Eddie McGuire’s shock departure was a long time coming. For one, it grabbed national attention - quite possibly a first for Australia. Systemic racism, the kind that Nicky Winmar, Adam Goodes and Heretia Lumbar experienced in their football careers has been widespread, although certainly not limited to the sporting fields.
McGuire’s termination, triggered by a confidential report by Professor Larissa Behrendt, showed us racism could have real consequences even for people like Eddie who thought they had no reason for remorse, who only days prior had boasted that the report was ‘a proud day for Collingwood’.
The voices of many people, including Professor Marcia Langton who called on McGuire to publicly resign, along with the members of the Collingwood club who agreed, is an important lesson here. We, the people, will have to lead the way, governments will not, and as they are failing to address racism in this country, we cannot, and will not, stand for it any longer.
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement was and remains a wakeup moment for the entire nation. Well, perhaps except the Prime Minister whose comments on Invasion day showed his failure to grasp the violence colonisation inflicted on people, a history once found genocidal by our national human rights institution.
Morrison’s limited understanding stands in stark contrast to newly elected US President Joe Biden who committed to addressing systemic racism and discrimination in his victory speech and whose appointment of Kamala Harris, the first Black woman to hold this position, shows that the Democrats mean business.
The BLM movement in Australia saw thousands of non-Aboriginal people march in solidarity with Aboriginal people across the nation to demand change, an end to Aboriginal deaths in custody, child removals and theft and destruction of our traditional lands. Invasion day rallies across the country swelled into many thousands and collectively we were united as a people to change this country for the better.
The silence that surrounds racism
Racism and systemic discrimination marked a flashpoint with Collingwood and McGuire, but it can’t end there. All of us should keep up the pressure. There is a taboo and silencing that surrounds racism done to Aboriginal people, even though it is killing our people and absolutely must be dismantled and eradicated.
Nearly three decades ago I began a study of race discrimination, inquiring into the laws - the Race Discrimination Act (1975) (Cth) - asking why it was that racism was so prevalent, even overt and yet able to flourish when at the same time prohibited by the legal system.
Unlike complaints of sexism, that were typically brought by white Australian women, complaints of racism by Aboriginal people were infrequently acknowledged. Racial discrimination it seemed was rarely being recognised outside of the simple cases of refusal of service in hotels, and even when clearly disparate outcomes were shown with race being the obvious factor, judges would not recognise the conduct as racially motivated. Unconscious racism could be seen from the very decision of the court.
Recent research by ANU substantiates what Aboriginal people experience across the country - namely high levels of unconscious prejudice and implicit bias toward Aboriginal people, with three out of every four Australian holding stereotypes and beliefs that are racist and harmful to Aboriginal people. This was shown to be even higher in WA and Qld.
Yet the legal system has still failed to tackle it and has even condoned it. Take for example, the comments of Justice Mary Gaudron in the case of Hagan v Toowoomba Sporting Ground, who thought that ‘n**ger’ – hanging on a sign at a Queensland football ground - was no more offensive a term than ‘her little pinkie’. Justice Gaudron showed us that white women can be very racist and even within feminist spheres, still blind to the abuse of Indigenous women. Hagan was left to the UN Optional Protocol process, where he made out his case that this offensive word breached Australia’s treaty obligations.
The Australian government is bound to ensure the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Race Discrimination is upheld, but Australia’s last review before the UN race discrimination treaty body showed a lack of commitment to the Convention and international human rights law.
Australia was reprimanded for maintaining a reservation on Article 4(a) prohibiting race hatred and told to withdraw the reservation ‘in the context of racially motivated acts against Indigenous people’ and people of colour.
The Committee found that racism, including in the public sphere was on the rise, and Australia was urged to ensure measures to combat racism, in collaboration with grass roots organisations and community. A National anti-racism strategy was needed and should be properly funded. Law enforcement needed to effectively apply the Race Discrimination Act, especially section 18 (C) and 18 (D), ‘thereby conveying a clear message that manifestations of racial discrimination and racism will not be treated with impunity’. There is no evidence this importance advice is being implemented or given effect.
As our governments lack leadership to address racism - race relations in our country is clearly and firmly in the hands of the people. According to Reconciliation Australia’s 2021 report, we are safe now and it’s also time to be brave, stating: ‘actions must involve truth-telling, and actively addressing issues of inequality, systemic racism and instances where the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are ignored, denied or reduced.’
This is the state of the nation today, the future and answers lie with the people and our own commitment to ensure Black Lives Matter.
– Dr Hannah Mcglade is a Noongar human rights lawyer, an Associate Professor at Curtin University and a member of the UN Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues.