Conservatives fight desperate, losing battle against decolonisation of Australia

Jan 26, 2023
Sunrise in Australia; a dramatic contrast of red and black behind the gold disc of the sun; the image is reminiscent of the iconic Australian Aboriginal flag.

Conservatives rail against references to “invasion day”. Ultimately, however, these are the despairing sighs of an old, dying Australia which no longer exists and isn’t coming back.

Change is often threatening for conservatives and instinctively they resist it.

In Australia, opposition to change has taken many forms, including an ambivalent attitude towards multiculturalism and criticism by John Howard and Geoff Blainey about a pervasive “black armband” view of Australian history which discourages patriotism and is ashamed of European colonialism.

Support for the constitutional monarchy and opposition to a republic has also been successfully driven by a fear of change, rather than a defence of inherited political power.

More recently, resistance to changing the date of Australia Day from the 26th January – an invented tradition barely two decades old – has been joined by opposition to the Voice and any change to the Australian Constitution which acknowledges the historical claims of First Nations people.

Conservatives now claim that the history curricula in schools and universities excludes the nation’s Judeo-Christian heritage, and has been replaced by Marxist and postmodernist agendas.

Conspicuously the same people cast doubt on the science of climate change, portraying it as a covert attack on the virtues of market capitalism, while boosting fossil fuel industries at the expense of investment in renewable energy sources.

During the Morrison Government, conservatives in Parliament and the media confected Sinophobic responses to the rise of China, damaging political relations with the planet’s new Great Power and Australia’s most important trading partner.

Much of this is driven by a repressed understanding that change is irreversible and resisting the march of progress is ultimately futile. Neither conspiracies about the long march of the left through educational and bureaucratic institutions, imported US culture wars which revivify neo-fascism and white supremacism, nor heartburn over woke business leaders betraying the profit motive, will reverse the tide.

Often portrayed as indoctrination by urban elites with a contempt for traditional Australian values, these concerns constitute a collective moral panic by conservatives about the decolonisation of Australian culture. This decolonisation – the collapse of European colonial narratives about the cultural superiority of the West – has been coming in Australia for some time. The process had barely commenced in 1901 but it has accelerated more recently. Consequently, battles are being fought on a range of fronts.

It’s not indoctrination per se that conservatives oppose: they have a clear sense of what they want children to be taught. Judeo-Christian values, respect for constitutional monarchy, unadulterated sexual binaries, and the superiority of the nuclear family, individualism, market economies and Western culture.

It’s the wrong kind of indoctrination that worries them. Then, in their view, it becomes propaganda. Two examples, one local and the other from overseas, illustrate their concerns.

In electoral post-mortems following their 2022 defeat, the Liberal Party and its Fourth Estate backer Murdoch media, appear to be almost existentially concerned about the views and voting patterns of younger Australians. They should be. They voted overwhelmingly for other parties: the Greens, independents and Labor.

The successful emergence of teals in the Liberal Party’s blue ribbon heartland challenged the two-party system and helped deliver government to the ALP. But it wasn’t a pro-Labor wave. Instead, it was a devastating rejection of small l liberal candidates bound to policies by their party’s bloc discipline which they didn’t seem to believe in, but were forced to defend. They were severely punished for their hypocrisy.

Young Australians do not swallow the pageantry of the British monarchy and question its relevance for modern Australia. They have little interest in organised religion and don’t buy newspapers or source their information from them.

They are suspicious of contrived patriotism, they hate misogynist attacks on prominent women such as Jacinda Ardern, Grace Tame, Yassmin Abdel-Magied and Gillian Triggs. They think it odd that business leaders in Australia are inevitably middle aged white men.

Young Australians are very worried about the environmental effects of industrialisation and unchallenged assumptions about infinite economic growth. They dislike racism and homophobia, and are concerned by the uneven distribution of wealth in the economy, encouraged by a taxation system rendered increasingly regressive by tax havens, off-shoring and other clever avoidance schemes which only the rich can exploit.

Their scepticism extends beyond class divisions to questioning Australia’s regular involvement in US wars and an increasing fear of nuclear conflict.

In summary, young Australians are questioning the legitimacy of many conservative values and established practices in this country. The people who espouse these views in The Australian or Sky News Australia do not resonate with them.

The response of conservatives to these alarming electoral realities has been largely incoherent. There have been the usual calls for an end to compulsory voting, attacks on the ABC, failed attempts to insert youth lift-outs in legacy media, and demands for greater product differentiation by moving the LNP further to the right: ideologically comforting for some but ultimately electoral poison.

Conservatives cannot build an attractive political program around the vilification of opponents and confected culture wars copied from an American script. The political median is swinging away from them and it won’t be coming back any time soon.

In the United Kingdom, the Churchill cult – mysteriously beloved by the ALP NSW right wing machine – is under siege. This is much more significant than the vandalism of statues with graffiti. It’s not that Churchill’s reputation as the saviour of the West during World War Two is being revised. It’s that his bigotry, racism, misogyny and colonial crimes, especially in India, are no longer being passed over in silence as they were in official and laudatory biographies.

Standard accounts by Martin Gilbert and a more recent sympathetic treatment by Andrew Roberts have been joined by critical studies by Madhussree Mukerjee, Geoffrey Wheatcroft and Tariq Ali. A deeper, more complete picture of a complex 20th century icon is emerging to replace a very one dimensional, hagiographical account of his life.

This is long overdue, but it is disturbing for conservatives to see the reputations of their heroes being questioned and revised. Churchill’s image is undergoing the same treatment that Cecil Rhodes, Christopher Columbus and a range of formerly revered slave owners in the United States have recently faced: colonial values and institutions built upon them are being morally rejected. As is their public celebration.

Conservatives argue that these were men “of their time” and it is wrong to retrospectively impose modern values on the past. This argument would be stronger if the accomplishments of these men – and they are almost always men – hadn’t been selectively highlighted by their admirers at the expense of their more nefarious activities and views. The good and the bad are an inseparable package in everyone’s life. The decolonisation of Western culture is correcting what was in many cases a consciously distorted, rose-coloured narrative.

It is not possible to study the history of this land as if it began in 1770, which I was taught in secondary school in the 1970s. Finally, we are learning about indigenous resistance to colonialism, frontier wars and the claims of those whose children and land was stolen.

We can no longer regard China and India as irredeemably backward countries which seek to emulate the European path to modernity. The revolt against the West is well underway and it is increasingly successful.

Conservatives in this country may rail against references to “invasion day”, any questioning of ANZAC Day and criticism of the British monarch or their secular heroes. They will belatedly oppose globalisation and invoke the sacredness of sovereignty without understanding either concept or that that particular horse has bolted. Ultimately, however, these are the despairing sighs of an old, dying Australia which no longer exists and isn’t coming back.

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