Is Australia a racist country? Are Australians racist? The questions crop up with unfortunate regularity. There is another question. How did Australia become a racist country? An accident of birth cannot be a reason for what has become an entrenched fear of the other, and yet there is a deeply rooted xenophobia in Australia. How did we get to this point? After all waves of migration have marked the development of Australia since Europeans first arrived.
Ask almost any politician and you will be told that Australia is a country made special because of its tolerance, its spirit of a fair go. We are told that it shines as a beacon to the world as the most successful multi-cultural society on the planet. Many migrants found peace, security and home. For others, life was difficult. Australia has never been a benign, happy and blessed land. It can be a cruel and heartless place.
Australia shares with almost every other country, a sense of nation, a call to nationalist sentiment in the cause of promoting unity and social cohesion. It is something that has been carefully honed over decades and centuries. Taken to its illogical conclusion we could say that Gina Rinehart, Frank Lowy, someone working ten hours a week and needing more, and the Newstart recipient all share common values and aspirations because they are all Australian. It’s a nonsense and we all know it, but we have been told, from birth that we are egalitarian, and we are Australians, first second and last. So why has this country had such a shameful history of racism? The answer is very simple. Fear, xenophobia, and racism became, very early on, valuable tools by which to forge an artificial unity that became the Australian national identity.
The decades leading to Federation were spent fostering an emergent Australian nationalism. From the 1880s until well into the 20th century the Bulletin magazine had the infamous Australia for the White Man masthead. The trade unions and the fledgling ALP were fierce advocates of white nationalism and racism. Echoes of this of this can still be heard with only ever-more slightly sophisticated fear-mongering about foreign workers. Conservative parties since Federation have been no better.
Today in Australia there is a disturbing degree of anti-Asian sentiment. It exists at all levels of society, from professors who clothe racism in intellectual garb, to all sides of the political divide, to the overtly racist political movements and parties that seem to be proliferating in Australia. The recent shameful attempt by the Monash University Students Union to effectively ban international students from running in student elections would have made those early Bulletin editors proud.
The anti-China racism is but the latest in a history of exclusion. Leaving aside institutional anti-Aboriginal racism, the Chinese were the first to feel the force of bigotry and they are again the focus of racism that is both personal and state-sponsored. Australia has come a long way from the brutality of the gold fields, and it has been a journey marked by constant waves of migration. Every wave of migration assisted the development of the Australian state. They came, they built, they developed. They created the infrastructure and the wealth that comes from the work of many hands for the benefit of the few, and wave after wave suffered low and high-level racism, that came from being the ‘other’.
The intensity of the racism correlated with the health or otherwise of the economy. After WWII Australian business and government called out to European migrants who were white-enough to slip through the ‘White Australia’ guidelines. They built the factories, the steel mills, dams, and power stations. They worked hard and contributed mightily to making this a wealthy country. This was the golden age of the world economy. These migrants learned to bear the brunt of the jibes and jokes. If you could ‘take a joke’ then you would be tolerated, if not embraced. The 1970s brought economic hard times. The good old days were never really to return.
The next waves of migration, from Lebanon, from Vietnam, faced more difficult times. There was more than a little spite in the racism that greeted these arrivals. Manufacturing industries were beginning to leave Australia for greener, more lucrative pastures. Unemployment was rising. Fear and mistrust of our geographic place in the region and the world became politically useful. Something was wrong. The good times were no longer rolling. It’s got to be someone’s fault. In time honoured fashion it became the fault of the foreigner, the migrant, the refugee, the job stealer, the ones who were not quite like us.
Today one in eleven workers are underemployed. Hundreds of thousands have no work. Recession looms. It’s just the right time for a good old-fashioned scapegoat. The foreign student, the asylum seeker, those who ‘won’t accept our values’ are all looked at with mistrust.
Australia is a racist country, but the Australian people are no more or less racist than any other. Racism serves a political purpose, but no good purpose. We have a lot more in common with each other than we might think. The wealth of this continent was created by us all. Let us not find divisions.
Dr William Briggs is a political economist, affiliated with Deakin University. His special interest areas are in the fields of political theory and international political economy.