Late in 2015, as part of the Breeza and Liverpool Plains Harvest Festival, I camped for a couple of days with friends and colleagues on Gamilarray Gomeroi land near Gunnedah, not far from Tamworth, in north-west NSW. We were there to participate in, and document, the campaign against five Watermark Shenhua coal mines slated for the go-ahead by the NSW Coalition government.
After a group photo, the chant went up: ‘always was, always will be, Aboriginal land’. As a vocal minority called out this message, local farmers shifted their feet – and eyes – uncomfortably.
The night before, a group of said local farmers – young men all – joined us at the campfire, got rollicking drunk, and voiced the kind of racist statements we hear at any gathering of the agricultural elite.
One young cocky interrupted a conversation to ask a 21year old Gamilaraay man whether he is Aboriginal. On being told ‘yes’, the cocky described his experiences employing Aboriginal farm hands, and commented on the physical build of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory.
After we listened politely for a while, and then backed away slowly, the young Gamilaraay man asked me if I thought the cocky was, well, a bit of a eugenicist. How we laughed. What can you do? The guy actually confirmed that he was speaking to an Aboriginal person before spouting false and racist commentary about supposed traits – both physical and work-ethic – of Aboriginal people.
I am white, but to the best of my knowledge this is par for the course, in the 21st century.
A racist polity: does it matter?
I do not tell this story to deny the constructive partnerships that have been built between traditional owners, activists, and the agricultural elite (and researchers, and small business owners, and scientists and city and country) as we work together to stop coal and coal seam gas mining. These relationships have taken a lot of work to build, together. These relationships exist, and matter.
But such relationships do not nullify the fact that we live in a racist country. Our very identity as a single nation-state, when the continent and her islands are made up of over 300 sovereign Aboriginal and Islander nations, is a product of racist violence.
This is a difficult and confronting fact. The incident of the racist cocky – and of our chant at the coal mine protest site – came to mind when I heard the audio clip of Bill Shorten speaking at the 2016 Reconciliation Dinner. It is why, for me, it is noteworthy that in his speech, Bill Shorten said ‘this continent is, always was, and always will be Aboriginal land’.
The accepted political wisdom is that there are very few votes in this statement.
For the first time ever, National Reconciliation Week (NRW) has fallen during a federal election campaign. This is not in itself particularly noteworthy. Federal elections fall due every three years, and NRW was established by Reconciliation Australia in 1996, a mere twenty years ago. Twenty years is approximately 0.0004% of the period of human occupation here.
The year 1996 was the last year of the Hawke-Keating governments, the year the High Court of Australia recognised the partial survival of native title in lands under pastoral leases in its Wik decision. It was the year John Howard was elected to the Prime Ministership of Australia, on a policy platform that included extinguishing native title.
John Howard is renowned for exploiting our inherent racism for political gain. He never hesitated. His racist rhetoric followed a trajectory in lockstep with views expressed by Pauline Hanson, just as his parallel actions were designed to distance himself from her.
Naturally, Hanson copped a lot more opprobrium than Howard. It is not as if the Australian electorate is any less sexist than we are racist. Howard was hugely ‘successful’, with his ‘plausible deniability’ and his dog-whistling technique. He has ‘inspired’ and nurtured at least two generations of nasty racist young Liberals (so far): the morally moribund ‘black ops’ who have now come of age.
Not least of the Howard acolytes was the self-proclaimed bastard son Tony Abbott, whose meanness and madness was carefully nurtured as only a grossly hyper-masculine organisation can ‘nurse’ such creatures (for the Freudians: this is womb envy). Abbott’s development was eventually arrested only by a bigger ego, our current Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull.
And the nation, or at least the media and their polling partners, dominated by the same white male demographic, proclaimed that this Turnbull, another (richer) white man, could solve the problems of the nation, a systemically, endemically, sexist, racist polity.
For who? And how is that working out? Not by citing gun control and looking back on John Howard with rose-coloured glasses. Such an approach is delusional.
But then conservatives always put legacy before actual achievement. It is inherent to conservatism, devoted as it is to the past and maintenance of the status quo. Conservatives put retaining power first and legacy second. Governing the country comes a very distant third.
Could the Liberals be less terrible?
Look at it this way: Menzies had an excuse.
Yes, self-determination emerged in the post-war years as a central principle of human rights, along with the most endorsed document in the history of humanity, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights itself.
Yes, it was not until the late, great Gough Whitlam won the 1972 election that Australia was dragged into operationalising post-war human rights principles such as self-determination and thus land rights. Yes, Menzies was an Anglophile, a relic from an era when all Australians were born British subjects and it meant something – or it meant something to the white Australians.
But maybe Menzies was not completely terrible. He signed us onto the Refugee Convention (1951) and codified it into law (Migration Act 1958 (Cth)). In his limited and pompous way, Menzies represented Australia as a responsible member of the international community. White Australia, which was (legally) a half-century old by then, was not dismantled on Menzies’ watch, but post-war immigration boomed and white Australia became doomed. There was no way white Australia could remain intact under Menzies’ successors, no matter what their political hue.
And Howard? Howard is now a Menzies biographer no less. A self-seeking, legacy-profiteering acolyte. What is Howard’s excuse for being a backwards relic of another era, not just now, but while in government? Is it that he grew up under Menzies, and had arrested development throughout the civil rights and women’s liberation movements? That does not wash.
The entire ideology of liberalism is constructed on the assumption that men are rational. This, says the liberal tradition, is what differentiates men from other creatures. These socially constructed assumptions of superiority over, say, dolphins, rely on social Darwinism, while refusing to evolve. This in turn is founded in its own self-interest, or reasons, while calling self-interest rational.
See how that works? And we wonder why conservatives are incapable of dealing with, for example, climate change.
The refusal to evolve, the resistance to change, is inherent to the conservative project. Like its two icons, Menzies and Howard (Fraser rejected the party before the party rejected Fraser), the Liberal Party is deeply conservative. Even its name is a lie.
It was not that long ago
In many ways, the Howard era (1996-2007) was defined by racism. It is his signature legacy, his lasting contribution to the Australian polity. he set out to see any progress toward racial equality or self-determination or Aboriginal rights forged by Whitlam, Hawke and Keating – and even Fraser – under whom he was the worst treasurer this country has ever seen – be rolled back, undermined, attacked, destroyed.
Howard’s immediate and unreconciliatory amendments to the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) set the scene for years of racist policy- and law-making to come. Later campaigns included demonising asylum seekers as terrorists (2001); and the abolition of the only national, elected, representative Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander body in the land (ATSIC).
The final Howard election campaign (2007), in an effort to not lose his seat and government (he lost both) the then-Prime Minister and his ex-military Indigenous Affairs man Mal Brough announced they were sending in the army to Northern Territory communities because look at all those mining riches well black men you know what black men are like.
Just some of the indescribable damage we caused under the so-called Northern Territory Intervention is described here.
Nobody did more than Howard to ensure that post-war developments in human rights, in racial and gender equality, in land rights, recognition of Aboriginal rights and interests in land, in women’s liberation, environmental sustainability, climate change … were trashed, broken, swept away, kicked to the kerb. The man stood for nothing and nurtured no-one but his own: politically invested white patriarchal industrial, corporate, and social interests. And no-one did he nurture more than Tony Abbott.
This destructive impulse, or more likely frank incompetence, is evidenced by the fact that Howard failed utterly to ensure any form of succession. If anything, Howard completely bollocksed the potential succession out of spite towards his Treasurer and deputy. Although to be fair, Costello was no better in the political skills stakes by then. After ten years in power it would be beyond naivety to expect anything more from the Liberal Party than incompetent, lazy, born-to-rule complacency.
This is one key reason Howard lost his seat as well as lost government. People put up with the old man rapidly losing relevancy for so long, out of loyalty and respect and deference, but if he can not even handle succession?
Not all cultures are like this. But Howard and Costello benefit from a specific form of social organisation: white patriarchy. It is women and children who will continue to show loyalty and spend time and provide meaning to Howard in his dotage. Howard was sacked, but most claim to leave in order to ‘spend more time with family’. After a lifetime of grasping and game playing and destroying people’s lives, one or two may come to understand what actually matters. The huge cost to other people’s children and grandchildren, such as of the elders struggling under the Northern Territory Intervention, is unlikely to cross the tiny mind of a Howard or Costello.
That was then.
This is now
There is a reason I recount this disaster of a Prime Minister, a man whose reign is hailed as a success because he ‘won’, despite the lies, the massive and continuing damage, the racism and sexism and backwardness. Despite the meanness (Howard) and the madness (his protégé and chief head kicker, Abbott), that is this legacy.
This is the Australia in which our young cocky grew up. Hard to imagine, isn’t it? This person came of age, his entire high school years and development towards adulthood, was dominated by a backwards racist sexist, a small and nasty, petty and mean-minded, talentless suburban Liberal Party hack with no original ideas, no creativity, no vision, and no greater articulation for the future … other than that Australians be relaxed and comfortable.
To be a young white man coming of age in this period meant to win at that? How foul. Whoops! I mean what a time to be alive.
The point is not to defend these men, either old or young. The point is that they inherit and hold more social, political and economic power than anyone else – without having done anything for it, let alone having worked hard. It is axiomatic that the beneficiaries of structural advantages perpetuate the mythology of meritocracy most aggressively. Under white patriarchy, when a trope is demonstrably untrue,the white men who benefit from it most are always in the forefront when it coms to reproducing the lie.
The point is to note that very few federal election campaigns see a robust Aboriginal policy platform at all, let alone a policy plank around Aboriginal identity, sovereignty, or rights.
In 2007, Kevin Rudd added an official Apology to the Stolen Generations to his policy mix, a promise he delivered on 13 February the following year. It had been a while since a major party had the courage to put up what would be done for Aboriginal people, rather than what a future government would promise to do to harm Aboriginal people.
Few people would claim that the Apology had tangible benefits for the material circumstances of Aboriginal people. Many argue the opposite. Nevertheless, as a campaign policy, the Apology was couched in the language of democratic principle: a Royal Commission had made a recommendation, which was to Apologise, as a nation, to the Stolen Generations, to take collective responsibility for our actions. A social-democratic political party stated that if it won government, it would implement this recommendation, because social democratic ideology subscribes to collective action and collective responsibility.
This is how our democracy works. And it is in this context that we must understand what Bill Shorten said:
This mighty continent is, was, and always will be Aboriginal land.