SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian officials warned Black Lives Matter supporters they could be arrested if they breach coronavirus restrictions to take part in public protests, as debate erupted over the country’s own indigenous history.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison drew strong criticism on Thursday after he said “there was no slavery in Australia” during a discussion of the early days of British settlement, which he acknowledged was “pretty brutal.”
Historians, Aboriginal activists and some lawmakers expressed shock and dismay at the comments.
“Slavery of indigenous, men, women and children is well documented,” said Sharman Stone, a former federal lawmaker and now politics professor at Monash University. “Slaves worked in pearling, fishing, the pastoral industries and as domestic labour.”
The Black Lives Matter movement has refocused attention in Australia on the mistreatment of indigenous Australians, including Aboriginal deaths in custody.
Victoria state officials confirmed on Thursday that one of eight new cases of COVID-19 reported on Thursday was a man who attended the Melbourne weekend rally. More unauthorised protests are planned for Friday.
“We will start writing tickets of A$1,000 ($700) and we can use all of our powers to move people on,” New South Wales Police Commissioner Mick Fuller told 2GB Radio. “If you don’t move on, well then you’ll be arrested.”
Morrison rejected growing calls to remove statues of white leaders, including one of the country’s first prime minister, Edmund Barton, which is located near an Aboriginal burial site. Barton played a key role in drafting the national constitution, which negated Aboriginal rights.
Morrison said the initial motives of protesters were “fair”, but the push for removal of the statues was being driven by political agendas.
Australia on Tuesday recorded its first day without any community transmissions of COVID-19 since the crisis began. It has recorded 7,285 cases, including 102 deaths.
(Reporting by Colin Packham; editing by Jane Wardell)