Sunday, 3 June 2018

One Continent, Two Nations

Here is my latest article for the British magazine Salisbury Review:

What is best for Aboriginal activists is not necessarily best for Australians of Aboriginal descent. In the case of the latter, for instance, it is not even possible to speak of Aboriginals as a single entity. In the case of the former, however, it is quite possible to discern a uniform purpose: constitutional self-determination or, if you like, separatism. By endorsing the Referendum Council’s Final Report (June 2017), Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, who the polls still favour to win the next election, is no hapless Jeremy Corbyn firebrand. Australia’s Labor leader counts himself as a ‘moderate’.

The Referendum Council’s recommendations might appear, on the face of it, innocuous enough. The Final Report speaks of changing the Australian constitution to allow for the establishment of a representative body that would give ‘the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander First Nations’ what it calls ‘a Voice’. Providing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with a voice per se is, of course, a good thing. Australians of Aboriginal descent have a right to a voice in our parliamentary democracy as much as anybody else. The danger, however, is that this ‘voice’, when enshrined in the constitution, will provide Aboriginal Australians – or, should we say, Aboriginal activists – with autonomous power outside the authority of a democratically elected government. Their thinly- disguised objective – ‘One Continent, Two Nations’ – will draw closer.
There was a time when Aboriginals were not accorded the same constitutional rights as their fellow Australians and we could fairly call that discrimination. Such inequities are long in the past, as any quick study of the 1967 referendum would attest. Before then, a number of states, but not all, prohibited Aboriginal people from voting in elections. In 1962, they were granted the unambiguous right to vote in federal elections, but the problem of polling restrictions in some states remained. This was partly on account of the Australian Constitution not granting the federal government, back in 1901, any specific powers to deal with the affairs of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders.
This anomalous arrangement was revoked by the results of the 1967 referendum. Voters from all states voted ‘Yes’ to amend Section 51 of the Constitution and allow the federal government to make laws for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. The upshot: ninety per cent of Australians expressed their determination to rescind the last vestiges of legal inequity against the original occupants of the Great Southern Land. It was a moment of national unity and genuine celebration that lasted all too briefly. The conservative-leaning government of the time, a Liberal-Country Party coalition, interpreted the ‘Yes’ vote as a mandate to establish an advisory Office of Aboriginal Affairs and the first Ministry for Aboriginal Affairs. Aboriginal activists, along with the Australian Labor Party, newly directed by Gough Whitlam after 1967, interpreted the ‘Yes’ vote to mean a mandate for land rights and Aboriginal self-determination.
At the same time, activists viewed 1967 as the first step in a long journey towards establishing a separatist political nationhood. How else to construe the founding of a self-proclaimed Aboriginal Embassy (known today as ‘Tent Embassy’) on the lawns of Parliament House, Canberra, in January 1972? The federal Coalition government, with only ten or so months remaining of 23 years of uninterrupted power, baulked at reforms associated with Aboriginal sovereignty. Whitlam, by contrast, who was waiting in the wings, held a radical view on the implications of the 1967 ‘Yes’ vote.
The Australian Labor Party (ALP), founded by unionists to advance the interests of the ordinary working people, adhered to a fairly standard social democratic philosophy before being co-opted by trendy middle-class lawyers and apparatchiks like Gough Whitlam in the 1960s. On the subject of Aboriginals, for instance, Labor had long advocated the traditional Fabian agenda for improving the lot of all disadvantaged people, irrespective of colour, religion and gender. Moreover, education – that is, a top-quality Western-style education involving the mastery of the English language – was essential if a young disadvantaged person hoped to overcome the drawback of not being born with a silver spoon in their mouth. Australia’s fashionable reformers of the 1970s discarded these bourgeois mores for what Roger Sandall, in The Culture Cult (2000), referred to as ‘romantic primitivism’.
Post-independence leaders in Africa and marginalised ‘their’ people for decades with little censure from the West. It was not for racist and colonial Westerners to fault the lunacy of (say) Robert Mugabe. Since the 1970s, thanks to the initiatives of Labor’s Gough Whitlam, Aboriginals have experienced their own version of ‘decolonisation’ in the underpopulated northern half of the continent. The south, in contrast, has witnessed successful integration into mainstream Australia. Even the highly- critical Stan Grant, a renowned television journalist who happens to be Aboriginal, acknowledged in his memoir-cum-broadside Talking to My Country (2016), that Indigenous Australians in the south – including himself – have experienced a veritable renaissance this past half-century.
No such flourishing occurred in the north. On Remembrance Day 2002, Noel Pearson and his brother Gerhardt, two prominent Aboriginal leaders in Cape York, went public in a programme televised on the normally PC-observant Australian Broadcasting Corporation. After paying lip service to the ‘political progress’ achieved by decolonisation and reconciliation, Noel Pearson lambasted the PC bureaucracy as an ‘industry in Aboriginal dysfunction’ which had presided over a thirty-year decline in the standard of living for Indigenous Australians in the north of the country (the Outback). He lamented that the days of ‘functional families and functional parents bringing up kids’ were in the past. Gough Whitlam’s decolonisation – my terminology – had introduced a ‘breakdown in social order and values’ resulting in chronic alcoholism, widespread gambling, illicit drugs, the collapse of educational standards, child abuse and sexual violence against children and women.
Most white Australians knew all of this to be the case, but except for brave souls like Roger Sandall, few were prepared to say it. To suggest that Whitlam’s revolution brought misery to the Aboriginal people of northern Australia was racist. And yet the 2007 Northern Territory report on child abuse, Little Children are Sacred, confirmed everything Sandall maintained in The Culture Cult. Even today, astonishingly, the following lines – if uttered by a white Australian – remain virtually taboo in so-called polite society:
It should be clearly understood that that the more urbanised southern people have made good progress over the past thirty years... Not so the people who concern us here. These are the Aborigines on the northern settlements, the ones granted a good deal of independence in the past three decades. And these are the people who have suffered the Culture Cult’s most vicious effects – the victims of the anti-assimilationist policies embraced and promoted by idealistic middle- class whites in the south.
Whitlam’s aspirant emancipatory project has done more harm than good for Aboriginal Australians over the past fifty years. It is a tragedy, then, that middle-class whites in the south, and here we should include the Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, are more convinced than ever that anti-assimilationist Aboriginal separatism is a formula for national reconciliation. They are determined to remain loyal to Gough Whitlam’s grand vision and his reconfiguring of the ALP as a vehicle for middle-class progressives obsessed with identity politics.
Shorten, who the polls still favour to win the next election, has, in addition, been careful to modify the ALP’s official policy on border control to bring it more into line with the Coalition’s tough stance. But all this is smoke and mirrors. The Labor Party long ago ceased to be an old-style social democratic party. It is now the fashionable preserve of middle-class virtue-signallers not prepared to join the Greens. As was the case when the ‘moderate’ Kevin Rudd governed Australia, we can expect after the next election the number of illegal maritime arrivals to grow exponentially, the Republic to be back on the agenda, ‘Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming’, mandated quotas for women in the workplace, and renewed sympathy for the treacherous Palestinian Authority. Naturally, Prime Minister Shorten will want to give a constitutionally-sanctioned ‘voice’ to Aboriginal activists. Gough Whitlam would whole-heartedly approve.