And We Just Thought Rolf Was A Racist Old Pr*ck…


Rolf Harris lived a very big lie. But yesterday, it all collapsed. Harris was convicted by a UK court for sexually assaulting children.

He may never set foot back on his home soil, condemned to die in a British jail cell.

The news back in Australia, particularly in his home-town of Bassendean in Perth, WA provoked shock.

How could Rolf Harris have fallen so far from grace? He was, after all, a ‘lovable larrikin and an Aussie entertainer’. An icon.

In truth, Harris was always a self-entitled pr*ck, a fact well known in the entertainment industry. But what’s lesser known about Harris is that he also held deeply racist views…. deeply Australian racist views.

If you do a Google images search of Harris, the web is literally littered with photos of Harris playing the didgeridoo and wearing clothes that feature Aboriginal designs.

Indeed throughout his seven-week trial, Harris often showed up to court wearing Aboriginal art inspired ties. In his official police mug shot released yesterday, he appears to be wearing a tie that rips off the Utopian style of art from Central Australia (although it’s unlikely it was actually produced by an Aboriginal artist).

At the same time, Harris’ views on Aboriginal people are as old as the culture he apparently reviles. That’s a uniquely Australian characteristic: the ability to drape yourself in Aboriginal imagery when there was a buck to be made, while simultaneously reviling the culture and the people.

How do we know? In 2008, Harris returned to Australia to promote his latest book. He decided to share with the world his thoughts on Aboriginal people, and culture.

"You sit at home watching the television and you think to yourself, 'Get up off your arse and clean up the streets your bloody self, and why would you expect somebody to come in and clean up your garbage, which you've dumped everywhere,' but then you have to think to yourself that it's a different attitude to life," Harris told The Age newspaper.

He also suggested that Aboriginal children ‘were never disciplined or expected to adhere to rules until adulthood’.

"Till then, they have a totally carefree life to do what they want, and that quite often involves smashing everything that they have.”

And then – not content with just denigrating the people – Harris launched into the culture as well.

"The attitude is that in their original way of life they would really wreck the surrounding countryside that they lived in and they would leave all the garbage and they would go walkabout to the next place," he said.

In the history of this troubled nation, Aboriginal people have been accused of a lot of things. But up until Harris came along “wrecking the surrounding countryside”, to my knowledge, was not one of them.

I’ve certainly heard that charge leveled at mining companies. And corporations. And farmers. And Australians generally. But Aboriginal people?

What sparked Harris’ tirade was a question from a journalist about his hit single, Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport. As it turns out, Harris was not just a racist old pr*ck in 2008, he was also a racist young pr*ck in 1960, when the song was released.

Despite the iconic nature of the song, it’s a little known Australian fact that the fourth verse of the original version of Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport goes like this:

‘Let me Abos go loose, Lou
Let me Abos go loose.
They're of no further use, Lou
So let me Abos go loose.’

While Harris said in 2008 that he regretted the lyrics, he also put forward what I like to call the ‘John Howard defence’ – ie. ‘it was a different era back then’.

"It was a mark of the times, done totally innocently with no realisation that you would offend at all… just trying to create a fun song for a bunch of Aussies who were drinking themselves stupid on Swan Lager in London at the time,” Harris told The Age.

No realization that you would offend, even though you’re joking about Aboriginal slavery for the benefit of drunk Aussie bogans?

Ironically, while most Australians wouldn’t have known Harris was a racist, most are also unaware about the history of Australian slavery.

The United States push to abolish the practice began in 1800. It was still flourishing in Australia well into the 1950s. Indeed, so bad was Australian slavery that in the 1930s, the Anti-Slavery Society in Britain produced a ‘slave map of Australia’, to document the abuse of Aboriginal people, in particular in the Northern Territory and Western Australia.

In any event, Harris’ 2008 remarks got a big run internationally.

A few weeks later, he decided to pour fuel on the fire when he was confronted over his comments by none other than Lowtija O’Donoghue, one of the nation’s most respected Aboriginal women.

O’Donoghue and Harris were both at the official opening of the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, and the Aboriginal elder took Harris aside and, apparently, privately tore strips off him.

Harris relayed the conversation to The Age, and it was reported under the headline ‘God, did I say that?’

"[O’Donoghue] said, 'How could you say that?' … You think you're talking quietly off the record about things that you feel, and then you see it printed up and you think, 'God, did I say that? Did I mean that?'

“I didn't mean that. I would just like to apologise for any offence that I've caused and put it behind me.”

Harris at the National Portrait Gallery Opening in 2008, pictured in front of a painting of respected Aboriginal elder Lois O'Donoghue.

So a man with decades experience with the media thought he was talking quietly – to a journalist! – about things that he felt. But he didn’t mean what he felt?

Harris obviously did mean what he felt. He just didn’t mean for it to be reported on the front page of a mainstream newspaper. And having profited from Aboriginal imagery for decades, he didn’t mean for it to affect his bottom line either.

Harris then did something else that’s uniquely Australian: he dug himself a deeper hole by trying to explain what he really meant in the first.

"In their original way that they would live in this country, they lived as part and parcel of the land. They didn't want to amass quantities of possessions.

"They hunted food in an area and then moved on … The whole tribal unit would go walkabout to the next traditional area that they would occupy and they would leave whatever they left behind them," he said.

Well, no. That’s not what happened at all. What Harris is alluding to is the Great Australian lie – the one we’ve used for over 200 years to sustain the our theft of land… that Aboriginal people ‘go walkabout’, that they never really owned the land, and that they wandered from place to place in search of food.

Of course, the truth is something else entirely. Aboriginal people, for tens of thousands of years, had very defined borders. But it’s precisely Harris’ mindset that has underpinned the multi-generational lie of ‘terra nullius’ – Australia as ‘a land of no-one’. And it’s terra nullius that Australians have relied on for the continuing dispossession of Aboriginal people.

The Mabo High Court decision knocked over terra nullius. And it was delivered almost two decades before Harris landed in Melbourne and began pissing all over Aboriginal people and culture.

Harris would no doubt claim that he was ‘misquoted’ again. Or that he was overseas when Mabo was handed down, and he didn’t know. Or that he didn’t mean it. That he just just felt it.

The truth is, Harris did mean it and he does believe it. And he promotes his Australian brand of racism without believing there’s any problem with it.

What Harris no doubt doesn’t believe is that he’s a racist. Racists never do. But then, Harris also claims he’s not a paedophile. The evidence proves otherwise.

Harris should have fallen from grace back in 1960, when he wrote a song denigrating Aboriginal people and mocking slavery. We had another opportunity to strip him of his status in 2008. Yet we had to wait until 2012 for a group of brave women to come forward, before we finally accepted the truth about a much loved Australian.

Sadly, I suspect we’ll have to wait quite a bit longer for the true history of the nation that shaped this man’s thinking, and his sense of entitlement, to be just as widely accepted.

CORRECTION: This story originally stated Harris had been sentenced to 12 years jail. Harris has not yet been sentenced. Apologies for the error.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.