With 26 January looming, it is that time of year in Australia when the gatekeepers of the national narrative go into overdrive.
Where I live, in western Sydney, it is easy enough to look around the train carriage or campus or shopping centre and celebrate diversity. It is equally easy to forget, unless venturing into the large and poorly-conceived social housing estates, that western Sydney has the largest Aboriginal population in the country.
And on 26 January, it is impossible to ignore the social fact that white Australia relentlessly, aggressively promotes the dominant agenda: whites are nation-builders, we ‘let’ the migrants in, we obscure the violence of our own ‘entry’, we are the arbiters of what is, and of what is not, Australian.
An early salvo from DIBP
One example of the dominant narrative is how junior minister for Immigration and Border Protection Alex Hawke stopped Freemantle Council holding a citizenship ceremony on Saturday 28 January. His is the department which the Australian National Audit Office reported has spent $2.2 billion on off-shore detention without authorisation.
This shambolic, cruel, militarised, and eye-wateringly profligate branch of executive government is designed to manufacture and disseminate xenophobic hate. And its 2IC (from the wealthy white northern suburbs of Sydney) confidently told a local government in Western Australia that its citizenship ceremony ‘has got to be apolitical, non-commercial, bipartisan and secular’.
Given the rabid politics in which white Australia engages around 26 January, these criteria would be met by changing the date of the first Freemantle citizenship ceremony for 2017.
At no point did Hawke articulate what exactly is ‘political’ (or commercial, or partisan, or religious) about 28 January. Unlike 26 January, which is obnoxiously white and hideously commercial, 28 January is just another day on the calendar. There was no mention that 28 January is the saints day of Thomas Aquinas, although Hawke is a former Opus Dei adherent and, given his position, likely to be as unapologetic an Islamophobe as his boss. Such mention would have been quite fitting: Aquinas christianised the philosophy of Aristotle while developing retrospective justifications for the christian west to invade Islamic countries and slaughter Muslim people. His just war theory (!) is embedded in the contemporary law of war (which, typically, is called humanitarian law) and invoked to this day.
But Hawke did not have to win his manufactured controversy on the merits or in the marketplace of ideas
He just threatened Freemantle Council with the power of the Commonwealth to revoke authority to hold citizenship ceremonies. Hawke backed this threat with an insupportable interpretation of the Australian Citizenship Ceremonies Code. The code does not stipulate that citizenship ceremonies be held on 26 January. In fact, such a directive would breach the code:
In keeping with government policy that ceremonies be held at regular intervals, local government councils should hold ceremonies at least every two to three months, regardless of the number of candidates available to attend and more frequently if necessary (ACCC 2011: 6).
It is par for the neoliberal course to label a decision to make a public ceremony more inclusive as divisive. Freemantle Council put up a decent fight, but was ultimately forced to move its scheduled 28 January citizenship ceremony.
A junior minister threatening to unilaterally operationalise federal power to bully a local government was widely reported, but without analysis of why Hawke got so worked up about a local council events calendar.
Why intervene? The strength and longevity of Aboriginal Australia
There is more to the wrongs of 26 January than whining hypocrisy and dishonesty from the likes of Alex Hawke. He is a mere microcosm of how incumbent conservative power is abused to retain dominance. Hawke was successful on his own terms: he got his mug in the press, playing to a racist constituency. Other councils will now resist change which could mitigate some of the harm caused by ‘celebrating’ 26 January.
And the nation is the poorer for it. Every time new Australians are sworn in on 26 January, they are co-opted into the colonial project. To become an Australian on 26 January is to become part of ongoing dispossession, of the goals and narratives of the colonial settler state, and to participate in the endless whitewashing of a violent history.
Surely new Australians do not want to erase the 50,000+ years of over 300 sovereign nations, their populations, their societies, their law and languages and traditions, which are the oldest continuing cultures in the world? Traditions that, as journalist Amy McQuire writes, include a slew of firsts from astronomy to bread baking to burial rituals to art to the most sophisticated and sustainable agricultural practices ever devised.
If we are seeking to redress dispossession, as we say in another dishonest narrative, we would not frame 26 January as a day of national pride. But in its current form, the Recognise campaign is as likely as every other white Australian agenda to further erase Aboriginal people and their sovereign rights.
At best, Aboriginal people are expected to show gratitude for crumbs from the white table, when an entire continent and her islands were taken by force. At worst, constitutional change will be interpreted by future governments and the courts as Aboriginal people collectively ceding sovereignty to the colonial settler state; something no Aboriginal nation has ever done nor stated any intention to do.
People like Hawke are deeply threatened by the fact that Aboriginal people have survived and maintained so much of their culture and traditions. During his crusade against Freemantle Council, Hawke did not once mention the meaning of 26 January to Aboriginal people. Instead, he relied on the inherent racism of the non-Aboriginal population to fill in the gaps around his false claim that 28 January is somehow a political/divisive date for a citizenship ceremony.
Inclusion and collusion
Speaking of crumbs from the table, this phrase was used more than once to describe a commitment by a crowd funding campaign which raised over $120,000 to donate leftover money to Indigenous organisations.
The money was raised to reinstate billboards and publish print ads depicting two girls wearing hijabs and waving Australian flags. The original digital billboard, funded by the Victorian government and developed by QMS media, showed a rotating series of images. It was taken down following threats of violence by tiny but well-known (because well-covered by legacy media) white supremacist groups.
A #PutThemBackUp campaign quickly gained traction. New billboards have since appeared with the same image of the girls, and the words ‘Happy Australia Day’.
That many Australians put their money where their mouth is for the purpose of addressing racist violence against Muslims is not an incontestable social good, although it did prompt some nuanced conversations about the implications of the billboards, the day itself, and another campaign: #ChangeTheDate. Conversations, I should add, that have been had many times over many years.
This generous post by Nakkiah Lui was widely shared and applauded. I say ‘generous’ because while racist threats by white supremacists are easy to spot, many Aboriginal people are still taking the time and effort to explain the ways in which self-identified political ‘progressives’ erase Aboriginal people, history and culture.
My own reaction was to cringe at the fact that the campaigners failed to consider Aboriginal perspectives until prompted.
Does it matter that the campaign was instigated by a director of Creative Edge, the advertising company that is reinstating the billboards? Or that the alliance offered ‘leftover money’ to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre before CEO Kon Karapanagiotidis turned their minds to Aboriginal perspectives – well after the initial target was reached?
Does it matter that many Aboriginal people were once again compelled to expend valuable time and emotional resources on educating white and multicultural Australia on what is wrong with celebrating 26 January? Or that a commitment to ‘deliberately not mention 26 January’ morphed into billboards saying Happy Australia Day?
HAPPY AUSTRALIA DAY? Would you say happy Israel independence day to Palestinian locals on the anniversary of the catastrophe? Would you, in the month of May, donate to fund billboards of Aboriginal children wearing ochre to ‘celebrate’ Al-Nakba? In Bethlehem? Naqab? In Ramallah?
Moral relativism and the national character
Commentary on such issues tends to draw on specific philosophical traditions, whether proponents are aware or not. For instance, concepts from classical economic theory, such as cost-benefit analysis and utility, are often applied to moral questions. This is a legacy of the enlightenment: Jeremy Bentham applying (half) of Adam Smith’s ‘free market’ theory to the (im)morality of the carceral state; Herbert Spencer butchering Darwinian evolution to justify the racist violence of imperialism.
Where an event or series of events produces feel-good benefits to one section of the population and tangible harm to another, it is justified by utilitarianism, the short hand for which is ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’. The problem is that we can reliably predict to whom the harm will be done and to whom the benefits will flow.
In Australia, with just about any political or social movement, the harm will disproportionately impact on the Aboriginal population.
So the claim is that the campaign did more good than harm, or produced a net social good. This is to succumb to JS Mill’s tyranny of the majority, which in turn relies on hyper-individualism for coherence. The thing to remember here is that for Bentham (and Kant and Rousseau and the rest) only property-owning white men were fully human.
This is the real root of identity politics. The corrupted version is used by opponents who have a vested interest in continuing to obscure the role of demographic privilege in life outcomes. We know who will benefit and who will not from any top-down policy or action. The evidence speaks for itself.
For example, the rate at which the state imprisons Aboriginal people has increased since desegregation freed people from mission managers and dog tags and town-limits curfews; since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. The rate at which Aboriginal children are forcibly removed from their families has increased since the Bringing Them Home report, increased since the Apology to the Stolen Generations.
And these are policies which were said to be redressing past crimes against Aboriginal people. More commonly, Aboriginal peoples, and their sovereign rights as First Nation peoples, are not taken into account at all.
Inevitably, the response to critics is: what have you done? Is doing nothing better? At least we are doing something.
Implicit in this response is the utilitarian calculus: this action is better than the actions of white supremacists (and armchair activists). But also embedded is the value of change for its own sake. Like other nonsensical values such as extending government control over the citizenry for its own sake (data retention is an expensive hotch potch of IT amateurism; cashless welfare, at huge public cost, has no discernible benefits to people on welfare) this unquestioned assumption is dangerous.
Its economic manifestation is growth for the sake of growth, a capitalist value which has brought us to the brink of extinction. Its social manifestation is progress for the sake of progress, where a dominant minority defines progress: bigger houses? Smaller telephones? Greater connectivity? Labour market ‘flexibility’, rising inequality and income insecurity? Incessant, endless, unwinnable wars?
The not-dominant narratives
There are various reactions to the billboard campaign. Members of the many Aboriginal and Muslim communities have spoken out against a campaign which celebrates a day marking the start of colonisation, and their voices should be amplified: the links above to Amy McQuire and Megan Davis and Nakkiah Lui, the IndigenousX platform created by Luke Pearson for unmediated Indigenous perspectives; Aamer Rahman saying the billboard campaign is an ‘expensive way to throw Aboriginal people under the bus’.
It is also important to note commentary which emphasises the well-meaning motivations of the well-intentioned. This trope is a sop to whiteness. It is routinely trotted out to obscure the genocidal policies which caused monumental harm to the Stolen Generations and their descendants. When supposedly good intentions are so profoundly damaging, the crime should be treated as one of strict liability: absolute legal responsibility for which mens rea (the intention) does not have to be proven in order to convict the guilty.
From my point of view – and I speak only for myself, a white Australian and feminist (and graduate economist) – the billboard campaign is a misallocation of resources. It is exhausting for Aboriginal people to keep explaining how Happy and Australia Day do not go together. It re-traumatises, it marginalises, it causes fatigue, it takes up valuable time and effort, it drains energy from the struggle to see Australia recognise and redress its ongoing colonial crimes.
Where could these resources have gone instead? To Aboriginal women’s refuges, to Aboriginal legal and health services, to Indigenous literacy, to a trust fund pending consultation.
But there is also a missed marketing opportunity. The billboard could have featured the words Change the Date. And the billboards could have had a message which foregrounds the fact that white and multicultural Australia share something profound: we are all on stolen Aboriginal land.