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Australian PM Scott Morrison wants protesters charged, claims "there was no slavery in Australia"

Global demonstrations for Black Lives Matter
Worldwide protests honor George Floyd and Black Lives Matter in defiance of coronavirus fears 02:57

Sydney — Black Lives Matter protesters should be punished for ignoring coronavirus lockdown rules Australia's prime minister said Thursday, sparking anger by also claiming slavery never existed in the country. Tens of thousands of Australians demonstrated this week against systemic racism at home and in the United States, and more protests are planned for the coming days.

Critics have called for marches to be banned on health grounds, sparking debate over freedom of speech and the country's colonial past.

Protesters participate in the Black Lives Matter rally in Sydney
Protesters participate in the Black Lives Matter rally in Sydney, Australia June 6, 2020. AAP Image/Dean Lewins/REUTERS

Conservative leader Scott Morrison said the protests violated social-distancing rules and hampered the lifting of a coronavirus shutdown, endangering the economy.

Asked during a radio interview if demonstrators should be charged, he said: "I think they should."

Question Time As Parliament Continues In Canberra
Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks at the despatch box during Question Time in the House of Representatives at Parliament House, June 11, 2020, in Canberra, Australia. Sam Mooy/Getty

"I think people wanting to take this further this weekend are showing a great disrespect to their fellow Australians," he said, as Victoria state reported one demonstrator in Melbourne had tested positive for coronavirus.

Morrison did not elaborate on what charges he believes the protesters should face, but authorities have warned they will at least issue fines for violating restrictions on public gatherings.

Australia has seen sustained low levels of community transmission of the virus and only a handful of new cases now appear daily. Restaurants, bars and schools have reopened and many sports have restarted, though strict social distancing rules remain.

"No slavery in Australia"?

The Black Lives Matter movement has resonated strongly with many in Australia — a country also wrestling with the legacy of a racist past.

During the interview, Morrison claimed that, "while slave ships continued to travel around the world, when Australia was established, yes sure, it was a pretty brutal settlement… but there was no slavery in Australia."

The remark was roundly rejected by historians and activists, who pointed to evidence of indentured Aboriginal workers and thousands of slaves taken from the Pacific islands to work on Australian sugar cane plantations.

"The PM would do well to look into the history of the country he is trying to lead," Northern Territory Labor senator Malarndirri McCarthy said on Twitter. "Truth telling must be an integral part of unifying our country, not dividing it."

Aboriginal Australians continue to be vastly over-represented in the prison population, and there have been more than 400 indigenous deaths in custody in the last few decades alone.

Senator "sickened" by BLM protests

Morrison's remarks came to light Thursday as far-right Australian Senator Pauline Hanson, from the anti-immigration "One Nation" party, described George Floyd, the black man whose death at the hands of Minneapolis police sparked the current wave of global protests, a "criminal and a thug" in a speech to Parliament.

Hanson, whose party has often been embroiled in racism scandals, made the reference as part of a speech calling for Australia's legislature to adopt a law declaring that "All Lives Matter."

Hanson claimed, without citing figures as evidence, that more white people are killed in police custody in both Australia and the U.S., according to Australian network 7News.

"What upsets me of the attitude of people black and white that his death matters more because he was black," Hanson told her fellow lawmakers. "It sickened me to see people holding up signs saying Black Lives Matter in memory of this American criminal. Where is the outrage for white people?"

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