When Brooke Boney spoke about incarceration rates, domestic violence and child sexual abuse in Indigenous communities 13 days ago, the Today star was applauded for bringing attention to the issues on mainstream television.
But when Studio 10 co-host Kerri-Anne Kennerley made a link between calls to change Australia Day and Indigenous social issues earlier this week, she was labelled racist.
It’s a comparison that’s been picked up by some social media users and talkback radio callers in the wake of the controversy surrounding the Network 10 morning show this week.
But Indigenous activists say there’s a good reason for the backlash to Kennerley’s comments and they’ve dismissed comparisons between her approach and that taken by Boney.
“The difference was they were both completely different approaches and perspectives,” says Yawuru woman and Media Diversity Australia Indigenous affairs advisor Shannan Dodson of the comparisons.
“Brooke was talking about her real, lived experience of being an Indigenous woman. She was very measured, she didn’t get angry, she was explaining her perspective and speaking from personal experience.
“Kerri-Anne wasn’t speaking empathetically — it was toxic and aggressive and stereotypical. She just spewed out information she’s been fed from somewhere without any understanding about the context.”
Boney, a proud Gamilaroi woman, spoke from the heart about her community, while Kennerley attempted to hijack important issues to dismiss the validity of the Australia Day protests, Ms Dodson said.
On Monday, Kennerley was accused by Studio 10 guest panellist Yumi Stines of “sounding racist” when she accused tens of thousands of people who attended Invasion Day rallies on Saturday of ignoring social issues like domestic violence and child sexual abuse.
The small-screen veteran asked whether protesters had “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?”
Ms Dodson said it felt as though Kennerley was hiding behind fake concern for Indigenous people in order to “berate” protesters.
“It was veiled concern. She’s not concerned about these issues,” she said.
“It was her way of being able to undermine these concerns and what January 26 represents because the conversation makes her uncomfortable.
“The way she approached it also was problematic. It was blaming people for the situation they’re in without understanding the historical racism that has led to this point. It was a vicious tone in her voice.”
Macquarie University head of Indigenous studies Bronwyn Carlson agreed with the assessment and said it was an offensive illustration of “whataboutery”.
“Why is it then when Indigenous people come together, the only thing people like Kerri-Anne can offer is ‘whataboutery’?” Ms Carlson said.
“Her argument seemed to be that if you’re protesting for social change, then you must only focus on one topic — or the ‘right’ kind of topic.
“In that same logic, all white Australians who celebrated Australia Day ought not to do that because there’s an epidemic of male violence in this country, perpetrated predominantly by white men.”
The academic said Kennerley was more offended about being called out than concerned with unpacking her comments to see how they might be offensive.
“The biggest population of Indigenous people live in Sydney, so one does not need to go to the outback to find Indigenous people,” Ms Carlson said.
Ms Dodson, who is also a National NAIDOC Committee member and co-authored a handbook for better reporting on Indigenous peoples and issues, said no one denied Indigenous communities face social issues that need to be dealt with and are being addressed.
“But she made such stereotypical comments about the issues we’re facing, without any context and not taking any (consideration) of the fact that January 26 is a symbol of colonisation, which is exactly why we face these social issues in the first place,” she said.
Joe Williams, a former NRL player, professional boxer, author and Indigenous activist, said Kennerley’s remarks “profiled me to be an abuser, sexually and physically”.
“I spend 320+ days a year in community helping heal trauma that relates to issues you speak — you?” Mr Williams wrote on Twitter.
Ms Dodson said commentary about social issues like domestic violence and abuse against children tended to speak about Indigenous people “in broad-sweeping comments as though we’re this one group; a problem to be fixed” and Kennerly’s “generalised statement was unhelpful”.
The TV host’s argument that protesters were ignoring more important issues was “flimsy”, she said.
“People are tirelessly working on the ground when it comes to Indigenous health and other social issues — Indigenous and non-Indigenous people,” Ms Dodson pointed out.
“I’m constantly fighting for the rights of my people and to ensure we are experiencing the same level of life that the rest of Australia is experiencing. You can’t look at a protest and say it’s not important, like she did, because it feeds into a larger movement to create change.”
Kennerley’s comments have dominated headlines and chatter on Facebook and Twitter for three days running.
In an interview with The Australian today, Indigenous politician and Health Minister Ken Wyatt said while the broadaster’s delivery was “clunky”, Kennerley was right in highlighting the issues facing many communities.
“We have got incidents happening in remote communities and in town camps that should not be happening,’’ Mr Wyatt said. “I’ve seen Aboriginal women bear the scars of domestic abuse. Let’s tackle those things first before we worry about Invasion Day.”
However, Ms Carlson said institutional racism wouldn’t be solved by “getting over” the hurt and suffering inflicted on generations of people.
“We can’t just ignore 231 years of colonial violence and say ‘get on with it’. These things have not been addressed,” she said.
“In the past couple of weeks, five Indigenous girls have suicided. There’s been no media focus. That’s institutional racism.”
A DIVISIVE DEBATE
The morning show saga comes as new research highlights just how divided Australians are on the issue of Australia Day and the debate over whether to move the date.
The Social Research Centre conducted a survey of its Life in Australia research panel, asking 2167 respondents about their attitudes to the national day.
Overall, 70 per cent of the cohort agreed or strongly agreed that January 26 was the best day to mark Australia Day, with support increasing with age.
Support for the current date is lowest among 47 per cent of people aged under 24 comfortable with January 26, and 58 per cent of people aged 24 to 38.
Darren Pennay from Australian National University’s Centre for Social Research and Methods said the poll found 45 per cent of all participants accepted that Australia Day is “offensive” to Indigenous peoples.
“One school of thought is that many Australians are mindful of the day’s negative connotations, but place a high value on it because it is an important marker in the calendar,” Mr Pennay said.
When asked what Australia Day meant to them, those opposed to changing the date gave a variety of different answers, with celebrating British heritage and acknowledging democracy the two most popular responses.
However, Mr Pennay believes something much simpler might also be behind the resistance to moving the national day.
“The attachment to this last summer public holiday before the school year starts possibly outweighs concern about offence,” he said.
“Previous research has shown that when people were asked to associate three words with Australia Day, the favourites were ‘barbecue’, ‘celebration’ and ‘holiday’.”
The issue is highly contentious and divisive, Mr Pennay said, and any kind of agreement is unlikely to occur in the short term.
“It may be that the fortnight or so surrounding Australia Day is evolving into an annual season in which some of the deepest paradoxes of Australian identity play out in public,” he said.