• Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his Circumnavigate part 2 (pm.gov.au/AAP)
OPINION: A government that elects to put more focus on an almost-fictional story of a long-dead British citizen, whilst hand-wringing over preventable deaths of Aboriginal children has their priorities wrong, writes Karen Wyld.
By
Karen Wyld

25 Jan 2019 - 5:50 PM  UPDATED 25 Jan 2019 - 5:51 PM

Content warning: references to suicide 

In the lead up to yet another contentious Australia Day, Morrison announced $6.7 million in funding to “re-enact” a historical maritime journey that never happened.

Since it was launched in 1993, the replica of the HMS Endeavour, one of the vessels Cook sailed in, has twice sailed around the world and twice circumnavigated Australia. Morrison has now allocated $6.7 million so this floating museum can take another spin along the Australian coastline.

Combined with previously announced funding to commemorate Cook in 2020, the total comes to $48.7 million. That’s a lot of commemorating for a nation that insists we get over the past.

Shorten responded to this latest announcement of funding by stating he wouldn’t be engaging with the prime minister’s ‘bizarre Captain Cook Fetish.’

And, in true Aussie spirit, people were quick to once again mock the latest Australian prime minister on social media.

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This latest homage to white Australia history is somewhat reminiscent of King Louis XIV’s lavishly garish gestures that preceded the storming of the Bastille. Not to worry though, construction of the wall around Parliament House has commenced.

But seriously, why the big song and dance for James Cook? True, was a competent manager, loyal public servant and efficient cartologist with a keen interest in science, but when it came to his engagement with this country, overall his achievements weren’t spectacular enough to justify this much attention. International cruise ships have longer stopovers in Australia than Cook did.

Even though Cook’s legacy is chartering the land’s East Coast, a circumnavigation of the whole continent has been mapped out for this replica voyage.

There are more crucial events to focus on than a ship full of settler-colonialists stopping off at 39 locations for watercress sandwiches and a two-cannon salute.

For starters, how about focusing on suicide intervention and prevention programs? Because saving lives is more important than playing colonial dress-ups.

In the first two weeks of 2019, five Aboriginal girls died by suicide. After allegedly attempting to take their own lives, a 12-year-old Indigenous boy is reportedly on life-support in Brisbane and a 11-year-old Aboriginal boy was admitted to intensive care in Perth.

January’s tragic losses include: a 15-year-old from Western Australia, who passed away whilst in Townsville; 12-year-old in South Headland, Western Australia; 14-year-old in Warnum, an Aboriginal community in the Kimberley; 14-year-old in Perth, Western Australia; and 12-year-old near Adelaide, South Australia.

These children are now being mourned in their communities — far too soon.

There is a statistical over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides, especially among children and youth. Causes for these alarming statistics are known, as there’s been numerous inquiries, research projects and reports focused on mental health and suicide prevention specific to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. 

At the end of November 2018, the final report from the Senate inquiry into mental health in rural and remote areas was released. Despair, due to historical dispossession, premature mortality and current inequities, was identified as a significant cause of suicide for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Poor access to housing, culturally competent mental health services and other supports were also highlighted in the report. 

Mental health groups are asking the federal government to implement strategies from community-endorsed reports, such as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project.

And Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities need funding and support to deliver their own strategies; approaches need to be flexible and specific to locations.

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Risk factors can change. For example, in the digital era children and youth are exposed to new forms of bullying. However, all forms of bullying need to be addressed, not just cyber-bullying.

Education campaigns to address bullying need to go beyond school. Not all young people attend school, especially when the source of bullying is from peers, and some schools lack cultural competency to address racism.

It has been reported that Rochelle Pryor, one of the Aboriginal girls that tragically ended their lives this month, had been subjected to bullying and racism. Her family have spoken out to highlight this current crisis in communities.

Incidents of racism, bullying and discrimination, as well as despair, have a serious impact on social emotional wellbeing, especially for children and youth.

The present is directly linked to the past. Non-Indigenous people shouting ‘get over it’ is not the solution. If we are to talk of historical figures such as Cook, then we must also talk about their contributions to settler-colonisation. Decades of violence and loss have undeniably left a legacy of intergenerational inequities and discrimination for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Australian federal government spending $48.7 million to memorialise the life of a British citizen who died 240 years ago, whilst too many present-day Australian citizens face access and equity issues with health services, is shameful.

A government that elects to put that much focus on an almost-fictional story of a long-dead white man, whilst hand-wringing over preventable deaths of Aboriginal children, has their priorities wrong.

Non-Indigenous Australians should listen to First Peoples, not fantasise about a colonial past with a foundation of white supremacy. Whether it is about changing a date, critiquing the white armband version of Australian history, or stopping youth suicides — the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will not be silenced.

Scullion recently reiterated what he said in 2018 — that no one has raised the issue of Australia Day with him. This is highly unlikely. Since 1938, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been publicly critical of Australia Day. On this issue alone, many governments have heard but they chose not to act with respect.

I wonder how many white people asked for financial support, so the replica of HMS Endeavour could circumnavigate Australia for a third time, before the government responded?

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Karen Wyld is a consultant and freelance writer of Martu descent, living on Karuna Country. Follow Karen @1KarenWyld