News Paul Bongiorno: Reconciliation inaction hiding behind a coronavirus smokescreen

Paul Bongiorno: Reconciliation inaction hiding behind a coronavirus smokescreen

Protesters in South Brisbane make their point about injustice and discrimination on Saturday. Photo: SOPA Images
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The weekend Black Lives Matter protests, where thousands risked their health to sheet home Australia’s appalling race record, have revealed a deep contradiction at the heart of the nation.

The health risks were real, but so was the injustice and discrimination the protesters were calling out.

Health Minister Greg Hunt was expressing the considered expert medical advice he had received when he said if there is someone who is infectious in the midst of a crowd like that then it “can have a catastrophic impact”.

We now wait for two weeks to find out  if the estimated 100,000 or more people who demonstrated around the nation have caused a major spike in COVID-19 infections.

Not one protester could have been in any doubt about the health warnings.

Their defiance was a statement of belief that they were not “importing from other countries” grievance at police brutality against black people, but shouting enough is enough of our own.

Writing in The Saturday Paper indigenous journalist Amy McQuire reminded us since the 1991 Deaths in Custody Royal Commission 432 Indigenous Australians have lost their lives in custody but not one charge has been laid.

Victims but no perpetrators.

On Monday Yiman and Bidjara woman Professor Marcia Langton – in response to her recognition in the Order of Australia – said no convictions for police or jailers is intolerable.

Her plea: “Stop killing Aboriginal people.”

That cry is far from novel, but what gives it potency is the worldwide outrage over a white policeman captured on video killing an unarmed black man George Floyd.

Who can blame Indigenous leaders and the thousands of Australians who support them from seizing the moment?

Finance Minister Matthias Cormann for one.

On Sunday morning Senator Cormann described the demonstrations as  “incredibly selfish”, “incredibly self-indulgent” and “reckless” for imposing an “unnecessary and unacceptable risk” on the community.

Northern Territory Senator Malarndirri McCarthy, a Garrwa Yanyuwa woman, hit back.

She said “the issue of First Nations people dying in custody is what is reckless in this country and irresponsible”.

Rather than the Prime Minister blandly minimise what’s happening in our “fair country”, Ms McCarthy says he should mobilise the National Cabinet to  stamp out the brutality and discrimination in our police and justice system.

Her colleague from Western Australia, the “Father of Reconciliation’’ Senator Patrick Dodson told ABC Radio there has been no progress on deaths in custody or on protection of ancient sacred sites of immense archaeological value or on  recognition in the constitution.

And yet 20 years ago 250,000 Australians joined the reconciliation walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The nation stopped when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued the belated apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008.

On Monday the Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt thought the National Cabinet could address these issues without any specific commitment; certainly there is no passionate drive for it coming from the PM.

Indeed the government is now blaming the pandemic for delaying for yet another parliamentary term a referendum for constitutional recognition.

Scott Morrison has rejected any enshrining of an Aboriginal Voice to the Parliament called for after extensive consultation by the nation’s Indigenous leaders in the Uluru Statement.

The Prime Minister has no appetite to show the sort of leadership on this that has won him record approvals in Newspoll for his handling of the virus.

The contagion of racism is in the too-hard basket, pretending it doesn’t exist or trying to stifle the voices of those calling for its eradication will only guarantee more and bigger protests.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics