Content warning: This piece contains discussion of sexual assault.
While debating whether or not Australia should shift Australia Day from 26 January (a stance the Uniting Church has held for some time), Kerri-Ann Kennerley (a panellist on the Channel Ten morning show Studio 10) alleged that those in favour of changing the date were not addressing sexual abuse in indigenous communities.
“OK, the 5000 people who went through the streets making their points known, saying how inappropriate the day is,” Ms Kennerley said on the Studio 10 panel.
“Has any single one of those people been out to the Outback, where children, babies, five-year-olds are being raped?
“Their mothers are being raped, their sisters are being raped.
“What have you done? Zippo.”
In response, fellow panellist Yumi Stynes (also a panellist on Studio 10) said that Ms Kennerley was “sounding quite racist right now.”
Ms Stynes, it should be pointed out, never said that Ms Kennerley was racist, but that the criticisms took aim at the comments themselves and how they sounded.
For criticising Ms Kennerley, Ms Stynes has been on the receiving end of a barrage of her own criticism. For example, the former Studio 10 exec Robert McKnight wrote that the incident demonstrated, “Why I never allowed Yumi on…when I was running the show.”
On 29 January, the Murdoch newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph and The Australian, ran prominent articles with the headline “Indigenous leaders back Kerri-Ann Kennerley in racism row”. The articles quote prominent figures like federal Health Minister Ken Wyatt and Jacinta Price as supporting Ms Kennerley’s comments. Mr Wyatt said that while Kennerley’s comments were “clunky”, she had identified that not enough was being done for Aboriginal women and children in remote communities.
The articles, however, did not include any of the many indigenous voices who have taken a more critical approach towards Ms Kennerley’s comments.
For example, Gamillori woman and retired archaeologist Lowanna Gibson wrote in an open letter to Kennerley that the comments reflected ingrained prejudice against indigenous Australians.
“I can’t get past the fact that people like you perceive violence as something ingrained in Aboriginal culture,” she wrote.
“Violence is a part of Australian culture. To prescribe it as a characteristic of one race is narrow-minded and rooted in the racist ideology that labelled Aboriginal people “savages”.
“After all in Australia, one woman a week and one man a month are murdered by current or former partners.”
Kennerley’s comments are arguably examples of what Teun van Dijk describes as “New racism.”
According to van Dijk, unlike the ‘old’ racism, which criticises people blatantly on the basis of race, new racism is more subtle and problematises particular races, say on the basis of crime.
“In the New Racism, minorities are not biologically inferior, but different,” he writes.
“They have a different culture, although in many respects there are deficiencies, such as single-parent families, drug abuse, lacking achievement values, and dependence on welfare and affirmative action pathologies that need to be corrected.”
In 1997, the eighth triennial Assembly meeting resolved to take the view that the nation must find a date for a National Day which has the capacity to unite all Australians in celebration.
Jonathan Foye is Insights’ Editor