Australia, at least for me, is a paradox. As Dorothy McKellar famously wrote, “I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains, of rugged mountain ranges and droughts and flooding rains”.
The extremes in our landscape and our weather seem to have been etched into our national psyche as well, which is something I’ve never quite understood.
As a nation, we are capable of extraordinary acts of generosity. Australians donated more than $100 million to the victims of the Boxing Day tsunami that devastated Indonesia. John Howard, in one of his few genuinely decent acts while Prime Minister, topped up that individual largesse with a $1 billion government aid package.
And yet we don’t actually like Indonesia. In particular, we don’t like Indonesians, especially after what they did in Timor Leste.
When Indonesian military backed a suppression of the East Timorese in the late ’90s, Australians felt genuine outrage and demanded intervention. Howard, quite rightly, pointed out that sending troops into Indonesia uninvited could also be described as “an invasion”.
Pressure mounted, and Howard — to his administration’s great credit — got Australian troops in via the United Nations.
It is a matter of enduring national pride that Australia played such an active and important role in helping the East Timorese secure independence.
And having done so, we promptly set about trying to screw them out of their oil and gas reserves.
Timor Leste, it’s worth noting, is one of the poorest nations on the planet, ranking 120 out of 169 countries in the United Nation’s Human Development Index.
Australia is ranked third.
Of course, our national contradictions are not just international in nature. We have plenty of homegrown ones as well. We’ve built a multicultural utopia, a system where people of all races and creeds live together harmoniously.
I work in Parramatta, Sydney. Walk down the street of the CBD any given day and in the space of a few minutes you’ll have passed people from dozens of different countries and cultures.
There’s no suicide bombings. There’s no rampant violence. Everybody goes about their business. It just works.
Yet at the same time, the level of overt racism and hostility towards these very same immigrants can be staggering.
We hate the “curry munchers who drive our cabs” because they smell funny … and are prepared to work harder than we are. We hate the “slopeheads who take all the best spots at university” because they look funny … and are prepared to work harder than we are.
This white angst has its roots in one ugly personality trait: greed. We want it all, and we want it now. We want to be seen to be a sharing nation, without actually having to share it too much.
People talk about kids these days being part of the “Me generation”. I think the argument is horseshit. Children today are smarter, more educated and more compassionate than we ever were.
The fact is, the “Me generation” is not a generation at all — it’s a nation of people. Australian people.
We spend our days worrying that someone else might get more than we do. I believe I know the cause.
I’m not talking about the all “conservatives” — the capital ‘L’ Liberal, for example, who believes in small government and modest change, but also human rights.
I’m talking about the nutter conservatives, the loony right-wingers who populate both our major political parties (and beyond), and who dominate the airwaves and the pages of our mainstream papers.
I call them ‘Big C’ conservatives.
They live miserable lives, and they’re determined that you should as well.
Big C conservatives are the scowlers of our society. If they’re not whipping people into a frenzy on some radio station about “some PC nonsense”, then they’re the ones phoning in to some radio station to complain about “some PC nonsense”.
But if you really want to get to know the Big C conservative, it helps to look at the sorts of social issues that get their knickers in a knot.
They’re the people who predicted native title would threaten the backyards of all Australians. Never happened.
They’re the people who suggested in 2006, when the Single Noongar Claim was handed down, that access to our beaches might be under threat. Never happened.
When land rights was introduced in NSW in 1983, the Big C conservatives howled and screamed that it would be the ruination of a nation. Never happened.
The Big C’s railed against a national apology for the better part of a decade, claiming it would lead to a flood of compensation claims. Never happened.
These are the same people who told you that Italians wouldn’t assimilate; that the Greeks would overrun the country; that the Vietnamese would form ghettos and never assimilate.
They hate Muslims, want to ban the burqa and believe Islam is a threat, as though Christianity is free from extremism. And they’re the same ranters who oppose things like a treaty with our First Nations, or a Bill of Rights, both of which are mechanisms designed — shock horror — to protect basic human rights for all.
And it’s not only helpful to look at what the Big C conservatives oppose. It’s also about what they support.
The Northern Territory intervention has been a disastrous policy for the Howard, Rudd and Gillard governments. And yet it still draws widespread support among the Big C’s today.
They wail “Who will think of the children?”, having sat and done precisely nothing for decades while the adults of today — once also children — grew up in Third World poverty in a First World nation.
Aboriginal affairs is littered with the policy corpses of bone stupid ideas from bone stupid Big C conservatives.
They’re the creators of the odious “Shared Responsibility Agreements” and welfare quarantining. Remember the COAG [Council of Australian Government’s] trials. Run by Big C’s. Hindmarsh Islands affair. Big C’s again.
If they had a marketing phrase to promote membership to their ranks, it would be this: “The Big C’s: exploiting Australian ignorance since Federation.”
Aboriginal people, more than any other group, have been the targets of these misinformation campaigns. But the most spectacular recent example of Big C conservatives getting it wrong on an important social issue lies in the debate around asylum seekers, one of the few groups of people on earth who could seriously compete with the Australian blackfella for the mantle of “world’s most disadvantaged”.
If you’ve never seen the SBS series Go Back Where You Came From, you must. It should be required viewing for all Australians.
It is the most impacting television series I’ve ever watched. You can watch it online for no cost at sbs.com.au/shows/goback.
At the risk of spoiling the ending, six Australians embarked on a 25-day journey to challenge their preconceived notions about refugees and asylum seekers.
“Tracing in reverse the journeys that refugees have taken to reach Australia, they travel to some of the most dangerous and desperate corners of the world,” said the show’s creators.
Each of the participants was chosen not because they were rednecks, but because they were ordinary Australians.
They just happened to have (with one exception) very extreme views. That, I’d argue, is what makes them ordinary Australians in the first place. With emphasis on the “ordinary”.
One of the women from the show, Raye Colbey, expressed the view at the start of the series that it was a good thing refugees died en-masse at Christmas Island last year.
“Serves them bloody right,” she sneered.
Colbey’s primary objection? That asylum seekers get fed and cared for by the Australian taxpayer, and — wait for it — have access to big screen TVs while in detention. But the capitulation of Colbey and the others as the show unfolds is stunning.
The most startling turnaround for me was from Adam Hartup, a Cronulla lifeguard who admits to being present during the Cronulla race riots. Hartup began the show referring to asylum seekers as “these criminals” who come to Australia illegally.
Later in the series there’s footage of Hartup in an Iraqi hospital, dancing with men and boys missing arms and other body parts, the inevitable result of an illegal and immoral war in which Australia was an active participant.
It makes for gut-wrenching viewing.
Unsurprisingly, confronted with the reasons why people get on boats to come to Australia, Hartup completely reverses his view. But he hadn’t even left the country before he began questioning the popular Australian narrative — the Big C conservative spin — on asylum seekers.
What got Hartup thinking was a trip just 30 kilometres from his home, to the Villawood Detention Centre.
There, after just two hours talking to detainees, Hartup and his “average Australian” view of the world was knocked for six.
“It shook me up a bit. Bit of a reality check actually,” said Hartup immediately after the meeting.
He quickly came to the view that getting on a leaky boat to Australia was an entirely reasonable response to the circumstances facing many asylum seekers.
Now here’s the rub. On issues like native title and land rights, it can sometimes take a decade or more for the scare campaigns of the Big C’s to be exposed for what they are. Unadulterated rubbish.
But for Hartup, it took just two hours for the whole Big C conservative story that he’d swallowed hook, line and sinker to collapse.
Which brings me to the central point of this column: If the Big C conservatives always get this stuff wrong — and the passage of time shows they do — then why do we continue to allow them space in public discussion on key social issues?
Why do we listen when they play politics with the lives of asylum seekers and Aboriginal people?
And why do average Australians keep looking to Big C conservatives for their policy revelations on Aboriginal affairs? Why does media promote them?
Why do we believe that the people who always get it wrong, might one day get it right? Isn’t that the very definition of insanity — doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different outcome?
The fact is, it’s time to shut these people down, to ignore their shrieking on key social issues in public debate.
Dorothy McKellar’s poem about Australia is titled “My Country”. It’s high time we took it back from the Big C’s.
[Reprinted from Tracker Magazine. Chris Graham is the Managing Editor of Tracker. He is a Walkley Award and Human Rights award-winning journalist.]