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Explained: Why Cricket Australia is going against the PM over ‘Australia Day’

Cricket Australia recently decided not to market international games held on January 26 as ‘Australia Day’ matches. What is the historical context of the issue? Why has the PM entered the debate?

Written by Shashank Nair , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: January 26, 2021 8:32:32 am
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has asked Cricket Australia to stick to sport and not meddle in an issue with definite political overtones.

Cricket Australia recently decided not to market international games held on January 26 as ‘Australia Day’ matches – a move aimed at acknowledging that while the occasion commemorates a significant moment in the inception of modern-day Australia, it also marks a traumatic period of colonisation for the indigenous population of the country.

However, dropping any mention of Australia Day from January 26 programming has ignited a fierce debate on both sides, with one of the more vocal voices belonging to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has asked Cricket Australia to stick to sport and not meddle in an issue with definite political overtones.

What is the historical context of this issue?

In 1788, Captain Arthur Phillip sailed into Port Jackson on the HMS Supply and declared that the territory of New South Wales was now under British authority. Eleven other ships followed Philip to comprise the ‘first fleet’. Britain’s colonisation of Australia was prompted by their need to transport and house prisoners to another port after their previous base of North America rebelled and won independence. The other reason for Britain’s colonisation was to procure a base in the Pacific to counter the expansion of other European nations like France, Spain and Holland.

This colonisation led to large swathes of the local population dying because of smallpox brought along on British ships; the new settlers taking over land long held by Aborigines (native Australians); and conflicts between locals and British settlers, which ended in a significant reduction of the local population.

Present-day Australia is divided on whether to celebrate the first fleet’s arrival on the landmass as a day of national unity (Morrison’s argument), or acknowledging that an act of British colonisation led to the decimation of a flourishing local population within a decade and that celebrating this day could be an insensitive act (Cricket Australia’s stance).

Why has the Australian PM entered this debate?

Morrison told a local radio station that, “A bit more focus on cricket, a little less focus on politics, would be my message to Cricket Australia. I think that’s pretty ordinary. But I mean, that’s what they’re putting on their press releases.”

Later, the PM told a group of reporters, “You know on Australia Day, it’s all about acknowledging how far we’ve come. When those 12 ships turned up in Sydney all those years ago, it wasn’t a particularly flash day for the people on those vessels either.”

What was Cricket Australia’s response?

Cricket Australia’s board consists of Mel Jones, a former player-turned-commentator, who is also co-chair of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cricket Advisory Committee. Jones has offered to talk the PM through the CA decision.

“It’s recognition that it’s a really hurtful day for many,” Jones was quoted as saying by “We’ve got five Indigenous players playing those games and a lot of Indigenous fans that come to the cricket. We just want to make this space as safe and inclusive as possible.”

CA has stuck to its decision to omit any reference of Australia Day from the Big Bash League, reached after discussions with Indigenous leaders.

Are there other prominent Australians who have spoken against the PM’s statements?

Jason Gillespie, till date the only Australian male Indigenous cricketer to play for the national Test team, has come out in favour of CA’s decision, saying that he was proud of the association for leading the way on the debate. Australian women’s team international Megan Schutt called Morrison’s statement embarrassing, divisive and insensitive. Indigenous all-rounder Dan Christian tweeted about the PM’s statements, saying that millions of children will be watching the BBL games on January 26 and will take note of the knee taken by players to promote inclusivity while taking a stand against racism.

The ramifications of the PM’s words on the issue went beyond cricket after Australia’s Olympic gold medallist and indigenous rights campaigner Cathy Freeman tweeted, “You can’t compare the experiences of those 12 ships that first arrived to this country to what their arrival meant for all generations of Australia’s First Nations people!”

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Why is Morrison’s framing of this argument problematic?

Many have said that more than his opinion on what Australia Day should be about, or whether it is disrespectful of CA to drop the term ‘Australia Day’ from its promotions, it is the PM’s call for ‘more cricket and less politics’ that remains problematic.

People have pointed out that the comment echoes a Fox News host asking LeBron James to ‘shut up and dribble’ when the leading basketball superstar spoke about the political tension his country was going through during the Donald Trump presidency.

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