White Australia’s moral backwardness

Aug 8, 2023
An illustration showing men of the First Peoples of Australia giving directions to two white men on horseback, from the story,

White Australians like to think of themselves as an egalitarian and frank people, despising pretentiousness, while basking in a reputation for larrikinism and mateship. But this is all a front, papering over a culture that is deeply racist, excessively masculinist, and incorrigibly populist. Indeed, from its very beginnings, white Australia has been a morally backward society. And there are no signs that this is abating. Its moral backwardness is disgustingly on show in the No campaign against the forthcoming referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.

The No case is led by Peter Dutton who is supported by a querulous rump of Liberal and National MPs in the Commonwealth parliament. Their campaign is one of the most cynical and immoral exercises that we’ve seen in this country for many decades. It certainly reproduces some of the worst moments of the Morrison government. Its complete lack of ethics needs to be thoroughly interrogated – a difficult task given the manner in which the Murdoch media is promoting and dictating much of it.

No other referendum in the country’s constitutional history has been more important than this one. It represents an opportunity that will not come again for generations for white Australia to begin to address the terrible crimes that have been committed against the country’s Indigenous peoples. These include a perverse history of displacement from country, abject cruelties and violence, especially against women, massacres, and a consistently patronising approach by successive governments to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ wellbeing.

It’s important to recall the moral imperatives driving the Yes case for the referendum.

(1) There is the sustained history of white supremacist thinking underpinning the marginalisation of Indigenous Australians. This is the worst, most damning kind of racism, and it has been a central component of white Australia’s hard cultural development from the earliest days of white-settler colonialism. The vapid pretence that contemporary Australia is not a racist country is being proven to be a big cultural lie every time Dutton and his gang of Noalitionists attack the Yes case. They are in fact articulating a particularly nasty and distinctly Australian version of white supremacism.

(2) Then there is the shocking history of violence – wars and massacres – against Indigenous Australians from the very beginning of the colonial era and continuing into the twentieth century. (See the brilliant research conducted by Professor Lyndall Ryan, et al., at: Colonial Frontier Massacres in Australia, 1788-1930. This history was long swept under the carpet until scholars like Professor Ryan, Professor Henry Reynolds, and Professor Robert Manne began bringing it to our attention. Even so, the likes of John Howard remain in desperate denial of this dreadful reality.

(3) In 1997 the report of the Enquiry into the “stolen generation” of Indigenous children documented in detail the pitiless and patronising separation of children from their parents and extended families – see: Bringing them Home Report (1997)

In February 2008, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued a formal apology in the parliament for this egregious policy. In high dudgeon, Peter Dutton walked out on that momentous occasion. While recently agreeing this was probably a mistake, his acknowledgement that it might have been a mistake was confected for purely political convenience, nothing less. And his opposition to the referendum implies he was not really sorry for walking out on Kevin Rudd’s apology at all.

(4) In 2005 Professor Tom Calma, while Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commissioner for Social Justice, called on governments to provide annual reports on how successful their policies were in “closing the gap” between Indigenous wellbeing and white Australians’ wellbeing. That gap was (and remains) a wide one. It included tragically high death rates of Indigenous children, poor educational records of whole Indigenous communities, high unemployment levels of Indigenous men and women, shocking imprisonment rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait youths. In 2007 governments began reluctantly to report annually on what progress, if any, was being made in dealing with these huge problems. Ever since, what we have seen is a grim litany of annual reports that show that almost no progress is being achieved in “closing the gap” and on many measures, things are going backwards.

As the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Linda Burney, has been reminding us, the abject failures of past policies are indelibly etched into Australia’s history of political policy. They are failures that bring great shame on the country and to the politicians, public servants, media commentators and others who are responsible for those failures. Clearly, more of the same is getting us nowhere. Even John Howard’s ham-fisted policy of intervention in the Northern Territory in 2007 was a disastrous failure; infamously, it made the situation worse.

So the call by the Indigenous leaders in the Uluru statement for a Voice to advise the parliament on policies affecting Indigenous peoples has to be seen as one of the most innovative and hopeful ideas ever to come before the Australian people. Here is an opportunity to confront the incipient white supremacist culture that has been so toxic for so long among too many white Australians.

But this is where the moral backwardness of white Australia is yet again rearing its ugly head in the form of Peter Dutton and his band of nasty men and women. The Liberal and National parties’ decision to oppose the referendum on the Voice obviously has nothing to do with the morality at the very core of the case being put by the proponents of the Yes case. Morality has rarely been at the forefront of Australian politics; nor have we seen many – perhaps any – who could be identified as statesmen or women, leaders who take a stand, not for themselves, but for the security and wellbeing of the entire country.

We now know, courtesy of Phil Coorey, political editor of The Australian Financial Review, that the central motivation for Liberals’ opposition to the referendum is based on the most mean-spirited, small-minded, negatively pragmatic political strategising imaginable. Coorey revealed that in an email he has seen, the stated aim for opposing the referendum is to slam the Prime Minister with a devastating rejection by the Australian people of the very cause that Albanese has championed as the most important in this term of his government.

This is base politics. Dutton stands exposed as a creature with no moral sense, no statesmanly understanding of what is at stake for Indigenous Australians, and for all Australians, as far as the referendum is concerned. It is nasty political expediency at its worst. It is also a lurid reflection of the moral backwardness of Australian society. And if recent opinion polls are accurate (and admittedly that is still a big if), it suggests that Dutton is merely echoing the grim fact that most Australian citizens are white supremacists.

It seems that white Australia is rapidly becoming the reincarnation of white South Africa during the apartheid era.

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