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Wren's Week: Scott Morrison needs to own up to his mistakes

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison displayed great ignorance at our nation's history by claiming slavery never existed here (Image by Dan Jensen)

Prime Minister Scott Morrison continues to avoid accountability for his own ignorance by using carefully chosen words, writes John Wren.

PARLIAMENT WAS BACK this week, sitting in reduced numbers due to social distancing. On Thursday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison made two statements that exposed both his willful ignorance and his marketer’s use of semantics to, in effect, say nothing while still giving the effect that he has acted.

The first was his statement in relation to the Black Lives Matter protests in Australia. These protests were sparked by the murder of George Floyd in the USA, but have morphed into a mass movement in Australia that centres on the outrageous rate of deaths in custody of Indigenous Australians, but is not limited to that — broader progressive issues are also at play.

From the beginning of the pandemic, the Government has been fearful of social unrest as a result of mass unemployment. They have mitigated that to an extent with JobKeeper and increased JobSeeker payments, however, they did not (could not) count on the George Floyd spark.

Morrison tried to trivialise the Australian protests by suggesting the American protests were a result of slavery, but no slavery existed in Australia. This statement demonstrates willful ignorance on his part. Just because it was not called “slavery” does not mean that slavery did not exist. Admittedly, most White Australians of Morrison’s generation know little of the history of Australia — in most schools, a highly sanitised, whitewashed history of Australia was taught and often still is.

As a New Zealand-born migrant to Australia, I have often been astonished at ignorance many Australians have of their history. When I have pointed out atrocities, many get very defensive or deny it outright. New Zealanders have a very different relationship with their colonial past. It is not perfect, but neither has it sought to rewrite its history as Australians often do.

True leaders engage in continuous learning. Not necessarily formal education, but constantly seeking out new sources, new viewpoints in order to understand the motivations and needs of others is a key leadership trait. Morrison is not a leader and for a prime minister to make such an erroneous statement about the history of the country, he has ostensibly made a gobsmacking admission of ignorance.

How was Morrison wrong about slavery in Australia?

Colonial settlement commenced with transported convicts working for rations. This was arguably slave labour. As White colonialisation spread across the continent, Indigenous Australians were often forced to work for rations on cattle stations. This was legally sanctioned slavery of Indigenous people on their own lands, stolen from them by rapacious settlers backed by colonial governments.

In Queensland, sugar plantations sourced their labour from Pacific Islands — most commonly Melanesians from what is now Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and New Caledonia. This was known as blackbirding, where islanders were often taken against their will or tricked onto ships and transported to Australia where they were forced to work. If that wasn’t slavery, I don’t know what is. Many of their descendants still live in Queensland. It’s a living history and not that long ago.

The beginning of the end of Indigenous slave labour in Australia came with the famous Wave Hill walk-off led by Vincent Lingiari. This was effectively a peaceful slave rebellion. One of the most famous pictures in Australian history is that of the great Labor PM Gough Whitlam pouring a handful of dirt through Lingiari’s hands signifying a return of a portion of the Gurindji people’s lands to their ownership. Paul Kelly wrote his seminal work From Little Things Big Things Grow about the event.

The other statement Morrison made was in relation to his government’s now illegal Robodebt program. This program was formulated by Morrison while he was treasurer. It used averaged data matching to generate automated debt letters to social welfare recipients. It reversed the onus of proof and as such was deemed illegal under Australia law.

The program was based on the entrenched Liberal Party ethos that all welfare recipients are bludgers ripping off taxpayers. This ethos was then further enhanced by Morrison’s Pentecostal prosperity doctrine that labels all welfare recipients as lazy and unworthy. The program caused untold mental anguish for many. It also allegedly caused hundreds of deaths by suicide.

The Government now finds itself having to repay all the money, in excess of a billion dollars, collected in the face of a massive class action. Under sustained pressure from Opposition Spokesman Bill Shorten, Morrison at first appeared to apologise for the Robodebt program. It was widely reported that he did apologise. Even The Guardian and The New Daily reported it as such.

But it was not an apology. It was Morrison using semantics to give the impression of an apology without delivering one at all. It is a tragic observation that every media outlet of note reported it as such.

What did Morrison say?

He said:

“I would apologise for any hurt or harm in the way that the government has dealt with that issue and to anyone else who has found themselves in those situations. 

 

Of course, I would deeply regret any hardship that has been caused to people in the conduct of that activity.”

Morrison’s use of the word “would” provides a caveat to his statement. “I would apologise if I meant it,” for example. It would have been a genuine apology if he had stated, “I apologise for any hurt or harm…”, but he didn’t.

Please also note that he referred to “the Government” and not himself. He was not personally sorry, he issued a faux apology on behalf of the Government without accepting any personal responsibility for the program.

The second part of his statement is just as bad — “I would deeply regret any hardship…”. He has not admitted that any hardship existed, but if it did, he would regret it. People literally killed themselves after receiving Morrison’s Robodebt letters, complete with threatening Australian Federal Police logos. Yet he still makes statements like that.

Again, true leaders admit to and own their mistakes. They learn from them. Morrison is the polar opposite of a leader. He makes announcements and is nowhere to be seen when they go awry. He uses his minions to front the press when its bad news — Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, NDIS Minister Stuart Robert and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann are regularly thrown under the bus.

How long before these spineless minions decide they have had enough of being Morrison’s whipping boys? It can’t be much longer, can it?

You can sign the petition to have John Wren reinstated on Twitter here.

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