Today show host Karl Stefanovic has slammed the thousands of protesters who took to city streets across Australia over the weekend as part of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Stefanovic branded the protests, triggered by the death of African American man George Floyd while in police custody, as “irresponsible” at a time when the nation was working hard to stifle the community spread of coronavirus.
Thousands ignored state and federal health advice in the lead-up to the organised protests and gathered en masse in some of Australia’s largest cities, including Sydney and Melbourne, on Saturday opposing Indigenous deaths in police custody.
The 45-year-old clashed on air with Northern Territory Senator Malarndirri Mccarthy who said the protests were well-organised in terms of safety.
"This issue resonates far deeper than any other issue in Australia and around the world... It is time to get on board or get out of the way." @Malarndirri19 on the Black Lives Matter protests that took place on the weekend. #9Today pic.twitter.com/hu3Mt5ABqS
— The Today Show (@TheTodayShow) June 7, 2020
“They had police involved, in Queensland for example, giving out masks, they had hand sanitisers and many of these marches were trying to keep their distance,” she said.
“This issue of First Nations people dying in custody is what is reckless in this country and irresponsible and that’s where this focus was all about. “
However Stefanovic said he “couldn’t disagree more”, and suggested the hard work done by Australians so far, where many businesses had “gone to the walls”, could all be undone by violating current social distancing laws.
“We have these rules in place to protect our society form this awful, awful virus. We’ve done the right thing, we can’t allow a protest right now,” he said.
The discussion comes after Finance Minister Mathias Cormann called those partaking in the Black Lives Matter protests “incredibly self-indulgent”.
Mr Cormann doubled down on his remarks, joining the Today hosts after Senator McCarthy’s appearance.
"I think there's got to be a reality check here... right now, in the middle of a pandemic, to pursue these sorts of mass gatherings is completely reckless and irresponsible,’ he said.
In response to Senator McCarthy’s comments, Mr Cormann said any death in custody was “a tragedy” and he said the government had made “genuine efforts to better address what is an incredibly important issue”.
Senator McCarthy earlier said a National Cabinet was needed to address the issue.
Opposition indigenous Australians spokeswoman Linda Burney described Senator Cormann's comments as "tone deaf" and "politically expedient".
Timing ‘incredibly unfortunate’
Senior government minister Simon Birmingham has described the timing of Black Lives Matter marches as "incredibly unfortunate" but acknowledged it was not of the protesters' choosing.
"I think the timing was incredibly unfortunate and I accept events that occurred in the United States were not within the control of any of the protest organisers," Senator Birmingham told ABC radio on Monday.
"Nonetheless, there could have been other ways of trying to create the type of movement and symbolism the protesters sought without having to resort to mass gatherings."
Senator Birmingham suggested alternatives like the driveway commemorations on Anzac Day.
Health authorities concerned over virus spread
Deputy Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly says while he can understand why people joined the protests, health authorities now have to be extra alert.
"We don't know if anyone in those mass gatherings were infected or infectious, and so it is a wait-and-see approach," Professor Kelly told reporters in Canberra on Sunday.
"I was encouraged to see the face masks yesterday ... those people we're doing the right thing."
Victorian Deputy Chief Health Officer Annaliese van Diemen agreed the Black Lives Matter protest in Melbourne increased the risk for cases.
"In terms of potential outbreaks related to the protest, it really will be at least a week and probably closer to two weeks before we have an idea of whether there's been any transmissions or outbreaks related to that," Dr van Diemen said.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt hopes the rallies that clearly broke COVID-19 social distancing rules will not lead to a new wave of infections.
"If there is someone who is infectious in the midst of a crowd like that, that can have a catastrophic impact," Mr Hunt told ABC radio.
Australia's chief health officers are meeting on Monday to discuss the next step in easing coronavirus restrictions and the mass rallies will be taken into account.
Victoria and NSW have been the worst hit states since the outbreak began however the latter has been free of known community transmission for 10 days.
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