplace culture and issues to do with race and racism.

So I think what makes what's happening in the U.S. even more stark is comparing it to the complete lack of serious engagement and discussion of the issues of racism in Australia, in particular, the ongoing legacy of colonialism.

We are just so far behind. And so obviously unable to have the kind of conversations they're having right now.

RUBY:

And why do you think that is? Why is it more difficult to have a sophisticated conversation about race and reform here?

OSMAN:

I think the differences in Australia, our politics is more insipid. Our politicians are in a state of denial on these issues.

In Australia, major party politicians can still get away with denying Australia has a country with problems, still with racism, that you can still have the prime minister deny that colonialism, on balance, was an awful thing for indigenous communities and has a legacy that is ongoing.

And we also have the media ecosystem in Australia that is much shallower and much more concentrated than in the US, the media culture in Australia. While, you know, I think overwhelmingly part of the problem is NewsCorp, I think our news organizations from the ABC through to the old Fairfax newspapers are so culturally homogenous, there are so few people of color who work there, let alone in senior positions of power, which means these kinds of conversations about race and how you report on race and how you engage with it, they just don't happen.

Between the homogenous nature of our media organizations and our insipid political culture, those two things work together to just stop this conversation happening.

RUBY:

How deliberate do you think all of this is? Is it an accident that a conversation that starts out about black deaths in custody ends up with the Prime Minister talking about Chris Lilley?

OSMAN:

Yeah. I think there are a lot of people who have very genuine concerns about representation in the media and black and brown face. And I think that's completely legitimate. Someone who is, you know, talked and written about that a lot as well.

But I think this current situation where the prime minister is being asked more questions on Gone with the Wind, on statues, on Chris Lilley, than he's being asked about Indigenous incarceration is not only a problem, but it is one that has been deliberately created by both the Prime Minister and decisions taken by the media.

Archival tape -- reporter:

Now, they started by targeting authors and speakers, and then they went onto statues. This could get out of hand, if it hasn’t already.

Archival tape -- reporter:

Oh yeah and today in cancel culture, the outrage, the racism, it’s stacking up again, have a look at this…

Archival tape -- reporter:

Perhaps they’ll have to re-name Wagga Wagga, where will it end?

OSMAN:

He could've made himself available to any journalist on this particular topic. But he chose to talk to Neil Mitchell and Ben Fordham on commercial talkback radio, knowing full well that he wouldn't be interrogated on racism. He would be instead asked about this culture war debate on statues and on television shows.

Archival tape -- reporter:

Can we go to a bar and order a Black Russian anymore? After all other drinks have been spilled…

Archival tape -- reporter:

But it’s not just monuments under the microscope…

Archival tape -- Coon advertisement:

All around Australia people love that great Coon taste...

Archival tape -- reporter:

Coon cheese is the namesake of American William Coon who died in 1934…

OSMAN:

And the reason why I think he wants to talk about that and the reason why conservatives more broadly in this country want to talk about that is it's a safe space for them. They're much more comfortable debating what they see is a question of free speech and why you can't erase history than they are debating the fact that Australia is a structurally racist country. And that is why we lock up indigenous people at such an absurdly high rate.

If the prime minister was forced to actually acknowledge that was a problem, obviously the next question is, well, what are you gonna do about it? And the kind of transformative change required, the redistribution of resources, the development of a treaty, these ideas that shouldn't be radical, but in an Australian context are considered radical, run completely counter to what he stands for, what his party stands for, what its base stands for. So it's far easier for him to deny the existence of that problem and instead shift the debate to what he feels more comfortable talking about.

RUBY:

So it's a game of distraction.

OSMAN:

I think it's a game of distraction. But I think there is a way out. And I think he's only able to get away with that distraction as long as the media, who are the gatekeepers in terms of what sets the boundaries for discourse and debate in this country, go along with it. If they decide that actually it's not good enough, You know, the Prime Minister has a press conference when I can ask one question on indigenous incarceration. We're going to ask ten or fifteen and we're going to decide that this is the biggest issue and we're going to force it to happen.

You know, I was surprised. I think everyone was surprised to see in the midst of a pandemic, tens of thousands of people around the country march for racial justice.

And that can't just disappear when it gets to the elite level of media and politics. If the job of journalists is to reflect the concerns of the community and to report on what the community's interested in, this is clearly an example of that.

And I think it should be a wakeup call because what we're seeing right now in real time is that campaign, despite the amazing work of organizers and protesters, shift so deliberately from one about structure and structural racism to one about television programs and they’re letting it happen. And I think it's in their power to stop it.

RUBY:

Os, thank you so much for your time today.

OSMAN:

Thanks. Thanks so much, Ruby.

[ADVERTISEMENT]

RUBY:

Also in the news —

The ABC has announced it will axe up to 250 jobs, to meet federal budget cuts of 84 million dollars.

Among the programs affected are a flagship radio news bulletin and the ABC Life site, with other programs under review.

ABC Managing Director David Anderson said the redundancies and savings would affect every division across the ABC.

**

And the Director of Public Prosecutions in the ACT has written to police to recommend they investigate allegations against the former High Court judge Dyson Heydon.

Six female former judge's associates have accused Mr Heydon of sexual harassment. Mr Heydon emphatically denies the allegations.

**

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see you tomorrow.

As the Black Lives Matter movement reignites calls for action on Indigenous disadvantage and incarceration, politicians and the media in Australia have turned it into a culture war that deliberately ignores the goals of protestors.

Guest: Editor of 7am Osman Faruqi.

Background reading:

Deflecting from the real issues of Black Lives Matter in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem.

Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief.
Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

New episodes of 7am are released every weekday morning. Subscribe in your favourite podcast app, to make sure you don’t miss out.

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251: It’s not about statues or Chris Lilley...