Is Australia “a racist endeavour”?

JVL member Andrew Hornung, currently staying on in Australia thanks to the coronavirus crisis, reflects on the lessons of Australia’s past.

Is telling its history like it is “a de-legitimisation of Australia?  Not at all.  It is a moral de-legitimisation of the myth of Australia.  Saying this is not an attack on the legal status of Australia – de-legitimisation in the juridical sense – but an assertion of the rottenness of its moral pretensions and an insistence on unreserved truth-telling.”

Perhaps, wonders Hornung, these thoughts have wider implications…

Only half painted now back ground to be filled in yet. Facebook: DannyEastwoodArt

Notes from Melbourne

I’m sitting on a tram in an expensive area of Melbourne, Australia.  It is late afternoon and hordes of children from elite schools pour on board, most in uniforms with armorial crests and Latin inscriptions.  It’s hot but the boys wear ties.  Most of these children seem to be from families from the Indian subcontinent, from China or from South East Asia.  By their accents, some of them are obviously born in Australia and some perhaps not.  No Aboriginals.  I don’t remember such scenes when I visited Melbourne just over ten years ago.  Things are changing.  I arrive home and switch on the TV News; Prime Minister Scott Morrison is speaking to a meeting of business leaders.  I see only European faces.  I mention this to my Australian friend “Things are changing,” he assures me.

He may be right.  Certainly there is a sense of multicultural mix about Melbourne, though there are few faces that suggest African heritage and even fewer Aboriginal.  A few place names – fewer here than in Sydney – recall the Aboriginal past.  I visit the Botanic Gardens, where the shop is well-stocked with books about the Aboriginal history of Australia and Aborigine lore, with souvenir artefacts – boomerangs, tea towels, bags, shawls, bookmarks – bearing the dot-painting motifs associated with Aborigine art or the human and animal figures typical of the Torres Strait people’s work.

Cultural appropriation.  Certainly, but it is often viscerally critical… as well as charitable.  Among the books on the best seller lists in Australia at the moment is “Truganini”, the story of the woman widely considered to have been the last full-blooded Aboriginal Tasmanian, chronicling the extermination of her people by white settlers.  (Until 1947 her bones were an exhibit in the Tasmanian Museum and in 2002 some of her hair and skin were found in the collection of the Royal College of Surgeons of England and returned to Tasmania for burial.)  If the ancient indigenous population receives a paternalist pat on the head in the Botanic Gardens gift shop, it also receives belated vindication in other quarters.

I am reminded of the last stop I made in Israel before arriving, with my nephew at the wheel, at Tel Aviv airport.  It was a kibbutz with a small “museum” demonstrating crafts of the indigenous Arab population.  If you climbed the tower there you could read the proud description written by one of the kibbutzniks of how the Jewish settlers moved into Arab fields at night and established “facts on the ground”, “conquering the land”, pushing out the Arab peasants so fondly remembered in the souvenir shop.

This state of Australia, Victoria, is the area most inhabited by the Aboriginal population before the arrival of Europeans with their infections, their guns and their greed.  Before these first Australians were slaughtered and driven into inhospitable wastes.  Today it is estimated that less than one percent of the population of this state are descended from these ancient peoples.  No wonder I don’t see their faces anywhere – certainly not among the eager multi-ethnic schoolchildren crowding onto my tram.

So, is this society racist or not?  This is the society built on the bones and desecrated sites of the indigenous population.  This is the current face of a society that has only recently learned to value the traditions of those it reduced to an impoverished remnant, massacred, robbed and marginalised.  This is the current face of a society that in the 19th century banned not only immigration from China and Japan but opposed the sale of Chinese-made goods, that in 1901 passed the Immigration Restriction Act, initiating half a century of racist immigration policy, ending officially in 1975 when the Whitlam Government passed the Racial Discrimination Act, which made racially-based selection criteria unlawful.  Things are certainly changing but nothing will undo the crimes of the past.  Whatever the future holds, this settlement was a racist endeavour whose horror is finally being documented now that its results are irreversible.

Is saying this, saying what few today deny, a de-legitimisation of Australia?  Not at all.  It is a moral de-legitimisation of the myth of Australia.  Saying this is not an attack on the legal status of Australia – de-legitimisation in the juridical sense – but an assertion of the rottenness of its moral pretensions and an insistence on unreserved truth-telling.

Is saying this tantamount to a demonization of Australia?  Not at all.  Australia shares a history, mutatis mutandis, with other European settler colonial projects.  With the US.  With South Africa.  With Israel.  With some South American states.  And to say this about any of these nations is not demonisation either.  Of course, every nation’s history is unique.  Israel’s is not exactly the same as that of other colonial states.  Its foundational project was less genocidal than Australia’s or the US’s; on the other hand, while these two states move towards a more multicultural future (with many limitations), Israel evolution is in exactly the opposite direction.

Saying that the European colonisation of Palestine was (and continues to be) a racist endeavour is not – as the tortuously constructed Example 7 of the IHRA would have it – “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination”.  Insisting on the racist nature of this “endeavour” – let’s abandon that slippery word and call it by its proper name: Political Zionism – is simply stating the facts.  It has nothing to do with whether Jews collectively have a right to national self-determination or whether Israel is a legitimate state or not.  That juridical rather than moral determination rests on the prevailing international legal norms and is further underlined by decisions by the Palestinians’ representative bodies.

Those Jews, like myself, who do “deny the Jewish people their right to (national) self-determination”, do so not because of the incontestable immorality of the colonial settlement, past and present, and but because this “right” can only apply to people constituting the majority of the long-settled population of the territory being claimed.   “The Jewish people” as a whole – World Jewry, to use a clearer but unfashionable term – has no such right, any more than the world-wide Romany population – notwithstanding its suffering at the hands of Nazi Germany and its allies – has a right to claim Romania.

The fact that the proponents of the IHRA spend so much effort in insisting on the phantasmagorical rights of World Jewry rather than the plainly denied rights of the Palestinian people is surely a left-over of the European colonialism attitudes and nothing to do with fighting racism.

Comments (5)

  • Anti-fascist says:

    A very thoughtful and illuminating article.

  • Ruth says:

    Agree 100% on your observations of Australia where I spent 3 weeks last year. It’s a country full of unacknowledged ghosts.

  • Philip Ward says:

    A very good article, but is there no “social” (actually physical) distancing in Australia?

  • Julie Hope says:

    Having lived in Australia for many years and being privileged to work with the Indigenous communities, then I applaud this article, for espousing the bigotry which exists in Australia.
    I was there during the Olympic Games in 2000, when the Indigenous people exhibited their traditions to the world stage, only to be thrown back to their reservations and communities afterwards.
    I can understand the similarities that Andrew Hornung makes with the State of Israel. Both deny the rights of the indigenous people of the invaded land, but there are many differences. The racism experienced by the Indigenous people of Australia is covert, whilst, from what I understand, the demonisation of the Palestinian people is overt and because of the power behind the authorities, using racism as a tool for their actions, there is little that humanists can do.

  • Andrew Hornung says:

    I do hope Julie meant to write “exposing” and not “espousing”.

Comments are now closed.