Continuing one of the most bafflingly regressive days in recent Australian political memory, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has gone on the record in stating that there “was no slavery in Australia.” Before lunch time, no less.

Morrison appeared on Ben Fordham‘s newly minted breakfast show on 2GB this morning, sounding off on a raft of issues largely revolving around the Black Lives Matter protests from last weekend. Chief among them was a meandering point regarding, of all things, British colonisation and the arrival of the First and Second Fleets.

In amongst all that Morrison pointed out, somewhat indirectly, that Australia was “founded” – as per the British account of history – on the basis of no historic slavery.

“Australia, when it was founded as a settlement, as New South Wales, was on the basis that there’d be no slavery,” the Prime Minister said. “And while slave ships continued to travel around the world, when Australia was established yes, sure, it was a pretty brutal settlement. My forefathers and foremothers were on the First and Second Fleets. It was a pretty brutal place, but there was no slavery in Australia.”

While the inference there is largely contained to the specific white settlement period around the time of the First and Second Fleets, it remains an utterly mind-boggling thing to say.

British convicts transported on the First and Second Fleets were slaves in everything but name, and were routinely placed into “assigned service,” where they were leased out to private citizens, put into chain gangs, and forced to work. That was a practice so favoured by landowners that it virtually extended the life of British penal transportation to Australia all the way out to 1850, some 62 years after the arrival of the First Fleet.

That says absolutely nothing about the treatment inflicted on Indigenous people by European oppressors, who, from virtually the moment European colonisation began through to the 1960s, were routinely treated as unpaid labour and personal servants. First Nations children were taken from their homes and traded as future servants and labourers, sometimes being traded to colonists hundreds of miles away from their home lands. And those are merely the ones that weren’t outright massacred by colonialists.

That also says absolutely nothing about the practice of blackbirding, which involved colonialists either coercing or kidnapping Pacific Islands people and transporting them back to Australia – chiefly New South Wales and Queensland – to perform labour. And while many who arrived in Australia this way did sign contracts to work and were paid an absurdly small wage for doing so, there’s mass evidence to suggest that many simply did not know what they were signing up for, and that conditions inflicted upon the workers were utterly appalling.

All this is to say that while Australia may claim to not have a history of outright slavery, it’s realistically only because those in charge declined to call it that.

And that is what the Prime Minister is hanging his hat on this morning.

Image: Getty Images / Matt King