Australia has never been properly decolonised, particularly in both the political and psychological senses, as most states which came into existence during the 20th century were. This has had a profound effect, not only on the way aboriginal Australians have been treated by settlers from around the world. It has also contributed to a lack of sympathy for those who have had to fight for their political independence elsewhere.
For Australia’s Europeans settlers, the experience of decolonisation was not unique, but it was unusual. The British left willingly by agreement, to the disappointment of the Bunyip aristocracy who regarded the UK as “home”. The constitution of the first new state of the 20th century was an Act of the UK Parliament at Westminster. There was no need to violently resist or evict the British, who were prepared to leave an Anglicised colonial European elite in charge of preserving the Empire’s largest and most important land mass in the Southwest Pacific.
Contrast this with the experience of the French in Algeria and Indochina, to take just two of many examples where, in order to gain independence, the colonial power was violently expelled by organised indigenous populations.
Attempts by the British and the settlers to annihilate the indigenous population were not entirely successful, as the frontier wars attest, though they were sufficient to ensure that any threat to the new white nation from within could be violently subdued, as was the case in Canada and the United States. This ensured that from the very beginnings of the Commonwealth, the external was cast as the threat to Australia’s newly fabricated nationalism, not the internal aboriginal population whose people and culture had been smashed.
Australia’s experience was at odds with what became the pattern of European decolonisation across the world for the rest of the century. Whether on the subcontinent, in Indochina, Central America or North Africa, European colonial empires were destroyed by protracted and violent struggles by organised indigenous resistance willing to make extraordinary sacrifices for their political independence. Violent uprisings, usually characterised as “terrorism” by the colonial overlord and its local elites, became the normal path to decolonisation: it was a tactic often reluctantly deployed but it frequently worked. In the second half of the 20th century the number of independent states in the world more than trebled.
Australia has never been properly decolonised, particularly in both the political and psychological senses, as most states which came into existence during the 20th century were. This has had a profound effect, not only on the way aboriginal Australians have been treated by settlers from around the world. It has also contributed to a lack of sympathy for those who have had to fight for their political independence elsewhere: Palestinians, West Papuans, Kurds and Western Saharans, to name only four national groups who have not yet achieved statehood.
It has also meant that, in conjunction with its promiscuous great and powerful friend across the Pacific, Australia has shown little reluctance to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries, often to maintain or establish neo-colonial occupations. Of the major wars of the twentieth century – the Boer War, World War One, World War Two, the Korean War and the war in Vietnam – Australia is the only country to have participated in all five.
Solidarity with the Vietnamese, who faced brutal French and then American colonialism, was slow to develop in Australia because it fought against Vietnamese independence for eleven years. East Timor was subject to a violent 24 year occupation by Indonesia that Australia’s political elites on both sides of the Parliament supported and encouraged. Our interventionary crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan are still widely regarded as, at worst, misguided efforts to liberate others from tyranny.
And until very recently, Australia’s incomplete decolonisation helped to shape its attitude to the Israel-Palestine conflict. After all, a settler state doesn’t require much socialisation to show understanding and sympathy for other colonial settlers: and conversely, indifference to the brutality meted out to the indigenous population. The same can again be said for the approaches taken by Canada and the United States, Israel’s most consistent international supporters.
Non-indigenous Australians have little understanding of, and therefore sympathy for, the struggles and sacrifices of those who felt they could not liberate themselves from colonial occupation without resorting to violence. This is an important reason why the mother country’s political culture and legal institutions were copied and retained at the titular level (head of state, no republic). They were not rejected or replaced with anything home grown or even locally modified.
Australian school students were taught to show gratitude and appreciation for their British inheritance and give thanks that Australia had not been “discovered” by French or Russians. The unfortunate plight of aboriginal people seemed inexplicable and, by implication and necessity, disconnected from the colonial experience: “they” were simply unable to embrace modernity. Changing the constitution to acknowledge the prior ownership of the land has proven to be too politically difficult for Australia’s political elites, whose minds have also yet to be decolonised. The same applies to proposals to change the Australian flag.
Australia’s national day commemorates the beginning of European settlement – from an indigenous perspective it is more accurately described as “invasion day” – and is apparently also too difficult to change, despite its short confected history and growing popular opposition. However, like the retention of the British monarchy and the rejection of a republic, it only remains a day of celebration because the process of decolonisation was never completed – or in many respects, seriously attempted.
The torturous negotiations over indigenous land rights and the apology to the stolen generation of aboriginal families were delayed because without a decolonisation process they seemed odd and, to some, unnecessary. Those conservatives, traditionalists and Anglophiles who attacked these and other proposals for change in the name of reconciliation have accused activists of engaging in “identity politics”, “history wars” or having a “black armband” view of Australian history, always emphasising the negative aspects of modern Australian as if history was ultimately a profit and loss statement.
Interestingly, recent recipients of Australian citizenship are often the most hostile to change, migration, refugees, and the least sympathetic towards indigenous Australians: they could be called “drawbridge migrants”. It’s almost as if the ethical principle of imagining oneself in the shoes of others – in this case their indigenous brother and sisters – was a step too far and pregnant with worrying implications about the continent’s modern history. Of course it cannot be done at all if the history is only written from a settler’s perspective.
Like all multi-ethnic and multicultural societies, Australia has problems with race and intolerance. Some of these problems, and many others in the international domain, are caused by the way Australia became an independent nation, which required a necessary process of decolonisation that was never seriously pursued.
Dr Scott Burchill is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Deakin University. Biographical information and a list of publications can be found at scottburchill.net