Obama Makes Headlines in Australia for All the Wrong Reasons

Brendan McDermid/Reuters
Brendan McDermid/Reuters

SYDNEY—It was clear this week in the streets of Sydney that someone very important was in town—with extended traffic jams, increased police presence and sirens raging across the city serving to herald the arrival of former U.S. President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle as they embarked on a speaking tour.

But the increased delays were only the beginning of a trip plagued by headlines that seemed to dog the Obamas throughout their stay down under. They were accused of insulting a high-profile indigenous woman, angering the country’s Wurundjeri indigenous community for a “lack of understanding and respect,” while paparazzi caught the couple failing to use safety equipment while sightseeing on the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Even before his arrival, the buzz over Obama’s Australian tour was palpable, with reports of a $1 million payday for a highly anticipated series of talks with former Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop raising eyebrows among conservative critics. Tickets for the events were sold for up to an eye-popping $900.


It was his first visit to the country since 2014, when the then-president visited Queensland for the G20 Leaders’ Summit.

Despite the insane crowds of fans following the former president, he mostly skipped meeting with the public, confessing: “If you’re wondering why I’m not taking a stroll through Sydney, it’s not security, it’s the risk of 100 selfies at one time.” Australians could, however, purchase a “platinum package” to the “Evening With President Obama” which included “a welcome cocktail at a one-hour drinks function, a commemorative lanyard and a signed copy of Mr Obama’s book,” according to NewsWire.

Then, on Wednesday, pundits were quick to criticize both Barack and Michelle after they were snapped by paparazzi climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge without harnesses, which is a usual safety precaution for climbing the storied span. A spokesperson for Transport NSW confirmed the pair, along with their entourage, had been given “special permission” to climb the Sydney icon without wearing the jumpsuits and safety apparatus, which are required of the general public.

Transport NSW noted the climb “followed standard safety protocols that are in place for visiting dignitaries, and are regularly implemented.” Those dignitaries include Prince Harry, who did not wear the jumpsuit but did don safety apparatus during his own 2018 climb. When Oprah visited in 2010, she went for the entire package.

Obama’s speaking engagement even managed to stoke racial tensions on Thursday after revelations that the organizers of the former president’s speaking tour dumped an Indigenous elder from the event Wednesday evening, reportedly saying she was being “too difficult.”

The organizers have since apologized to Wurundjeri elder Aunty Joy Murphy after canceling her appearance during Obama’s Melbourne event, asking her to instead to do a “Welcome to Country” performance at a business lunch on Thursday with the former president, the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation confirmed to The Daily Beast. Aunty Joy, who as senior Aboriginal elder of the Wurundjeri people, has previously welcomed the Queen, Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama, was replaced by Wurundjeri woman and Melbourne artist Mandy Nicholson.

Aunty Joy pointed the finger at event organizers and stressed, “I do not want this to be a reflection on President Obama.”

In a statement obtained by The Daily Beast, Aunty Joy said, “I am 78 years of age. I have never been treated or spoken to in this way in the past. I do not want this to be a reflection on President Obama. I am a leader of the Wurundjeri Nation. I asked to be treated as an equal.”

But she changed her tune slightly after receiving the reconciliatory offer.

“Although it saddens me to think that I had to go through the events of yesterday, I’m happy that Aboriginal culture has been given appropriate recognition,” Aunty Joy said in a follow-up statement. “It will be my great pleasure to welcome the first Black American president to Wurundjeri Country on behalf of my community and ancestors.”

While the lunch had taken place Thursday, it was unclear if Obama himself had reached out to Aunty Joy to apologize. The Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation did not respond to a request for comment when questioned by The Daily Beast.

But for all the drama, Obama’s saving grace was… himself, with The Daily Beast understanding through a source that Aunty Joy and Obama were able to meet, and the drama was quickly dissolved.

On a winning streak, Obama also won back Aussie hearts during his talk on topics including the power of women and the tragedy of gun control.

Speaking in Melbourne on Wednesday evening, he admitted his biggest regret and lowest point of his presidency was his failure to overhaul gun laws and America’s powerful gun lobby.

“My biggest regret and disappointment in my presidency was that I could not overcome the clout of arms manufacturers, the paranoia and suspicion of certain gun owners, I couldn’t break this strange fixation on guns and weaponry in the United States that is unique among at least economically advanced nations,” he said, just days after a Nashville school shooting claimed the lives of six people.

“We tolerate kids routinely being killed. Certainly poor kids, black kids. Latino kids, everything."

Obama said that after the devastation of Sandy Hook he realized “these were six year olds in a wealthy, white suburb, and it didn’t matter, we couldn’t budge congress. There was a deep despair and a sense of maybe there’s a futility here.”

Obama has supported Australia’s tough stance on gun control for years, including a 2015 interview with comedian Marc Maron where he pointed to the nation’s change of laws after its own mass shooting in 1996 Port Arthur, in which 35 people were killed and 23 injured.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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