Here and There – Australia

We are very privileged living in Australia.  Down at the bottom of the world, and a long way from Europe, Africa, America and much of Asia, we might be rather isolated, but we enjoy a lifestyle that must be the envy of most other people.  There is crime, violence and poverty, but in international terms it is relatively low key.  Despite economic challenges in recent years, the standard of living remains high.  It is getting hotter, water is becoming at something of a premium:  most of the country lives on the edges of the subcontinent, and most of the rest is desert, rocky desert.  Nonetheless and in spite these challenges, most Australians enjoy life in a way that is the envy of many others.

How did we earn this privilege?   Sixty years ago, Donald Horne published The Lucky Country.  The wry title came from the opening words of the book’s last chapter:  “Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck. It lives on other people’s ideas, and, although its ordinary people are adaptable, most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise.”  Wry title?   The Lucky Countrybecame a nickname for Australia, and it was mistakenly used favourably as a reference to the country’s natural resources, weather, history, its early dependency of the British system, distance from the problems of the rest of the world, and its supposed prosperity.  However, that wasn’t his intention.  Donald Horne sought to portray Australia’s climb to power and wealth based almost entirely on luck rather than the strength of its political and economic systems, which, like its leaders, he believed were ‘second rate’.

Horne suggested other industrialised nations created wealth through technology and other innovations.  Australia did not.  Rather, its economic prosperity was largely derived from its rich natural resources and continuing  immigration.  Horne commented that Australia “showed less enterprise than almost any other prosperous industrial society.”  In his 1976 follow-up book, Death of the Lucky Country, he clarified what he had meant when he first used the term ‘the lucky country’: “When I invented the phrase in 1964 to describe Australia, I said: ‘Australia is a lucky country run by second rate people who share its luck.’  I didn’t mean that it had a lot of material resources … I had in mind the idea of Australia as a [British] derived society whose prosperity in the great age of manufacturing came from the luck of its historical origins … In the lucky style we have never ‘earned’ our democracy. We simply went along with some British habits.”  He must have continued to have misgivings about choosing that title, given it was so often misunderstood and used as a term of endearment for the country.  Later in his life he commented, “I have had to sit through the most appalling rubbish as successive generations misapplied this phrase”.

The Lucky Country had a subtitle:  Australian in the 1960s.  It’s an unnecessary specificity.  Today, just as back in 1964, the Australian economy remains dominated by mining, farming and tourism.  As aptly summarised a few years ago by Alan Carroll, a business commentator: ‘Australia is a farm, a quarry and a hotel’.  To be ‘lucky’ has proved to be a real disadvantage.   It makes you lazy, incurious, accepting and expecting the riches of a good life.  It makes you complacent.  Criticism is muted, while people get on with pursuing a lifestyle that adds gambling and sport to the other more familiar attributes of a pleasant way of life.  If you live in one of the major cities, then sport tribalism is evident, but seldom aggressive:  follow Carton or Penrith, wear their colours, and enjoy the matches shouting yourself silly.  There is plenty to enjoy.  Lots of sunshine and outdoor activities, and in the evening you can while away the time watching second-rate television!

There is an egalitarian streak running through this.  The land ‘down under’ is a place where “she’ll be right, mate”.  We claim to give everyone a “fair go”.  In that laid back world, it is easy to ignore social problems.  Despite many strengths there are gulfs, especially between city and rural areas and between the bulk of Australia and the north.  There’s poverty.  There are significant numbers of disenfranchised and aimless young people.  And there’s racism.

There are two kinds of racism.  The first kind is the racism typical of immigrant countries like Australia.  This comprises the racist attitudes and behaviour that unsuspecting arrivals face, especially those coming from a new source country.  Seventy or more years ago, it was racism shown towards post-war Greek and Italian migrants, as well as refugees from several other Eastern European countries.  By the 1970s, the new group to suffer from racist slurs, abuse and attacks were the Vietnamese (as well as others from south-east Asia).  Sadly, a lot of that abuse came from the earlier arrivals, as if, having vacated the bottom of the pile, they were in a position to attack new arrivals.  That cycle repeated itself towards the end of the 20th Century when another batch of new immigrants, the Sudanese and others, arrived.

This form of racism is generally low key, half-joking taunts in the school playground, and muttering in the shops, but seldom violent.  There have been exceptions, and there were some serious incidents a few years ago, partly driven by stupid behaviour by right-wing adherents, and partly driven by the fear arising from falling living standards.  By and large, the ‘fair go’ mentality has prevailed, however, and while attacks on people from different ethnic groups do occasionally flare up, they usually collapse fairly quickly.

I don’t want to exempt or ignore episodes like those.  However, they’re not new.  Throughout history new arrivals to a country have been subjected to the same occasionally vicious and certainly unforgiveable behaviour we’ve seen over the past seventy years in Australia.  I have also seen how, slowly but certainly, those same ‘outsider’ groups are slowly absorbed into the mainstream.  Not through a process of assimilation in Australia, however, but through the acceptance of multiculturalism.  By and large we accept people from different backgrounds as long as they adopt our language, laws and values:  within that framework, we enjoy and often celebrate the other cultural differences that immigrants bring, differences that make our society richer through diversity resting on some key fundamental principles.

The other kind of racism is much deeper, persistent, nastier and divisive.  This is the kind of racism that rests on an (often unspoken) belief that ‘these people’ are fundamentally different from us and can never be full members of our society.  This is the persistent racism we see being expressed against Indigenous Australians.

Henry Reynolds recently summarised the background to the situation we’re in today:

‘After the Second World War racial science and sociology had been totally discredited. Decolonisation was redrawing the world and the fledgling United Nations had launched the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Post war governments returned to what was still seen as the problem of finding the appropriate place for the indigenous minority in white Australia. Assimilation became the central policy platform constructed by Paul Hasluck who was Minister for Territories in the Menzies government from 1951 to 1961. In parliament in June 1950 he declared that ‘we have on our hands a serious but not a frightening problem.’ The Aborigines were a group within but not of the community. They could be ‘and must be managed.’ But Australia’s race relations problem was eased by the big disproportion in numbers between the two races. There was, he declared, ‘no uncertainty about who will swallow whom.’ In a speech he gave to Melbourne’s Wesley Church in 1957 he observed that it was probable that the policy of assimilation would mean that’ after many generations the Aboriginal people will disappear as a separate racial group.’ (from Assimilation re-emerges, Pearls and Irritations, 20 September 2023)

It seems Indigenous Australians are proving hard to swallow.  In a recent address to the National Press Club Jacinta Price resuscitated the seventy-year-old policies of Paul Hasluck, as Paul Kelly explained in a long and fulsome account in The Australian.  Her vision, as Kelly summarised it, was that “Indigenous people must be joined together in the wider nation, that they must not be seen as separate, that the long-run goal must be phasing out of separate indigenous institutions and special policies.”  For Kelly it was a revelation.  Price’s vision of an assimilated nation he declared, “was a unique position, we haven’t seen it before.”  Really?  Yet another illustration of the biased perspective of The Australian.

Well, perhaps it is a perspective we haven’t seen promoted to a marked extent for seventy years. While Kelly sees Jacinta Price as pointing the way forward to an era which would see ‘an end to separatism’ it is actually a plan which would return us to the Australia of the 1950’s, ignoring the important contributions of succeeding generations.  It would be a return to a time which could only be considered if we ignored the past sixty years of evolving global opinion and international law relating to the status of the world’s 500 million indigenous people.  Back in the 1950s Paul Hasluck had a vision of an Australia where ‘the Aboriginal people will disappear as a separate racial group’.  In that vision there was no uncertainty as to who would swallow whom.

Surely assimilation (obliteration?) could only be considered if we ignored the stuttering but nonetheless positive series of changes that have taken place in Australia.  Somewhat late in the day, the Commonwealth Electoral Act was amended in1962 to give all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults the right to vote in federal elections, and within three years the franchise had been extended to cover every one of the states.  Land rights have seen major steps forward, especially with the  High Court’s revolutionary overturning of terra-nullius in the Mabo Case in 1992.  Multiculturalism is the right approach for immigrants arriving over the past 250 years.  Full recognition of the rights of indigenous Australians is the only approach for those who’ve spent 50,000 years inhabiting Australia.

If you don’t live in Australia, it may be hard to realise how deeply entrenched current racist attitudes are towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.  In part this is a function of invisibility.  It is quite easy to live in Melbourne, Sydney or Canberra and almost never see an indigenous person.  You can probably do so in Adelaide, Perth or Brisbane, too, but you’d have to be a little more diligent, as urban Aboriginals are a more numerous group there.

Moving north, there is one curious place, Alice Springs.  It is in ‘the Red Centre’, and close to the McDonnell Ranges and Finke Gorge National Park, and some 200 miles northeast of Uluru.  The town and these places are a major tourist attraction.  For some visitors, this will be their first time to see and talk to Aboriginals.  By and large, it is a well-managed occasion.  There are nice places to stay, even a G’Day Mate Tourist Park!  Shops for local artefacts, and several enjoyable places to eat.  Alice Springs is a cleaned up half-way house between ‘their world’ and ‘ours’.  Partially cleaned up.  A visitor could venture down to the Todd River in the late evening (it’s a dry riverbed much of the year) and see the homeless or drugged locals under the bridges, scenes remarkably similar to those late at night in centre of Sydney.

The other way most Australians will see Indigenous Australians is on television.  There have been many programs and news stories recently, as debate over legislating The Voice has been a hot topic.  It is a curious fact that there are two categories of people we will see.  There are the children, having fun, looking like children everywhere.  Then there are the adults, and unfortunately there seems to be a conspiracy to show us a distinctive ‘type’, comprising overweight men and women, the men with prolific bushy white hair and often hard to understand, the women looking sad and overwhelmed.  Spokespeople are articulate, but images are powerful.  However, they are also misleading.  Aboriginal people are from the tropics, and as variable as the rest of us.  Some look like Dravidians, some like Melanesians, some are light skinned, and many are far from overweight.

We are also treated to shots of townships, with dusty roads, old cars, dogs and dilapidated houses.  Stock images to remind the viewer in Melbourne or Sydney how unlike us are these people from up north.  We’re often treated to a lingering shot showing nothing much happening.  Perhaps we will see inside an old school classroom.  Almost certainly, the camera will pull back to reveal that this small settlement is in the middle of ‘nowhere’, with the arid Australian bush extending to the horizon.  Recently we saw the Prime Minister taking part in some collective meetings on The Voice.  However, even then the broadcast focus was largely concerned with shots of unexplained ceremonies and native dancing.  Almost everything was ‘foreign’ to a Europeanised eye.

I’ve given up on trying to explain my visits to the Northern Territory and the diverse groups I met there.  Culturally different?  Yes.  Suffering from poor diets and infrastructure?  Yes.  Despite these challenges, great people.  Against this, the dominant view is they are ‘not like us’, primitive, backward even, and despite the enthusiasm of some to absorb them into our society (swallow them up), most believe that it isn’t possible.  If we forget about them, won’t they just disappear?  That’s the passive side of deep racism:  highlight the differences and do so with an underlying sense of danger.  A few stories about murders, violence and rape help.

The active side of deep racism is the level of physical beating, high rates of incarceration, and continuing misallocation of resources.  The Aboriginal Affairs portfolio has always had a reasonable level of funding, but much of it goes to staff dealing with indigenous people, (yes, many of whom are Aboriginal).  The Commonwealth officer who took me to visit some communities was informative and helpful, but it was clear the people we visited saw her as being with me, not them.  It must have been an uncomfortable situation.  The same is true for local police, who spend much of their time dealing with robbery, fights, and alcoholism.

The persistent racism shown to Indigenous Australians is shameful.  It convinces many overseas that Australians are fundamentally bigoted, and it’s a perspective that’s hard to counter.  It has led to 250 years of appalling treatment, only lessened by some slow and grudging alleviation.  Sadly, it is reinforced by the images we broadcast of overweight drunks and substance abusers.  It is shameful because it is driven by shame.  In 1788 we turned up at Botany Bay and laid claim to what we chose to see as vacant land for the taking.  Reconciliation is about admitting these shameful acts in the past and addressing ways to give the traditional owners of this land the respect, support and services they need.

Today there’s only one dominating, pressing question.  How much longer are we going to allow racist attitudes and discriminatory policies towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to persist?  Surely we can move forward, and at long last begin to eliminate the image of Australians as unrepentant racists.  It’s time, even if it is very late.