There may be some Coalition politicians and Murdoch employees who are motivated by genuine racism to oppose the Voice to Parliament. Some might believe First Nations Australians are unworthy. Some probably believe in “reverse racism.” That, of course, is the belief that there is a correct direction for racism to travel.
Some undoubtedly believe in a myopic fashion that there is no inherent disadvantage to being indigenous in settler-colonial nations. There is endless research to establish how historical decisions and policy entrench disadvantage and foster social ills; it is not, as some Coalition politicians might argue, the result of a “bad” nature.
For many more Coalition politicians, however, one presumes the decision to oppose the Voice is strategic. They don’t care who is hurt in the process, just as they didn’t care about the escalated persecution that accompanied the plebiscite on marriage equality.
The Coalition and media friends are using the Voice (just as they used refugees) as an implicitly racist tool to galvanise their own vote, but more importantly to divide the electorate. It is part of our conscious echoing of the CRT argument that is burning through America, fighting acknowledgement of systemic disadvantage in that country.
CRT is “critical race theory.” This is a university law school discipline that examines the elements of the racist past that continue in current institutional structures. A Right-wing agitator, Christopher Rufo, stole this term for school studies to allow “conservative” parents to fight any attempt to teach a less bowdlerised view of history and society.
As is standard practice, Sky Australia, The Spectator and other radicalising organs borrowed the American CRT gambit for use in Australia. It can be deeply uncomfortable for Australians brought up on comforting patriotic myths to have their offspring bring home age-appropriate stories of the Killing Times and Blackbirding (sugar slavery). It is shocking to read the ghastly story of cold-blooded massacres of our First Nations people: it is estimated that we killed in various ways around 90% of the Aboriginal people here when colonisation began. It is chilling to envision Australians dropping kidnapped and enslaved Pacific Islanders in the ocean rather than bothering to return them home. Their unmarked graves are strewn across our sugar plantations, with 30% killed by the brutal conditions.
Forgetting can be even more crucial than remembering in the forging of a patriotic narrative.
Deploying race divisions has been crucial to American politics. White southerners were reconciled to the appalling conditions they were granted by the plantation-owning class by the certainty that the worst of them was better than the best Black man. The workers have been divided and disempowered by the resentment fostered between White and “Coloured” workers.
Such was the disgust for Black people that when legal changes forced the desegregation of public swimming pools built during the public works era of the New Deal, communities shut them down for years. They denied themselves the use of these communal facilities rather than share them with Black townsfolk. This dynamic continues in Republican state logic. Most Republican states refused federal money to grant the poorest Whites medical cover because it would aid Black people too.
Australia’s economic model was not one driven by this model of capitalism. Our labour shortages made for a strong class of worker who achieved notable rights. We were considered a labour model in the early decades of the 20th century to the distress of capitalists who planned fascist revolutions. Our neoliberalism saw a less toxic negotiation between capital, state and worker.
In 1975, however, Milton Friedman brought his American winner-takes-all neoliberalism to Australia. His acolytes, like Peter Costello, founded “think tanks” including the HR Nicholls Society to destroy the strength of the Australian worker. The IPA followed them, turning from promoting Australian neoliberalism – Economic Rationalism – to the ultra-free market neoliberalism that so excited America’s richest.
Our society now displays the damage caused by decades of cynical “trickle down” economics and the crippling of worker strength. Just as in America, our chasm between rich and poor is at historic levels. Wealth is now generational, with the American model and our copycat version having almost destroyed aspirational dreams.
While the Labor Party continues to govern more for the nation, it has still embraced the truisms of this debunked economic model. The Coalition, by contrast, governs for the richest. This is the reason that it also copies the Republicans’ culture war battles, aiming to win a majority and government with grievance rather than sound policy.
Dahlia Lithwick described America’s Republican voters thus recently: the “majority of White Americans continue to vote against interest for parties and ideologies that directly contribute to their economic decline.” This is the position for most Coalition voters in Australia. As in America, the strategists are activating racism to promote this grievance.
The Voice to Parliament is not, as they lie, a “third chamber” of parliament or any other such threat to equality. It is literally nothing more than an advisory body to try to ensure that the best policy is deployed to reverse the deep disadvantage faced by First Nations people. It is placed in the constitution to ensure that cynical governments in the future cannot abandon it. The design of the body itself will be built by parliamentary consultation with First Nation representatives.
Some who reject the Voice do so because they believe it to be a sop. The depiction of it as a threat to land ownership is a pathetic and dangerous slander: it is, however, a handy distraction from the prospect of a wealth tax that could raise $29 billion a year.
The idea that society is a zero-sum enterprise where anything gained by anyone else is stolen from you is a distortion of fact and a miserable basis for community. We must not let a wealthy, self-interested elite divide us with racist lies to ensure their own continued grasp on our common wealth.
This essay was first published in Pearls and Irritations.
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