Back to All News

Speech: The Black Lives Matter Movement

I rise to make a statement on Black Lives Matter and our work for justice. Over the last couple of weeks, a global antiracist movement has re-emerged to fight for racial justice and against police brutality and institutional racism. The Black Lives Matter movement has been led by black and Indigenous people and has been supported by people of colour and allies from all backgrounds. I was proud to join the huge rally at Sydney Town Hall. This protest memorialised the violent and brutal deaths of George Floyd in the United States and David Dungay Jr at Long Bay prison in Sydney, both while in custody. It called for an end to black deaths in custody. Over the long weekend, dozens of other huge rallies and gatherings were held across the country, from Wagga Wagga to Wollongong, from Alice Springs to Toowoomba.

There has been a great deal of bluster this week about whether these rallies were appropriate during COVID-19 restrictions, but to me the choice was clear. There's no doubt that the virus is dangerous—we are all making sacrifices to stop its spread—but systemic racism is also very dangerous. It kills and contributes to many deaths in this country.

The rallies are part of a global movement. I can't help but notice that in other countries such as the United States and England, which have been hit hard by COVID-19, there are serious, long-overdue conversations about racism and discrimination happening in the wake of these protests, and there are even some institutional changes as well. In Australia, though, we're still stuck on whether the protests should have happened at all. The question we should be asking is: what has prompted tens of thousands of people to come out onto the streets demanding justice, demanding recognition from the state that black lives matter, demanding simply that First Nations people have the same right to live as others in Australia?

Earlier this week, after many days of charged protest and rallies, it was announced that Minneapolis City Council would defund its police department and invest in new models for ensuring community safety. On Sunday, the city council president pledged 'to end policing as we know it and recreate systems that actually keep us safe'. Calls for police abolition have deep, decades-old roots in antiracist movements. This idea has again come to the fore in the last few weeks and is being discussed in public. In Australia we should be having the same conversations about the viability of a so-called justice system which perpetrates violence on Indigenous people. We should not be afraid of a conversation about rethinking the very idea of policing and incarceration and looking at systems of community safety that do not inflict harm upon racial and cultural minorities.

The criminal justice system is an obvious harbour for systemic racism. At least 437 Indigenous people have died in custody in Australia since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody report was handed down in 1991, according to Guardian Australia's tracking project. This is a shocking number in itself. It's made much worse by the fact that no-one has been found criminally responsible for any of these deaths. Further reporting by The Guardian this week brought to light new evidence of the way the police and the criminal justice system discriminate on a daily basis. In New South Wales, over the last few years, police have chosen to pursue through the courts more than 80 per cent of Indigenous people found with small amounts of cannabis. Meanwhile, non-Indigenous people are being let off with warnings. This is a classic case of police discretion being used in a discriminatory way.

We don't need to look too far to see discrimination of Indigenous people and other people of colour within our institutions, including in health, education and social services. It is a national shame that Aboriginal life expectancy is so far below that of other Australians, and this is a direct result of institutional racism in many ways. We must stamp out racism, discrimination, marginalisation and violence. The reality is that to do this, our police forces and the criminal justice system need to be radically overhauled. Decision-makers overseas are actively listening to the protesters. Hard conversations are happening and changes are happening. People are thinking and talking about systemic racism in a way that perhaps they never have before.

But what has happened here? The government is more interested in attacking me and attacking Senator Rice, other MPs and the tens of thousands of people who attended the rallies than actually talking about the substantive issue at hand. And now the Prime Minister is trying to blame the impacts of the slow return to normality on First Nations activists and their allies who are marching and fighting for black lives. Mr Morrison has said that if protesters show up to another rally they should be charged. This is not leadership; this is myopic and reactionary malice. This is a complete failure to listen.

This is our chance. This is our moment to talk about justice and to make the radical changes needed to upend a system that has failed First Nations people on all levels, and which has killed many. An Essential poll this week found that 80 per cent of Australians believe there is institutional racism in the United States, but only 30 per cent of the same people believe that Australian police have a racism problem. This is why people are marching: institutional racism, police brutality and systemic violence against black people is not a thing over there, it is happening right here in our own country. In fact, it's the reality that Indigenous people live with every day. It's the reality that Leetona Dungay lives with every single day of her life. Like George Floyd, her son David Dungay's last words were 'I can't breathe', just before his horrific death in custody.

This happened in Australia, not overseas. We can't proclaim how great a multicultural country we are and how we don't need to worry about racism as much as other countries while refusing to even try to understand the tens of thousands of people who showed up last weekend to support Black Lives Matter, dismissing the extensive evidence of rising and very much real racism in this country, and looking away from Aboriginal people who die in custody. This is not a great multicultural country if we can't even do that.

But I guess, according to Liberal minister Alan Tudge, we have Asian Australians on MasterChef Australia so we have nothing to worry about—right? Government ministers have been falling over each other to make disparaging statements against the activists who marched for Black Lives Matter, calling the protests 'self-indulgent' and 'reckless'. If there's anything that has become clear in the last two weeks, it is that the government has its head deeply buried in the sand, and wilfully so, to ignore the violence perpetrated against Indigenous people in this country. Let me tell them: you won't be able to hide for much longer! If Black Lives Matter has shown us anything, it's that there is an enormous appetite in the community for a radical change in the way our society works.

I acknowledge with great humility the hard work of Black Lives Matter organisers and activists across the world, who are pushing so tirelessly for change. And I offer my heartfelt condolences to the families and loved ones of all those who have been killed due to racist violence. We will continue to fight for justice.


Back to All News