Prime Minister Scott Morrison has apologized for saying earlier this week that there was “no slavery” in Australia, after his comments provoked outrage and accusations that he was ignoring the country’s history of forced labor.
Speaking at a news conference in Canberra Friday, Morrison said he was referring specifically to the fact that the first Australian colony of New South Wales was set up without the widespread use of slave labor.
“My comments were not intended to give offense, and if they did, I deeply regret that and apologize for that,” he said, adding that he was a passionate advocate for the rights of Indigenous Australians.
“I was simply trying to make point that Australia, yes, we have had issues in our history, we have acknowledged them, I have acknowledged them, and we need to address them.”
Morrison originally made the remarks during a radio interview on Thursday, in which he was discussing the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States and around the world, and calls to remove statues of British explorer James Cook, whose arrival in Australia paved the way for the first European colony.
“My forefathers and foremothers were on the First and Second Fleets (of convict settlers). It was a pretty brutal place, but there was no slavery in Australia,” Morrison said in the interview Thursday.
While Australia was never heavily reliant on slave labor, like the American South, slavery was practiced in the country for decades in the 19th and 20th centuries, in places such as the Queensland sugar plantations.
Others have pointed to the practice of “blackbirding,” a process by which Pacific Islanders were taken from their homes, sometimes by force, to work in harsh conditions for little or no pay in Australia.
Morrison’s comments came after thousands of people took to the streets of Australian cities over the past weekend in a show of solidarity with the US Black Lives Matter protests and to call for better treatment of Indigenous Australians.
With more protests planned for the coming weeks, Morrison warned the public on Friday against attending upcoming rallies in support of racial equality, saying attendance went against health advice due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“This is not about the issue, this is about people’s health and welfare and I would urge Australians to respect that by not attending those events,” Morrison said. “I don’t believe there should be a double standard. Australians have made great sacrifices to get us where we are today.”
On Thursday, the New South Wales Supreme Court issued an injunction banning a Sydney march scheduled for Saturday on health grounds and due to lockdown measures.
Another protest is scheduled for Sydney on Friday, called “Stop Black Deaths in Custody: Solidarity with Long Bay Prisoners.” The organization’s event page currently shows more than a thousand people have signaled their intention to attend.
There is no injunction against Friday’s protest, but social distancing rules in the state cap the number of people allowed to gather outdoors together at 10. The limit is expected to increase to 20 people starting Saturday.