The last time Australia was labelled a racist nation by a regional power was in the wake of the election of John Howard and the emergence of Pauline Hanson in 1996 and 1997.
The former Indonesian ambassador to Australia queried the direction of Australia’s social policies, resurrecting a long line of earlier claims by the then emerging Asian leaders that the country’s ethos was still very much White Australia.
A growing consensus had been achieved by 1972 amongst progressive Australians that racism was no longer compatible with Australian modernity in the coming Asian century. One of those voices and a key architect of reform was John Menadue.
Soon after the Howard/Hanson election in 1996, I was to give the Australia Indonesia lecture in Jakarta before a room of dignitaries. Invited by colleagues at the University of Indonesia, I had been asked to speak specifically on “Is Australia a racist country?”. Many of them had been educated in Australia and had been beneficiaries not only of the Colombo Plan, but also of the opening up of Australia to Asia more broadly. They were intrigued and somewhat fearful that a reversion to type was about to occur. I had been required by the Australian embassy to have my speech vetted by its local diplomats, at an especially sensitive time with the new Foreign Minister Alexander Downer due to meet in Bali with his counterparts the following day. No corrections were required. Some 300 copies were printed.
A couple of years previously I had been contracted by the NSW Ethnic Affairs Commission to pen the 1995 Australia Indonesia Multiculturalism lecture to be given by Premier Nick Greiner. Greiner’s speech, which explored the advances taken in Australian multiculturalism while recognising the challenges that remained, was well received. He read it with scarcely any amendments, a sign that I had captured the tone and spirit of modern Liberalism ante Howard.
I gave my speech to muted applause and it was followed by a commentary from a local Indonesian scholar and adviser to Megawati Sukarnoputri, then in opposition and three years away from her vice-presidency to be. He noted that when invited to speak by the organisers he thought he would have nothing to say about Australian multiculturalism, the series theme. He reflected though that there were important similarities not so much between the two societies, but in the challenges diversity presented to their entrenched elites. This was during the rising challenge to Suharto’s presidency, including in anti-Chinese riots.
Societies he suggested, were like script-writing conferences. If they only permitted participation by the entrenched elites alone, who would thereby allocate pre-defined and minor roles to the groups not part of the inner cabal, then the expectation that minorities would perform those roles as prescribed was misconceived and could lead only to violence and outrage. However, if those at the writers’ table made way for newcomers to contribute then the emerging narrative of nation, with its multiple inflections and perspectives, would be rich and productive. This was Indonesia’s challenge, and so too he thought, it was Australia’s.
At the end of the lecture I was asked specific questions about whether Australia was becoming racist again. My response was that Australia was a country with a racist history, trying not to have a racist future. Michael Maher, the ABC’s Jakarta correspondent recorded the speech and the discussion, and edited excerpts of it went to air in Australia on AM just as Downer was arriving in Bali for his first meeting with Ali Alitas. Later that day I received a phone call from the Australian Ambassador (who had not been at the speech due to Downer’s visit), with flames coming out of his ears. The language was choice, with the gist of the argument being one never criticises one’s own country while on foreign soil, and never when paid for by one’s own government. I pointed out the speech had been cleared by his office; he accepted that he had been too busy to read it. The embassy, in an attempt to appease Canberra, recovered as many of the printed copies as it could and pulped or burned them. One however made it into the National Library of Australia as the copy of record.
Australia was built on two racisms, those overwhelming ideologies of White superiority and privilege that drove our most monumental anti-human strategies, against Indigenous people and against non-Europeans. The first was designed to justify the theft of land and the destruction of people, the second to ensure what we had stolen we kept for “ourselves”.
These ideologies of imperialism were not unique to Australia – though our “performance” of them has been fairly extraordinary. In the former British Empire Australia alone has refused to recognise Indigenous prior ownership and sovereignty, like a child who has stolen a toy denying it ever was anyone else’s.
Surprisingly though necessarily in the 1970s, as the world around us transformed from empire colonies into independent states, the White Australia policy was abolished, and a non-racial mould was placed over our population building programs. However, in its place we have embedded an ethnocracy, some elements of which are designed to keep Indigenous people in their place, some of which are designed to sustain White people in theirs. Our media, as a recent study has shown, systematically reinforce the foundation myths and their modern variants.
Gaze slowly across the faces that line the front bench of the national government, the High Court or the Board of the ABC – it is as though the past fifty years of immigration post-White Australia never happened. Think about the ethno-racial makeup of the hundreds held in offshore immigration detention in the name of our nation’s security: hardly a one who could be thought of as White. Think about the massive majority of those excluded from support during the pandemic, and reflect on their colour, origins and ethnicities.
We alone of former British colonies with whom we compare ourselves have refused to sign on to Article 4 of the International Convention on the Eradication of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, one that would require us to criminalise race hate, something every conservative government has sought to avoid. We have created the best place in the West to be an on-line racist, and we grow them here for export. Back in 1997 when our government was under attack over racism, it created a special unit in DFAT to engage with Asia on this issue – it had one official assigned to it.
When the Government says Australia is not racist, it is clearly not talking about our past history. Does it mean the present? Well probably not, as we can see racism occurring daily. Is it an aspirational claim? Perhaps, but until the writers’ table is opened up, the narrative of the nation will still be clouded by the inhumanity that is the essence of the racist mindset. [end]