Human Rights in the Media: January – Mid-Week Review

By Pia White
Adam Goodes and Tony Abbott

By Pia White

As the media’s preoccupation with the Australian Open and the country-wide heatwave cooled off, the arrival of Australia Day sparked some interesting, if familiar debates. The contentious celebration raised questions about racism, inequality and values that the media explored to differing degrees.

Australia Day 2014

The question of the appropriateness of celebrating Australia Day on 26 January is ongoing and unresolved. Many see the date as a commemoration of colonisation, and the denial and abuse it brought upon Indigenous Australians, rather than the birth of modern Australia.

This year, several incidents interrupted the standard celebratory and patriotic reporting of Australia day and invited media consideration of the historical and continuing mistreatment and inequality faced by indigenous Australians an

d the significance of celebrating Australia day on the 26 January.

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Indigenous Australian of the Year

The selection of AFL footballer, Adam Goodes as Australian of the year attracted both praise and criticism. Arguments focused largely on his contributions to charity and commitment to combatting racism, and the exchange between Goodes and a 13-year-old girl at an AFL match last year.

Goodes … faced criticism for accepting the award and pressure to lead the push for a new date for Australia day celebrations.

Goodes also faced criticism (similar to that directed at singer Jessica Mauboy for performing as part of Australia Day celebrations) for accepting the award and pressure to lead the push for a new date for Australia day celebrations.

However, in the coverage of his acceptance, both Goodes’ commitment to his anti-racism campaigning and his eloquent acknowledgement of the “sadness” and “mourning” of his people on this day were widely reported.

Putting racism on a t-shirt?

ALDI Australia Day t-shirts

In the lead-up to Australia day after retailers Aldi and Big W recalled t-shirts bearing the slogan “Australia: Est 1788.” The shirts understandably drew criticism from those who linked the slogan to the determination that Australia was “terra nullius” upon British arrival and the subsequent denial and oppression of Indigenous people and culture that had in fact lived on the land for tens of thousands of years prior.

Some reporting highlighted the technical historical inaccuracy of listing 1788, rather than 1824 (when ‘New Holland’ officially became ‘Australia’), as the establishment date, as well as the fact that the t-shirts had been approved by the government as accurately reproducing the Australian flag. However, media coverage seemed to follow the line of Former Race Discrimination Commissioner Tom Calma by falling short of calling the designs “intentionally racist”, but rather “insensitive” or “inflammatory.”

No cause to celebrate

This series of incidents also sparked debate relating to other issues, not directly related to Australia Day celebrations.

Despite the recurrence of the Australia Day/’Invasion Day’ debate each year, the media certainly seemed to have sharpened its focus on the broader issues raised by the celebration in 2014 …

Federal Race Discrimination Commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane, used the backlash against the recall of the Australia Day t-shirts as a platform to caution against patriotism in relation to border protection, stating that  Australians seem to be “disproportionately alarmed about defending our national borders and keeping out asylum seekers who arrive by boat” and that patriotism is no excuse for “the callous treatment of those who breach no law in seeking sanctuary from persecution.”

Further, the Order of Australia Awards inspired a comment piece in The Age that highlighted the gap between the numbers of males and female nominees and recipients of the awards. The 2014 awards were used to illustrate this under-representation, given that women comprised only 31 per cent of the honours list and one of the eight AC recipients. The same evaluation could be made of the Australian of the year awards where one of the four finalists was female, and women consisted of only 38 per cent of the nominees for Australian of the Year (a pattern repeated also in the other categories).

Despite the recurrence of the Australia Day/’Invasion Day’ debate each year, the media certainly seemed to have sharpened its focus on the broader issues raised by the celebration in 2014, particularly in regard to the historical and continued inequality faced by Indigenous Australians. Some outlets went further and considered what needs to be done beyond a symbolic date change, to begin to make amends for the damage done by British colonists and their descendants. Perhaps this momentum can be harnessed by Goodes during his tenure to address and alleviate these persistent disadvantages and inequalities.

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