The prime minister, Scott Morrison, has come under fire after he criticised a Cricket Australia initiative to promote inclusivity on 26 January and claimed the date in 1788 “wasn’t a particularly flash day” for those on the first fleet.
The game’s governing body on Wednesday announced it would drop references to “Australia Day” in promotional material for Big Bash League games in the lead-up to the public holiday considered by some as a day of mourning.
The day, referred to as “Invasion Day” by many Indigenous people and others, will instead be referred to simply as 26 January.
Three BBL clubs will also wear Indigenous kits in an effort to highlight the conversation around the date’s history and create a “safe and inclusive environment for everybody”.
But Morrison on Thursday said he disagreed with the push and said 26 January was “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,” he said at a press conference in Queensland. “What that day, to this, demonstrates is how far we’ve come as a country and I think that’s why it’s important to mark it in that way.”
Kevin Rudd, a former prime minister, led the backlash against Morrison’s comments, branding him “gutless”.
“So afraid of offending the far right, he lets them spread dangerous coronavirus myths. He won’t criticise Trump’s incitement of insurrection against US Congress. Instead he bashes Cricket Australia for honouring the first Australians,” Rudd tweeted.
Sarah Hanson-Young, the senator for South Australia, told Morrison to “read the room” while the prominent barrister, Julian Burnside QC, called the nation’s prime minister a “numbskull”. “What bit doesn’t he understand?” Burnside tweeted.
The Greens senator, Lidia Thorpe, said: “The prime minister has an opportunity to unite this country, not to divide it. And that starts with telling the truth about this country’s history.”
The Labour MP, Linda Burney, said that Morrison should be setting an example for the rest of the nation to follow and that he “should know better”.
“How can we expect to see real progress on issues such as Reconciliation and Closing the Gap when he makes such ignorant and unhelpful comments like this?” the Wiradjuri woman tweeted. “Suffering is not a competition. What the prime minister has said makes no sense.”
There was support for Morrison from Gladys Berejiklian, who said it was not too late for Cricket Australia to reverse its decision, although the NSW premier appeared confused as to the exact nature of the proposal – there is no plan to cancel matches on 26 January.
“I hope they do change their mind,” Berejiklian told 2GB radio. “You can’t imagine Australia Day or summer without the cricket. Cricket and Australia Day kind of go hand in hand,” she said. “They [Cricket Australia] are a professional outfit, an extremely well-run organisation, and I would hope they’d reconsider that, on behalf of the nation.”
Earlier, Morrison had told Cricket Australia there should be “a bit more focus on cricket, and a little less focus on politics”.
“I think that’s pretty ordinary – that’s what they’re putting on their press releases – that would be my view,” he told radio 4RO.
The teams involved in the initiative – the Sydney Thunder, Perth Scorchers and Melbourne Renegades – will wear Indigenous-themed kits during games on 23, 25 and 26 January.
Before the start of play in some of those games, a barefoot circle, Welcome to Country and smoking ceremony will also take place.
The moves come following consultation with the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cricket Advisory Committee, which is co-chaired by CA board member and former international Mel Jones.
Jones told the Sydney Morning Herald on Thursday that the initial move was “never about politics for us, it’s purely about cricket”.
“There was no politics in regards to changing the date or anything along those lines. The conversation was purely about, ‘how do we help this day be as safe and respectful for everyone involved in cricket’,” she said.
Earlier this year, Morrison also weighed in on an NRL plan to scrap the national anthem from the State of Origin series – after the prime minister spoke with Australian Rugby League Commission chair Peter V’landys, the decision was reversed.
Morrison’s government has since changed the words of the anthem, removing a reference to the country being “young and free”, amid concerns the existing wording overlooks the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that stretches back tens of thousands of years.