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‘Team Australia’ threatens the majority, too

‘Team Australia’ is about both dog whistling for the majority and aggression towards minorities. Making insiders feel safe and comfortable is the other side of ensuring that outsiders feel rejected, writes David Stephens.

Team Australia rhetoric comes down to who is in and who is out. ‘My experience of Australia as a kid’, Irfan Yusuf recalled, ‘was that it was a nation of bullies trying to protect their turf from anyone they perceived as outsiders’. Minorities were ‘bludgeoned’ into conformity or marginalised.

Irfan Yusuf was born in Pakistan and came to Australia as a child. From my point of view, sometimes it seems as if not much has changed since the 1970s of Yusuf’s childhood. At the official level, it is as if the rhetoric of ‘border protection’ is being applied to a concept of Australian-ness as well as to the country, Australia.

But ‘beating the bounds’ exercises also offer comfort and send signals to those who tread the national home ground. They are directed at ‘us’ as well as at ‘them’. Politicians manipulate the symbols effortlessly. The world is divided into those who wear burqas and those who do not, those who would travel overseas to be ‘foreign fighters’ and those who fear what such people will do when they come back to Australia.

The manipulation, in other words, is not only to intimidate the minority but also to ensure solidarity among the majority. Scapegoating of minorities to unite the majority is a time-honoured technique of fascist regimes, as is suppression of human rights because of a perceived greater need (‘security’). Because fascist techniques have been associated in the past with dictatorships and anti-democratic regimes does not preclude them existing in ostensibly democratic countries as well.

One way of manipulating the majority is to push patriotic buttons. Honest History reported earlier this year an incident where coalition federal MP, former Brigadier Andrew Nikolic, accused the ABC of lacking ‘situational awareness’ when it broadcast a launch of the Honest History website. In typical national broadcaster fashion, the segment was very balanced – there was an interview with the national president of the RSL as well as references to the less admirable parts of the Anzac story, like soldiers getting venereal disease. Ignoring the attempt at balance, Brigadier Nikolic believed it was poor form to ‘question Gallipoli’s place in our history’ during the centenary of World War I.

Brigadier Nikolic’s remark came just before Prime Minister Abbott complained that the ABC lacked ‘basic affection for the home team’. A month later, a very senior official – a man with a proprietary interest in war commemoration – accused Honest History itself of ‘lacking situational awareness’ and of ‘not being a force for good’.

We wondered whether a memorandum had gone around Canberra regarding ‘situational awareness’. We found it was a military term to do with being aware of one’s surroundings. In the current context, though, it is more accurately rendered as ‘pipe down, pull your head in and let the rest of us get on with some patriotic exercises’. Of which there will be plenty, with hundreds of commemorative events and projects costing at least $300 million over the next four years.

Anzac has been described as ‘the third rail’ of Australian politics – touch it, one gets electrocuted – or as ‘a sacred cow’. We have seen school teachers, university academics and even pseudonymous commenters on blogs express nervousness about being seen to question the prevailing view on Anzac, to break the Anzac ‘taboo’. People sometimes giggle nervously when we skewer what we call ‘Anzackery’, overblown, sentimental, jingoistic rhetoric, often with a political or commercial purpose. Writers analysing Anzac receive hate mail.

Having the correct attitude to Anzac is a Team Australia loyalty test. Questions about Anzac feature in the citizenship material of the Immigration Department. There are other conformity indicators, too. Some behaviours are called ‘un-Australian’; others score an ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie’ seal of approval. Prime Minister Abbott felt it necessary to describe the opposition leader as ‘an Australian patriot’. When the ABC’s Emma Alberici argued last month with Wassim Doureihi from the Hizb ut-Tahrir group, the Prime Minister said, ‘I think she spoke for our country last night’, as if national honour was somehow at stake on tabloid television.

Commemorative occasions impose a particular sort of conformity. When the ABC aired allegations about a massacre by Australian soldiers following the Battle of Bita Paka in then German New Guinea in August 1914, the Minister for the Centenary of Anzac, Senator Ronaldson, said the timing of the broadcast was insensitive because some (distant) relatives of the Australian soldiers also killed at Bita Paka were attending a centenary ceremony.

Given that commemoration will be virtually continuous over the next four years, charges of insensitivity are likely to recur. Situational awareness will be at a premium. Successive commemorative occasions will provoke remarks about the links between the Anzacs then and our Diggers now. The speech of former Prime Minister Howard on Remembrance Day was a good example. The soldiers and airmen going to Iraq this time around, said Howard, ‘stand on the shoulders of their Anzac forebears and they carry in their mission the same values of this country as did their forebears’. (It’s appropriate to have Howard popping up this year in a semi-official capacity; Team Australia smacks of his simple nostrums.)

There will be an implication – sometimes spelt out explicitly – that questioning the Iraq commitment (or the Syrian commitment, if it occurs) is not only disloyal to our handful of personnel there but to their fighting fathers and grandfathers. Even beat-ups like ‘the Russians are coming’ will play their part. The impulse in a fearful populace to ‘circle the wagons’ is not necessarily proportionate to the reality of the threat. Even confected threats gain a momentum of their own and put dissenters under pressure to go along.
‘Now is when we find out what Team Australia really means’, Waleed Aly said of the moves to ban the burqa. ‘Now is when we discover if [Team Australia is] designed to unify a diverse nation or to demonise the socially unpopular.’ In fact, Team Australia is about both dog whistling for the majority and aggression towards minorities. Making insiders feel safe and comfortable is the other side of ensuring that outsiders feel rejected.

David Stephens is secretary of Honest History, a coalition of historians and others seeking the balanced presentation and use of Australian history during the centenary of Anzac. He does not necessarily represent the views of all supporters of Honest History.

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  1. flohri1754

    Very well put, David Stephens … an open-eyed description of the never-ending political battle every country needs to be “situationally” aware of …. most especially during conflict commemorative periods ….

  2. The AIM Network

    Thanks David. They didn’t seem to carry across from the iPad.

  3. John Fraser


    "Ream Australia" would be more like it.

    An impressive list of Committee members.

    Once again thanks to The AIMN for bringing me this Article.

  4. Gilly

    David, congrats to all those involved with the website. So much of history comes from the drive of individuals. Government is becoming a vehicle of control by ideologies not a tool for management of people. It is the drive of individuals to be individuals that so many in government and their corporate masters are out to control. One of the major methods used is by way of corralling individuals into boxes of “tickey tackey”, making it easier to control the herd. The status quo is easier to predict and manage, but it greatly reduces the chances progress. An open minded approach to history is one of the greatest threats to the power of conservatism.

  5. Kerri

    So refreshing to hear the ANZAC legend challenged and questioned. The hypocrisy of “Lest we forget” on the day Abbott sent troops into Iraq has been ignored by the media “Lest We Upset” the digger myth.
    I personally am seriously disturbed every time a poltical issue is described and handled with psuedo militarism. This Government moves more and more towards military practices and styles which, of course are the time honoured precursors to fascism. It is, of course, decidedly right wing. Howard’s Australia Test was preposterous. Most Aussies are unable to sing Advance Australia Fair without pausing to recall the next line.
    As for Howard’s assertion that new Australians should know the history of Don Bradman???? Many of us born here could not give a tinker’s cuss about football or cricket. Does that make me less a third generation Australian??? The Team Australia nationalism is so transparent but it is good that articles like this call it out

  6. mars08

    I suspect that… even if you tried for 50 years… you won’t guess who made THIS statement…

    “…it’s hard to imagine that citizens of a pluralist democracy could have succumbed to such delusions – yet clearly they have.

    The Australian Government will be utterly unflinching towards anything that threatens our future as a free, fair and multicultural society; a beacon of hope and exemplar of unity-in-diversity. “

    No cheating now!

  7. Susan

    Mars08, has to be Abbott. A master of double speak.

  8. Bilal
    14 Steps to Fascism – seems we are well on the way
    1. Powerful and continuing expressions of nationalism. From the prominent displays of flags and bunting to the ubiquitous lapel pins, the fervor to show patriotic nationalism, both on the part of the regime itself and of citizens caught up in its frenzy, was always obvious. Catchy slogans, pride in the military, and demands for unity were common themes in expressing this nationalism. It was usually coupled with a suspicion of things foreign that often bordered on xenophobia.
    2. Disdain for the importance of human rights. The regimes themselves viewed human rights as of little value and a hindrance to realizing the objectives of the ruling elite. Through clever use of propaganda, the population was brought to accept these human rights abuses by marginalizing, even demonizing, those being targeted. When abuse was egregious, the tactic was to use secrecy, denial, and disinformation.
    3. Identification of enemies/scapegoats as a unifying cause. The most significant common thread among these regimes was the use of scapegoating as a means to divert the people’s attention from other problems, to shift blame for failures, and to channel frustration in controlled directions. The methods of choice—relentless propaganda and disinformation—were usually effective. Often the regimes would incite “spontaneous” acts against the target scapegoats, usually communists, socialists, liberals, Jews, ethnic and racial minorities, traditional national enemies, members of other religions, secularists, homosexuals, and “terrorists.” Active opponents of these regimes were inevitably labeled as terrorists and dealt with accordingly.
    4. The supremacy of the military/avid militarism. Ruling elites always identified closely with the military and the industrial infrastructure that supported it. A disproportionate share of national resources was allocated to the military, even when domestic needs were acute. The military was seen as an expression of nationalism, and was used whenever possible to assert national goals, intimidate other nations, and increase the power and prestige of the ruling elite.

  9. stephentardrew

    Is it just me that is turned off by this continual glorification of war. I have worked with many ex-servicemen and some women and the results are absolutely appalling. To me war is an abomination and its glorification a travesty against the true goal of peace and tolerance. I have nothing but admiration, and deep sorrow, for those who fight war and are wounded physically, mentally or die in action. However what we should be celebrating, with enormous pride, is those periods in which we are not at war so that peace becomes a habit,

    I am sick of being told how to think and who to glorify simply because some politicians want to ride on the coat tails of tragedy. Let them and their children go to war and then see how many conflicts we have. Suddenly diplomacy would be all the go. War never unites a nation it destroys lives and leaves wrack and ruin in its wake. Historical facts and recognition of bravery yes but glorification no. We are told to be proud of failure when led into war by a bunch of ignoramuses who could not organize a garden party.

    Look around at history and their is a trail of wars and remembrances each leading to another while here we are preparing for further travesty, Our citizens say no yet they manipulate the message and off we go. Too much flag waving and not enough hard facts. The US are setting us up for an Asia conflict by supporting Japan’s claim to islands that were China’s before the second world war. Fact is millions of Chinese were murder by Japanese forces but let not the truth get in the way. That abomination of a smiling assassin Henry Kissinger is still giving advice to the US government. He is a mass murderer.

    And a usual we dumb bums will wag the tail of the US hegemonic military industrial, corporate complex which fears the rise of a truly strong independent power base in the East. Russia is in the mix as neo-nazis fight for Ukraine oligarchs while Russians sectors were denied the right to use their language. And we want to take side?. A foolish error that shot down a civilian plane could have been diplomatically resolved with some type of joint communique. The point is no-one wants a solution because their solutions is extension of power and hegemony. We repeated Anzac in Iraq and now we are off to do it again in the Middle East and Europe so lets all throw a remembrance party and do it all again. Good lord am I mad or something.

    Anyone who has read Chomsky on war will realize what a farce the whole effort to aggrandize war is.

    The best strategy is to do all in our power to stigmatize war and all we can to prevent it. Pragmatism is just a cop out for self-justification.

    Wouldn’t it be great if we don’t have to remember war no more.

    Am I the Lone Ranger?

  10. mars08

    Last Tuesday I was unfortunate enough to catch a few words of a speed by the odious JW Howard. There he was, banging on about the virtues of Australian military action by claiming that Australians ONLY fought to free the oppressed and defend our way of life. BULLSHIT!

  11. Möbius Ecko

    Also caught some of that mars08, and he was lying through his teeth as always,it seems a very common trait inherent in most Liberal politicians and especially their leaders.

  12. Möbius Ecko

    Only one news bulletin I caught last night correctly stated that the agreement signed between Australia and China by Abbott and Xi is not the FTA but an undertaking to negotiate the FTA in the future.

    Every bulletin I saw or heard this morning stated that Australia has signed a FTA with China worth billions. We haven’t.

    What was signed was a get out of jail free card for Abbott, and you have to wonder how much that has cost Australia. Abbott early in his absolutism of this country made one of his usual foot in mouth remarks that had some major economists and political commentators gasping and highlighting the stupidity of what Abbott had just done.

    Abbott stated there would be a free trade deal with China by the end of November this year.

    At this stage so very early in his first term he had not bothered to talk to the Chinese before making that statement, so it now put the Chinese in the drivers seat knowing Abbott had a November deadline no matter what. Seems that Abbott got out of jail in the signing of an agreement to negotiate sometime in the future after November. The Chinese would not have done this for nothing, so that leaves you to wonder just what has Abbott given up to save his bacon.

    I have also noticed that the government and MSM are couching the benefits to Australia in this deal and what China has given up so far. Robb has been gloating over it. Yet the questions I have not heard from anyone so far is what does China get out of it and what is Australia giving up, after all there are two sides and two players in this, not just Australia.

  13. Matters Not

    While we are on the ‘proposed’ free trade deal, it seems that there’s lots of devil in the detail.

    The text of the Australia-China Free Trade Agreement (FTA) has not yet been made public, but it is expected that it will include a controversial provision allowing for “investor-state dispute settlement” or ISDS.

    Well it’s now public and there will be an ISDS.

    This article points out some of the of the pitfalls.

  14. stephentardrew

    Isn’t democracy great when our fearless leaders can negotiate behind closed doors and sign documents excluding any critical analysis of an agreement by the public while corporations get free and open access.

    What damnable fool thinks this is democratic.

    ISDS are an abomination against the rights of ordinary citizens who have to pay for politicians incompetence.

    I can see the day when governments finally tear up these ridiculous horse trading documents in which all comers are winners and losers.

    There is something wrong when everyone thinks they are a winner because that is not how capitalism and market economies work.

    Think about it for a while.

    Meanwhile we are carried along the irrational gravy train of global oligopoly while giving away our sovereign rights to corporations.

    These are not trade agreements they are insider trading agreements to benefit the one percent.

  15. mars08

    “ISDS are an abomination against the rights of ordinary citizens who have to pay for politicians incompetence.”

    I suppose that depends on what you believe politicians are meant to achieve.

  16. Christine Farmer

    No, stephentrdrew, you are not the Lone Ranger. A great summing up of the situation – thankyou. I agree entirely with your piece. The thought of the amount of claptrap we will have to endure, not only next year, but I suspect until 2018, makes me feel exhausted already.

  17. Richard L

    Thank you David. Your truth is refreshing.
    Bilal. Love your work. This bit is eerie, “When abuse was egregious, the tactic was to use secrecy, denial, and disinformation.”

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