The other day I happened upon a Facebook meme which argued that even if all white Australians are not personally responsible for the original dispossession of the Indigenous Australian peoples, they have benefited from it. And they have a responsibility to set things right.
There’s a lot of truth here ; Though it’s not just white people who benefit ; it’s the whole of non-indigenous society. All non-Indigenous Australians have a responsibility to put things right. Economic and cultural empowerment. A genuine Treaty process.
At the end of the day we want Australia “to belong to all of us”. But Sovereignty was never ceded. A reconciled nation is something that needs to be negotiated. And a Treaty cannot be merely ‘tokenistic’. It has to address Indigenous grievances past and present. It has to set things right – permanently.
Some critics on the Right argue that Left proponents of Indigenous Rights (including on a Treaty) want to ‘divide’ the country. But that’s the whole point of democracy. Recognition of ideological and social divisions ; and provision of a democratic process to give them expression – and (to an extent) to resolve those. Though the urge to suppress all social conflict can lead to a kind of fascism. ‘National unity’ can be a watchword for the suppression of dissent. In order for democracy to avoid being overly-authoritarian we need support for civil rights as well ; and tolerance of civil disobedience ; and support for industrial liberties.
For Australia Day, though, we need to consider our history and our values closely. Uncritical militarism is dangerous ; can lead to unthinking support for any and every war we’re dragged in to. There is far too little reflection on the catastrophe of Australia’s participation in World War One. And Billy Hughes’ attempts to enforce conscription when the nation was already being bled dry on the battlefields of Europe.
Colonisation was a trauma for Indigenous peoples and that needs to be remembered. But the ‘old’ Australian culture should not be ‘airbrushed’ either. There’s the spirit of Eureka. There are cultural figures like Henry Lawson who championed the sufferings of the working class and the downtrodden. There were cultural icons like Ginger Meggs. Australia also democratised ahead of Britain, and provided full, universal and equal suffrage (including women’s suffrage). Federation (the formation of the modern nation) was peaceful.
Pre-multiculturalism Australia had a culture. In part it involved deference to Britain and Empire. That led to the catastrophe of over 60,000 dead from the First World War. But it was more than that as well. We need to incorporate the old culture with the newer multiculturalism ; and preserve a central place for the appreciation of First Nations. A bit like a Hegelian dialectical spiral where the old is forever preserved in the new.
But remember also that tens of thousands of Australians died fighting fascism in World War II. Prisoners of War of the Japanese endured horrific hardships in Changi and on the Thai-Burma Railway. Be-headings, starvation, torture. The mateship they developed was not some ‘toxic masculinity’. It helped them survive in a bond of comradeship and shared hardship.
And let’s not forget the women who contributed to the fight against Japanese Imperialism and fascism either. Vivian Bullwinkel for instance ; who was the sole survivor of a Japanese massacre of nurses ; driven into the sea and machine-gunned. As well as testifying regarding Japanese War Crimes, she did crucial work supporting repatriated soldiers after the War.
The history of Australian Communism ; and of other socialists more broadly – can also be thought of as part of Australia’s legacy. (and indeed an international legacy as well) I think we can be proud of Evatt’s fight against the domestic McCarthyism. Of Whitlam’s reforms. Of the Communists’ fight against destitution, evictions and so on during the Depression. That our Communists overwhelmingly broke from Stalinism ; for instance, took a stand against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. That for a while we had a very strong mixed economy ; a highly progressive tax system ; and a very strongly regulated labour market. For a time there was even a strong element of ‘bipartisan consensus’ there: before the 1970s supply shock (mainly the rise in the price of oil) saw neo-liberalism and attacks on workers embraced in an effort to restore profits.
Mostly people want to enjoy a kind of national identity. We have to contest the meaning and form of that identity. Again, the danger is unthinking militarism and creeping authoritarianism. But the Australian military needs a sense of its history, traditions, values. This is crucial for democracy. Given the history, that should overwhelmingly include anti-fascism.
The idea of an ‘egalitarian Australia’ is almost dead in terms of practical implementation. Over decades it has been ‘emptied out’ into privatisation, labour market deregulation, ‘user pays’ and ‘small government’. But it’s well-worth reconstructing a national identity where the fight is on to retrieve older egalitarian traditions and policies. It’s worth contesting national identity rather than ‘vacating the field’ and giving the Right ‘a free hand’.
On Facebook, also, more Conservative participants were arguing about ‘assimilation’ of indigenous peoples and migrants.
In response I argued:
I wouldn’t want to assimilate Indigenous peoples full stop. ‘Assimilation’ suggests minorities abandoning their old identity and culture to ‘fit in’ with broader society. I’d hope a Treaty would include a commitment to help preserve Indigenous culture and identity. But that we have a shared Australian identity as well. Think of Cathy Freeman when she won gold and did a lap of honour wielding both the Australian flag and the Indigenous flag. Shared cultural elements are the basis for common ground and engagement. I believe in an integration which is compatible with multi-culturalism. What’s necessary is effective dialogue, mutual recognition and mutual understanding. We need to develop mutual respect; and the kind of genuine, active and deep solidarity necessary to fight for a qualitatively improved social and economic system. That is (for me) democratic socialism.
But we have to remember the ‘old’ Australian culture as well. Pre-multi-culturalism Australia was not a ‘blank slate’ as some people like to suggest.
Indigenous peoples could also have their own advisory parliament ; which would communicate their needs and demands to the Federal Parliament. Establishing such an elected advisory body could contribute to reconciliation ; and frameworks for the practical development of a Treaty.
Technically you can have nations within nations. That can potentially lead to divisions re: nationalistic antagonisms. (That’s not to say people should ‘forget’ their ethnic origins). But I think the Indigenous First Nations example is unique. They had their national identities. And the authorities of the day tried to take those identities away from them.
January 26th (marking the arrival of the First Fleet) is a divisive date on which to hold ‘Australia Day’. It is suggestive of the notion that ‘real’ Australian history only began with colonisation. Colonisation was a watershed moment – and that will never change ; but nonetheless the date should be switched if we are serious about reconciliation.
On the other hand, some kind of ‘national day’ will likely be preserved. And yet the meaning of that day will be – and perhaps must be – contested. There is cause for shame from some chapters of Australian history. There are also causes for pride. Australia Day must be a time for reflection on all of this. And to consider the form an egalitarian and just Australian nation might perhaps take into the future.
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