Yesterday I went to March Australia in Sydney, an event which started in March 2014, a mere six months into the Abbott government, to mobilise against the destructive policies of a newly-elected Coalition government and the dishonest Liberal Party campaign. In September 2013, Tony Abbott had cruised to victory on a slew of lies (such as no cuts to public broadcasting, and not butchering Gonski, NBN and the NDIS) and his trademark aggression, misogyny, racism, religious bigotry, homophobia and climate denialism.
The line-up this year began with an acknowledgement from Shaayma Abdullah, who introduces herself as Aboriginal and Muslim, a single mum of three. Shaymaa is studying midwifery. She spoke to the domino effects on nutrition and mental health caused by housing inaffordability in Sydney; and by government dismantling the welfare safety net.
Next, Aboriginal man Daniel Taylor from Kunnunurra spoke of his life under the oppressive cashless welfare regime. He read out a long list of government agencies with access to his personal details through the scheme. He described the humiliation, the daily hardship, not of being poor but of the system imposed by government on the poor, in violation of fundamental human rights.
The speakers following spoke on cuts to penalty rates for the lowest paid and most insecure workers; the continuing expansion of fracking licences in Queensland and NSW and inherent risks to food and water supply posed by this destruction of country and obscene pursuit of profit; cuts to university funding and increases in the cost of degrees through fee deregulation; and the ongoing horror that is our immigration detention policy.
These critical issues, which go to the heart of well-being in community, and to who we are as a nation, are rarely addressed or debated in good faith by the political leadership and those who report on policy and parliament politics. Instead, a deeply conservative, woefully inept, morally bankrupt government goes the same rounds on pet obsessions – company tax cuts, free speech, attacking unions – of the elitist few.
That our federal government prefers to raise, over and again, discussions which cause demonstrable harm to identifiable communities – marriage equality and LGBTQIA people; the Racial Discrimination Act s. 18C and Aboriginal people, Jewish people, Muslims, people of colour – demonstrates a paucity of vision as well as the hegemonic bigotry that has prevailed for centuries.
The Coalition is no better on economics, or science and technology, or education, or foreign affairs. They invented a budget emergency in Opposition, and then promptly created economic malaise in office. They sabotaged climate policy in Opposition and destroyed any meaningful action in office. The Liberal Party appeased Pauline Hanson in 1996, and re-empowered her twenty years later. They falsely conflated asylum seekers with an ostensible terror threat under John Howard in 2001 and hyper-militarised our response to people fleeing persecution ten years later.
This is from the Sydney Morning Herald letters page, 18 September 2001:
The parliamentary secretary to defence Minister Peter Reith, Peter Slipper, said today: “There is an undeniable linkage between illegals and terrorists and it is absolutely vital in my view to ensure that we don’t have illegals entering Australia inappropriately because given the fact that some of those people come from the country that is the centre of terror, I would be particularly concerned if those people were allowed to enter Australia.”
Have we shifted from this position, a full fifteen years later?
The cultural backwardness, the stagnation, the absence of innovation, the dearth of ideas or solutions or creativity or competence – these are not mere embarrassments. These are the inevitable result of the abuse of incumbent power by conservative elites and the moral vacuum in which neoliberalism operates.
A potted history of racism
The ‘debate’ on s. 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) and racist Australian values more generally has been thoroughly covered by Aboriginal journalists and writers such as Amy MacQuire here and Luke Pearson here. It is tedious and exhausting and harmful and for Aboriginal people to have to keep educating the wider populace on this.
What I want to add is a historical, political and ethical context to the purpose of those who insist on perpetuating their racist views. How racism is done in Australia is simultaneously a product of a divergence and development in racist thought in England, and a founding feature of the white Australian state. It is a mere 170 years old. This is both good news and bad news: as something so recent, it can and should be reasonably easily dismantled. As a founding principle, coded into our Constitution, racism is constitutive of the laws, culture and society, of the federated Australian nation itself.
First, race is not a real thing. It is a social construct, made up by white men who invented a hierarchy of humanity and placed themselves at the top. Less well known is the historical fact that the odious pursuits of poly-genetics, phrenology, craniology and eugenics were prompted and accelerated by the English in the wake of their ‘empirical’ observations of Australia – of First Peoples, of native flora and fauna, of country.
The English refused to see the continent, her islands, the people and languages and law, as simultaneously diverse and integrated; a cosmology and a reality; physical and metaphysical. Their eyes and ears did not transmit to their brains that they were seeing and being told of the oldest and most successful societies on earth.
As Kombumerri/Munaljahlai woman and senior research fellow at Charles Darwin University, Dr Christine Black (2011), writes,
But then I ask how can people who come from such young cultures as those of Europe comprehend the sophistication of a continuous culture that goes back more than sixty thousand years? To be truly “of the great southern continent” a newcomer needs to engage with the ancient history of the continent through the intellectual traditions of one or more of the two hundred clans in language, song, dance, and localized common law. Otherwise, newcomers are forever grafting themselves onto a landscape about which they have no real historical understanding, let alone a sustained relationship with, other than as a pit from which to extract resources to sustain the consumer lifestyle of the coast-bound capital cities. In other words, they are devoid of stories from the land. The land is silent, mute to their efforts, belligerent in its continued extremes of flood and drought.
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in the Americas, the colonial invaders perceived First Peoples and their lands as different but comprehendable through the lens of European norms.
According to De Vattel (The Law of Nations 1760)
though the conquest of the civilised empires of Peru and Mexico was a notorious usurpation, the establishment of many colonies on the continent of North America might, on their confining themselves within just bounds, be extremely lawful. The people of those extensive tracts rather ranged through than inhabited them.
This stipulative nonsense rationalised the extreme violence of imperial projects throughout the Americas, and was taken to even greater extremes here. In Australia, everything seemed so vast so alien to the aliens that whole disciplines were dedicated to shoe-horning Indigenous life on the Great Southern Land into the twisted rankings and arrogant imperatives of ‘enlightenment’ theorists.
Before they saw Australia, northern concepts of race were a made up hierarchy of humanity, but we were still ‘all children under god’. After they reached Australia, the farthest flung continent from their Anglo-centric and Euro-centric world, the monogenecist (one species) approach was deemed insufficiently racist. Now, proposed these learned men, a polygenecist view of species of humanity should prevail.
Hiatt (1987) explains: ‘to the European mind, accustomed as it is to positions of authority and hierarchies of command, a state of ordered anarchy poses a set of intellectual and emotional problems’.
The shorthand for this observation these days is white fragility. It is clear that the vibrancy, wisdom, social order, and above all the survival of Aboriginal people continue to pose intellectual and emotional problems to many a white Australian mind.
Racism is an objective moral wrong
While race is a made up thing that is universally rejected by every credible institution on the planet, racism and racists remain with us, in law and in life. One of the key problems with the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) is that race is simply not a legitimate organising principle for a statute. The problem is not race, because race is not real, so the legislation can not achieve its purpose.
Similarly, racism is always wrong. This is because of the harm racists cause is real; while race itself is not real. Speech and actions which harm people are moral wrongs, while voicing and acting on opinions which are based on a known falsehood are epistemologically wrong. This is so irrespective of how flowery the arguments, how earnest the white folks, waxing lyrical on free speech.
The intellectual and emotional problems white people experience in the face of Aboriginal survival – and excellence – is evident in the huffing and puffing of racist populism into which the likes of Malcolm Turnbull and Pauline Hanson and Andrew Bolt and Rowan Dean (or whoever) tap for their own public benefit.
Their arguments are always the same, and never specific. Instead, these people drag out big picture abstractions like free speech and democratic principle and balance and Rule of Law to rationalise the same creepy obsessions [content warning] that motivated their phrenologist and eugenicist forefathers.
The politics of a racist polity
Regular guest and Liberal party apologist Niki Savva was asked this week on Insiders (Sunday 9:00am ABC1) whether the Prime Minister had ‘his heart in it’. This was in regards to Turnbull arguing for law reform which would retrospectively safeguard the emotional well-being of a dead cartoonist – a prospect so absurd that only a racist could put the case with a straight face.
Savva said yes, and she is right.
It is true that Turnbull put his heart into prosecuting his ‘make Australia more racist again’ case. This is an example of the ‘emotional problems’ identified by Hiatt, above. Turnbull was emotional, irrational, and angry – because he liked the dead cartoonist who produced a comprehensively racist body of work.
Turnbull also experiences the emotional confusion that is spawned by the intellectual incoherence of conservative ideology and its denialist imperative. For people like Turnbull, and who share the same demographic privilege, this confusion and denialism tend to manifest in aggression and abuse of power. This dynamic can be seen in the conflicted and conflicting nonsense Turnbull has articulated.
Political correctness did not silence Bill any more than terrorists did, declared Turnbull, in his favourite faux-gravitas tone, weirdly conflating two fear-mongering favourites of the far right. And indeed, being racist and seen as racist did not stop Leak or his publisher from producing and publishing racist material.
The suggestion those people who support a change to 18C are racist is deeply offensive, Turnbull told the Parliament, simultaneously trolling himself, the wording of the section, and the Australian people.
In sum, what was perceived and accepted on Insiders as a personal and political prime ministerial commitment to free speech and legislative reform was in fact situated in two other places entirely. One is his grief at the loss of his racist mate. The other is to lord it over former colleague Cory Bernardi, who campaigned against s. 18C for years before deserting the Liberal ship (with a lip-quivering performance of his own).
Bernardi has had Turnbull well-rattled his entire Prime Ministership, so what better revenge than to cede to the argument after Bernardi left the party, and introduce it to the Senate, where Bernardi sits? This has the twin benefits of getting under Bernardi’s white skin, and avoiding Turnbull having to vote on the obnoxious thing himself.
We know this, because Nick Xenophon, another two-faced conservative masquerading as a moderate, has declared he will support the procedural but not substantive changes in the bill. We know this also because Turnbull represents the seat of Wentworth, and his constituency has a significant proportion of Jewish voters.
Every time this debate is dragged out again, Jewish community groups put in hundreds of hours defending the law as it stands; Jewish and Muslim and Aboriginal leaders stand side by side to argue against any weakening of the provisions. Nevertheless, this is where the Orwellian nonsense Turnbull sprouted about strengthening the act – by weakening it – was directed. As if such incoherent rubbish would be palatable to Jewish or any other intellectual traditions.
The disproportionate impacts of racist ‘debate’
It can not be overemphasised that the legacy of nineteenth century polygenetic racism lives on in Australia in a sui generis way. This is because of the twin phenomena of First Peoples here inspiring white science to invent a polygenetic humanity; and because this invention was – and still is – codified into the Australian Constitution.
This is not to minimise or obscure the racism directed at Jewish communities, Muslim communities, Arab communities, Chinese and Vietnamese and Indian and other Asian Australian communities, against all people of colour.
It is to point to the status of Aboriginal people as the First Peoples of this country, to their specific rights and interests as First Peoples. It is to underscore the intellectual dishonesty and scientific bastardry used to rationalise generations of laws and violence on the black body by the Australian polity – the white state and society – and continues to be so used.
This is evident from the ‘killing that was the political economy of Australian settlement’ (Davis, 2016) as described by Cobble Cobble woman Megan Davis, Professor at Law and Pro Vice Chancellor at the University of New South Wales.
It can be seen in the material connection between harmful stereotypes of Aboriginal people (such as those depicted in cartoons published in The Australian) and medical neglect, as articulated by Kamilaroi woman and barrister Louise Taylor on the death of Ms Dhu,
Tanganekald and Meintangk-Bunganditj woman Irene Watson – Professor at Law and Pro Vice Chancellor of Flinders University – writes of laws which ‘construct all aspects of our being, even the construction of our death and the displacement of our bodies’ (Watson, 2005).
It is this tradition, the jurisprudence of colonisation, which Turnbull and the Liberal Party, which Hanson and Bernardi – backed by the law-making power of the Australian Parliament – wish to continue. The magnificent self-sufficiency of First Peoples here so confounded the invaders that whole new sciences were invented to rationalise cruel and violent laws. The young culture of the aliens is still beset by the intellectual and emotional problems posed by our failure to comprehend the sophistication of a continuous culture that goes back more than sixty thousand years.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, we are talking about the harm caused by racists, and by dehumanisation of welfare recipients, and indefinite detention, and by increasing the cost of degrees, and penalty rate cuts, and housing insecurity, and CLIMATE CHANGE. Conservatives really do fiddle as the world burns.