A local mayor has entered territory no state or federal politician has ventured after apologising for the blackbirding practices that helped build Queensland’s sugarcane industry.
Bundaberg mayor Jack Dempsey said the practice of “forcing indentured labour into Queensland cane fields was equivalent to slavery and abhorrent”.
“Today I wish to extend a sincere apology on behalf of the Bundaberg region community for the abuse which occurred in ‘blackbirding’ people from Vanuatu and other Pacific Islands to work in the Queensland sugarcane industry,” he said at a ceremony on Friday morning.
“Our sugarcane industry was built on the backs of Pacific Island labour, along with much of our infrastructure such as rock walls, which are still visible today.”
His formal apology to the region’s South Sea Islander community coincides with Vanuatu’s independence day and comes as Bundaberg Regional Council enters a sister city agreement with Luganville in the Pacific Island nation.
“I sincerely regret the pain caused to families and communities in Vanuatu and other Island nations,” he said
“Saying sorry is necessary for healing and to move forward in friendship. Our industries today rely on voluntary seasonal labour. This must always be a relationship based on respect, courtesy, fairness and trust.”
Cr Dempsey said the colonial era “wasn’t kind” to Vanuatu, stating its islands were exploited for their natural and human resources since the Spanish arrived on the Island of Santo in the 1600s.
“The British colony of Queensland was one of the exploiters in the 1800s and this continued into the early years of the Australian Federation,” he said.
“I’m referring to the practice of employing indentured labour in the canefields.”
The historic apology comes after Prime Minister Scott Morrison drew widespread criticism after stating “there was no slavery in Australia” at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020.
Mr Morrison said his comments were about how NSW was settled on principles that included that the colony was not to have slavery.
“My comments were not intended to give offence and if they did, I deeply regret that and apologise for that,” he said at the time.
He acknowledged “all sorts of hideous practices” had been waged against Indigenous people.
“In Australia we know we have had problems in our past. We have acknowledged those,” he said.