Call to change, not tear down, Australia’s colonial statues
A war of words over colonial-era statues in Australia took a further twist Tuesday with calls for the addition of plaques acknowledging the nation’s indigenous history after several monuments were defaced.
Debate over the statues of early British explorers, including Captain James Cook, was sparked following American protests over Confederate statues that hark back to the nation’s slave-owning past.
In Australia the focus has been on the role of Aboriginals, whose cultures stretch back tens of thousands of years before Cook’s arrival in 1770, and the colonisers’ treatment of indigenous people.
The controversy ratcheted up a notch at the weekend when vandals defaced Sydney statues, including one of Cook with the words “change the date” in reference to Australia Day, which marks the 1788 arrival of the British First Fleet.
The vandalism sparked a furious response from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who again brushed off calls for the statues to be torn down, adding that the defacement was “what Stalin did” in denying history.
“It (the vandalism) is also part of a deeply disturbing and totalitarian campaign to not just challenge our history but to deny it and obliterate it,” he said.
“This is what Stalin did. When he fell out with his henchmen he didn’t just execute them, they were removed from all official photographs.”
A different solution was instead raised by opposition Labor MP Linda Burney — the first Aboriginal woman elected to the lower house of parliament — who called for Cook’s plaque to be updated to reflect that he had not “discovered” the nation.
She was backed by Labor leader Bill Shorten, who said the country “doesn’t need to have ‘us and them’ debate between Aboriginal Australians and other Australians”.
“So an additional plaque on Captain Cook’s statue is fine by me,” he said.
But Turnbull said Tuesday such changes were “basically rewarding vandalism”, and the statues had value in providing one perspective of Australian history.
“A free society, does not burn old books, it writes new ones. It doesn’t tear down old statues, it builds new ones,” he told Adelaide commercial radio station FIVEaa.
Aborigines remain the most disadvantaged Australians. They were believed to have numbered around one million at the time of British settlement, but now make up only about three percent of the total population of 24 million.