Leading First Nations academics and writers have condemned education curriculum reviewer Professor Barry Spurr and joined the growing chorus for his dismissal after it was revealed he called Aboriginal people ‘human rubbish tips’, labelled the Prime Minister an ‘abo lover’, vilified Gurrumul Yunupingu and Adam Goodes, and claimed Aboriginal literature was not distinguished.
Professor Spurr, a leading poetry professor, was one of the main specialists advising the Abbott government’s review of the National Curriculum. One of his key recommendations was that Judeo-Christian and western literature should be the focus of English teaching, and that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander literature should play a minor role.
He said the contribution made by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to literature was “minimal”.
But in email correspondence to several recipients inside and outside his university, published by New Matilda, Professor Spurr wrote Aboriginal literature is Non-existent and had made no impact. He also makes several racist comments about First Nations people, calling them ‘human rubbish tips’ and “Abos”.
He refers to award-winning Aboriginal musician Gurrumul Yunupingu as “well known Aboriginal singer, Wingabanga Gumberumbul”. He also takes aim at “bogans” “fatsoes”, “Mussies” and “Chinky-Poos”, and laments the reality that Australia is less white than it was in the 1950s.
Murri writer Melissa Lucashenko, who’s novel Mullumbimby made the Miles Franklin long list this year, was scathing of Professor Sparr.
“(Spurr)’s expressed racism is of mind-boggling dimensions,” Ms Lucashenko told New Matilda.
“He should be sacked immediately. A truly sickening specimen of the White Australia mentality festering in a leading institution.”
She said his recommendations to the review showed Aboriginal voices were still “too confronting”.
“The effect of one or two eye-opening Indigenous novels or stories or poems could easily outweigh a hundred British books recycling the same tired, narrow tropes which informed the colonial project in Australia for two centres,” Ms Lucashenko said.
“About time our multiple voices were afforded a place at the table – but that’s still too confronting for some, apparently.”
Wiradjuri/Gamilaroi educator Lynnette Riley, an academic coordinator at the University of Sydney told New Matilda Professor Spurr’s role disregarded the role of Aboriginal educators.
“I think one of the greatest concerns for me is that there’s very little understanding of the full continuum of the history of Australia and that Australia’s history doesn’t start with the arrival of the British. By not (recognising) that you are dismissing tens of thousands of years of knowledge – and it’s in-depth knowledge – from the geology, the landscape, the animals,” Ms Riley told New Matilda.
“We’ve spent over 30 years as Aboriginal educators developing relationships and promote greater knowledge and understanding of the benefits of Aboriginal education. You would think if you are talking about a national curriculum that you would take advantage of that knowledge. It’s short-sighted.
“…. I don’t believe this person is speaking from a base of real knowledge or education, and that’s quite concerning.”
Ms Riley said Professor Spur was “totally incorrect” about the role of Aboriginal literature. Even non-Indigenous writers “when they write about this country, do so from their knowledge from Indigenous people”.
For Professor Spurr to defend his emails as “whimsical linguistic wordplay” showed “he really doesn’t understand the foundations of racism and he is perpetuating a particularly insidious type of racism”.
“He would get some value out of racism studies,” Ms Riley said.
Ms Riley also said Professor Spurr’s views did not reflect the track record of the University of Sydney, who was spearheading the National Centre of Cultural Competence.
“Here we’ve got the university bending over backwards to create improved communication and knowledge, and it’s really sad the government would refer to a person that has none of that knowledge to support them in the development of a national curriculum.”
University of Newcastle’s Professor John Maynard, a Worimi historian, told New Matilda he was “absolutely outraged” the government would take advice from someone who held such views.
He said it indicated the level of racism still held in society.
“These people are everywhere. That’s what the wider community needs to understand. These people are embedded throughout Australian society as a part of the make up of the country – in the universities, and the government. The government will have to have a serious rethink and more than distance themselves from this bloke. They need to condemn his behaviour,” Professor Maynard told New Matilda.
“If this country is to say let’s grow up and move on to becoming a place of justice and equality they need to rethink and go back to the drawing board.
“We’ve gone through the time tunnel back to the 1950s. The country has to show signs of maturity.
“We need to recognise the 60,000 years of cultural knowledge. … that is the future I hold for black and white, that we walk together for equality and justice and really recognise and be proud to show that Indigenous culture is at the forefront of the make-up of this country.”
The co-chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, Kirstie Parker issued a strongly worded statement condemning Professor Sparr’s comments as “… a vile virtual assault on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other ethnic groups, women, students and others…
On Prof Spurr’s defence that the emails were a ‘whimsical linguistic game’ she said: “I find it difficult to fathom the kind of individual who draws satisfaction from such a macabre form of one-upmanship.”
Ms Parker said the Congress would seek an assurance from Education Minister Christopher Pyne, or Prime Minister Abbott that the government will meet urgently with the review team “and interrogate the review and its recommendations to ensure that they are free from the kind of bias and intolerance illustrated by Prof Spurr’s reported comments.”
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