ALLAN PATIENCE. What values are we talking about?

May 16, 2017

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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