The Turnbull government has promised a crackdown after statues of Lachlan Macquarie and Captain Cook in Sydney’s Hyde Park were spray-painted with the words “Change the date” and “No pride in genocide”.
The government has responded by referring a number of Captain Cook statues to the National Heritage List. If accepted by the Heritage Council it would mean anyone caught defacing a protected monument would face up to seven years in prison.
The graffiti was painted in protest against the ongoing legacy of colonial capitalism in Australia. During European settlement, Aboriginal people were slaughtered, their lands were seized, and the survivors were forced to culturally assimilate. The ruling class who enriched themselves out of this plunder have relied on divide-and-rule racism to maintain their wealth and power since then.
Cook and Macquarie are both key figures in the dark past of colonial Australia. Under the racist logic of “terra nullius” – no man’s land – Cook claimed Australia for the British when he arrived in 1770 and is thus seen as an icon of the brutal invasion that followed. Macquarie, the unelected Governor of New South Wales between 1810 and 1821, was responsible for ordering vicious mass killings of Aboriginal people to quell their defiance of the occupation.
The prominent position of the statues in Hyde Park whitewashes and glorifies these men as respectable statesmen. There are numerous monuments of this type throughout Australia, as well as natural landmarks, streets and institutions named after individuals who committed horrendous crimes against the Aboriginal population.
Outrageously, Malcolm Turnbull referred to the graffiti as part of a “totalitarian campaign to not just challenge our history but to deny it and obliterate it”. He went further, comparing Indigenous commentator Stan Grant’s call to change the plaques on the statues to the falsifications of Stalinism.
“All of those statues, all of those monuments, are part of our history and we should respect them and preserve them,” Turnbull said.
On the contrary, it is the political and business establishment that has gone to great lengths to sweep Australia’s violent history under the rug. This is because admitting that Aboriginal people were forced from their land by bayonets and gunfire means acknowledging that there is no legitimate basis for the private ownership of Australia’s rich natural resources.
Such a train of thought undermines the foundations of Australian capitalism and threatens the profit interests of the richest people in the country.
Turnbull’s comments on Stalinism are ironic given that monuments to Stalin were torn down by angry crowds across Eastern Europe in 1989, and during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. In Budapest, the severed head of Stalin’s statue was paraded through the streets as a celebration of the power people felt rising in opposition to the regime.
The workers of Eastern Europe recognised that perpetrators of historic crimes should not be immortalised in statues designed to dominate our public spaces. Pulling down Stalin’s statues was not a denial of history – it was a cry for justice. The same is happening in the United States, where people are taking matters into their own hands to topple relics of pro-slavery generals from the Confederacy in the American Civil War, often in defiance of local laws.
Taking down the statues in Australia would be an acknowledgement of the true history and tremendous pain they represent, particularly for Aboriginal people today. Alongside removing other remnants of colonialism like racist place names, it is an important step towards healing the open wounds of the genocide. However, achieving real equality requires addressing the material needs of Aboriginal people still suffering the effects of the dispossession.
Poverty, homelessness, and murders in police custody are just some of the most pressing issues facing the indigenous community. A serious campaign to right the wrongs of colonialism should therefore raise bold demands for public housing for all who need it, free education, investment to create decent jobs, and democratic community control over the police. Support for First Nations languages in schools, and opening a genocide museum are also measures that would have significant cultural importance.
Funding for this could come from nationalising the major corporations, returning Australia’s hoarded wealth back to the public domain.
A movement united around these demands could draw in mass support from the wider population. Like in the US, mass collective action to remove statues can make the new heritage referrals unworkable. Such a movement would have the power to sweep away the remnants of a racist class society and work towards building a new one based on democratic socialism.
By Jeremy Trott