ALLAN PATIENCE. What values are we talking about?

How much longer must we endure the so-called culture wars? How much longer do we have to put up with vacuous phrases like “Australian values” in our politics? Now, it seems, the Prime Minister has taken to using this disagreeable language. 

One of his most demeaning moments to date has been Malcolm Turnbull’s parroting of the slogan “Australian values,” placing them at the forefront of the government’s approach to vetting immigration visas. It is a particularly egregious example of dog whistling against “outsiders” and ethnic minorities. It is also a cunning nod and very sly wink to those spreading the venom of Islamophobia in our increasingly paranoid country.

Tony Abbott was quick to weigh into this nastiness by writing about “a civilization: the only one yet that has provided every citizen with the necessities of life” (The Age, 4 May 2017). Abbott was referring to one of his favourite themes, the Anglosphere.  This is an imagined global collective embracing the UK, the USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. These states and societies are claimed to be natural allies against the rest of the inferior, less trustworthy, less civilized world.

This is a silly example of the kind of nostalgia indulged in by those who mourn the passing of the British Empire. In his ratty book Battlelines Abbott explains: “The bonds between the countries of the anglosphere (sic) arise from patterns of thinking originally shaped by Shakespeare and the King James Bible, constantly reinforced by reading each other’s books, watching the same movies and consuming the same international magazines.”

The Canadian scholar Srdjan Vucetic has written a comprehensive critique of the Anglosphere concept (The Anglosphere: A Genealogy of a Racialized Identity in International Relations). In this outstanding book he explains: “it cannot be understood without reference to the legacies and shifts in Self-Other relations inside and outside the territorial boundaries of its five core states.” It is, he points out, a “racialized identity.”

Let us be absolutely clear about this: The whinging from the far right about “Australian values,” and all the ballyhoo associated with that regressive thinking, is based on a truly darkly imagined Australia. It should be of deepest concern that the Prime Minister is now using the language associated with this destructive rhetoric.

Root and branch, “Australian values” is absolutely a racialized concept. It belongs to a tradition that for so long poisoned Australian politics – the tradition of white Australia once enshrined in legislation prohibiting “non-white” people from settling in this country. The fundamental purpose of the white Australia policy was to maintain a racially “pure” British population across the continent for all time.

It was conceived against the background of the quiet eradication of the country’s Indigenous population through benign neglect (“smoothing the pillow of the dying race”) and much tougher measures. In the nineteenth and well into the twentieth centuries these measures included driving Aborigines off their land, poisoning their watering places, launching vigilante parties to round up and kill Aborigines as if they were vermin, stealing Aboriginal children with a “white” (usually male) parent, while condemning the majority of Aborigines to the bleakest margins of the country.

Until very recently white Australia was engaged in what has been nothing less than a systematic policy of ethnic cleansing against Aboriginal Australia. This hideous history still haunts the very white discourse of “Australian values.”

The white Australia policy also grew like a noxious weed out of the experiences of Chinese immigrants who came to Australia in the mid-nineteenth century gold rush era. They were frequently subjected to humiliation, exploitation, and terrible violence – all of it based on racialist prejudices. The “Australian vales” discourse continues to feed on this pathological history.

For a short while during the Whitlam and Fraser governments, the country began to transcend its racism. The white Australia policy was finally disposed of. The concept of multiculturalism nurtured positive conversations about how the country could move forward. Policies were introduced to begin addressing the needs of Indigenous Australians. Our immigration programs were broadened to embrace people from all over the world. A cosmopolitan Australia began to emerge and even thrive.

But this brief respite from Australia’s racialized identity quickly evaporated during the Howard government. Whenever possible the then Prime Minister avoided uttering the very word multiculturalism. As another Canadian academic, Stefano Gulmanelli, has noted, Howard believed that membership of the Anglosphere implies interests “shared with the UK and the US [that] provide the compass in defining Australia’s national interest and its projection into the world.”

Since then Tony Abbott and those around him have been carrying the torch for “Australian values.” Abbott’s risible nostalgia for the Anglosphere burst into the public domain when he championed Prince Phillip for an Australian knighthood.

The right’s knee-jerk response to anyone accused of not conforming to “Australian values” is to label them  “un-Australian” – a mode of exclusion based on a racialized nationalism. Now Malcolm Turnbull has joined this nasty sideshow in the culture wars endlessly waged by the fogies of the right of Australian politics.

The entire “Australian values” discourse leads to hatefulness being directed at those beyond its very narrowly drawn pale. It is not an accurate reflection of contemporary Australian society and it is deathly as far as the country’s regional and international reputation is concerned. Let’s put a stop to this pernicious nonsense, now, before it undermines the very foundations of Australia’s claims to be an inclusively cosmopolitan and civilized country.

Dr Allan Patience is a Principal Fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne.

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4 Responses to ALLAN PATIENCE. What values are we talking about?

  1. Jim KABLE says:

    It took me some years into nearly two decades living and teaching in Japan before the Australia about which I spoke with some pride – given the dark days of Indigenous genocide and Stolen Generations and stolen land out of which it had come – began to reveal itself as sliding backwards into dog-whistling asides into racist “them-and-us” commentary. From relaxed and comfortable PM John HOWARD – stealing/appropriating the thunder of Pauline Hanson – or else on my brief return visits – or were otherwise aided in those pre-Internet days with articles sent from the press or ABC RN programs recorded on cassette to me in Japan. Then there were stories of Japanese friends coming through Australian customs and/or verbal attacks in the streets which convinced me things were really on the slide. Yes – Australian values! I’ve lived for periods of time in half-a-dozen other countries and travelled in far many more. What I think Trumble likes to call Australian values (without explicitly enumerating them – or even if so doing) are actually universal world-wide values – with fairness coming at the head of that list. What is fair and what is not fair are very important – not just here – where the notion appears to have died (some poor bugger to-day already five years in detention – will be there forever because this country has so boxed itself in with unfair laws that this is the result – here with his parents when he was 11 – some crime – no passport for either his birth country or this one – so the law has him for all time locked up)! You are right on all counts, Allan! Thanks for the focus.

  2. Geoff Seaman says:

    Thank you, Dr Patience, for exposing the nonsense of so much of politicians’ talk of Australian values. Actions speak louder than words, as has been said down the centuries. If we judge our present political leaders by their actions they are sadly lacking. For me the present Government’s cruel treatment of asylum seekers is a glaring example.

  3. Michael Lang says:

    One of the ironic twists in the use of terms like “Australian values” is that they are used to both subvert tolerance and inclusion and to mask that subversion. Every time I hear our politicians talk about Australian values I am reminded that they are heading off critisism of their policies. Sadly, most of our journalists fail to take a critical lens to this ideological devise.

  4. aale Hanse says:

    While the facts you use are true it is the aggressive overtones that I object to. Name any country that does not have a cultural conflict that plagues the people. Religion and its cousin economics are mostly to blame just as science created divisions so many moons ago.

    The listed anglicised countries where populated from Europe several centuries ago and bought with them their way of life which is still dominate today albeit with local peculiarities. It is that cultural insistence that has made the anglicised countries what they are today – warts and all. Like it or not we live in one of those countries and feed off the benefits it has developed over that time.

    Developing a cultureless society is possible in the short term but overtime in reality is just a dream because of what we are: possessive and combative. I also would suggest it is the cultural possessiveness that has got us thus far whereas a cultureless society would have limitations due to the laziness and affluence that plagues us now but worse.

    Considering what we have achieved over the last century or two and the state of the environment and inequality I suggest we have bigger problems to deal with.

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