Senior federal government Minister Mathias Cormann has taken aim at Australian Black Lives Matter protesters, dubbing their actions “selfish”, “self-indulgent” and “reckless” amid the deadly coronavirus pandemic.
Tens of thousands of protesters have rallied in mass gatherings in recent days, demanding an end to deaths of Aboriginal people in police custody.
“I think it is incredibly selfish, it’s incredibly self-indulgent and it does impose an unnecessary and unacceptable risk on to the community,” Senator Cormann told Sky News.
The Australian rallies followed Black Lives Matter protests held around the world since the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer in the US city of Minneapolis.
Senator Cormann is the Finance Minister and government leader in the Upper House.
Labor’s spokeswoman for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney said Senator Cormann should be listening to the “visceral cries” of people speaking out against inequality.
She said his home state of Western Australia had some of the highest levels of incarceration of Aboriginal people, including two deaths in custody in recent years.
“Mathias Cormann should know better than to describe these protests yesterday, this cry from the heart of many thousands of people across the world and in Australia, as self-indulgent and reckless,” Ms Burney said.
“It struck me listening to people at the protest that they were very conscious of what the health risks [were].”
Deputy Opposition Leader Richard Marles said Mr Cormann’s comments were tone deaf.
“I don’t feel like I’m in a position to say to Indigenous Australians, who are protesting against that, that this is a selfish and indulgent act,” he told the ABC’s Insiders program.
“I felt uncomfortable about the mass gathering but I’m not about to engage in that kind of judgement of those who did it.”
Neither Mr Marles nor Senator Cormann attended the rallies across Australia. Both said they feared mass gatherings could lead to a surge in coronavirus cases.
“It’s quite irresponsible what we’ve seen there,” Senator Cormann said.
“I think about the heartbreak of families who haven’t been able to attend funerals for their loved ones because they were doing the right thing by taking the health advice, my heart just goes out to them.
“As they see people going recklessly to these sorts of demonstrations, that must be just awful for them to watch.”
Protesters rallied in Canberra on Friday, ahead of more than 60,000 Australians taking part in rallies in the nation’s three biggest cities, with Brisbane attracting the largest crowd of about 30,000 people.
“It was a peaceful protest, without any real concerns, and we were happy with how it went,” a Queensland Police spokesperson told the ABC.
“Police were even handing out face masks to people.”
The Sydney rally of about 20,000 people came after the New South Wales Court of Appeal ruled in favour of a last-ditch attempt to lawfully authorise a Sydney protest.
The last-minute decision meant those marching in Sydney were immune from prosecution for breaching public health orders.
After the march, a small group of protesters clashed with police at Central Station.
Police arrested three people and used capsicum spray during the scuffle. Five people received treated at the scene for the effects the spray.
On Sunday, a 21-year-old man was charged with offensive behaviour and resisting police as a result of the incident.
Mr Marles said he would not attend future rallies during the pandemic and urged others to do the same.
“I would have preferred that we didn’t see the mass gathering but it’s happened and I understand it and I understand why people did go out,” he said.
“We’ve got a major issue in this country [and] to suggest that this is something which is imported, is patently ridiculous. And to say to those who are standing up against it and to do something about it, that this is an act of selfishness and indulgence, is wrong.”