A land of deep and abiding racism


Those who claim that Australia is not a land of deep and abiding racism live in a fairy tale. This willful denial of reality is abetted by the commercial media, self-serving politicians, bureaucrats and capitalists of all stripes — those whose interests are served by maintaining the divisions of racism while convincing us that no such divisions exist.

The starkest example is the reality of daily life for most Aboriginal people. Not merely are many consigned individually to lives of disadvantage and dispossession, but Indigenous communities across the country continually face imposed conditions, requirements and expectations that other Australians do not have to endure. With monotonous regularity, Aboriginal people struggle with having to choose, or be forced, to surrender their rights in order to gain, if they're lucky, services and facilities that everyone else in Australia takes for granted.

The most obvious and overtly monstrous recent example is the federal government's paternalistic and assimilationist Northern Territory intervention, ably supported by federal Labor's "Diet-Howard" approach to human and civil rights.

On the Burrup Peninsula, in spite of worldwide outrage, some of the world's oldest recorded rock art, documenting tens of thousands of years of this country's history, is being destroyed to make way for Woodside Energy's new Pluto fields natural gas development, which could easily have been sited elsewhere.

The ongoing destruction of the Burrup petroglyphs, which have faced repeated threats from industrial development in the area, is equivalent to dynamiting the Lascaux and Altamira cave paintings to make way for a quarry. Yet, while the latter is a patent absurdity, the former proceeds apace. The difference? This is Australia, where the resource industry is sacrosanct, and the culture that produced the Burrup carvings is Aboriginal rather than European.

Would the Western Australian government or the directors of Woodside as enthusiastically advocate the dismantling of the Vatican for financial gain? Or argue that cutting a strip out of the middle of the Mona Lisa wouldn't fundamentally alter it?

The only option presented to local communities was to negotiate to limit the destruction or be cut out altogether and watch the destruction go full-steam ahead. Even this "choice" was only given under the pressure of a wider community campaign.

In the Pilbara, Rio Tinto is developing its Hope Downs iron ore mine. With 60% of the mine below the water table, a large dewatering operation is necessary to fully exploit the ore body. The mine site lies upstream of Weeli Wolli spring and sits squarely across the groundwater flow that supplies it. Dewatering will totally disrupt the flow and has the potential to dry out the spring.

Rio Tinto's solution? Pump the high quality water (up to 110 megalitres per day) out of the water table, and replace the lost water to the spring via surface discharge for the next 20 years. Then spend 20 years after the mine closes pumping 40,000 kilolitres a day, sourced from outside the catchment, back into the water table to try to reestablish a natural flow.

Weeli Wolli spring is an ancient sacred site and Weeli Wolli Creek is also of cultural significance. The mining process will impact on both the spring and the unique natural environment it supports, possibly causing irreparable damage. Yet none of this really enters into the equation for Rio Tinto and the WA government, beyond the usual trite lip service.

Meanwhile, the Banyjima and Nyiyarparli people are given the standard choice — none. In a September 13 interview on ABC Radio, Greg Tucker, chair of the Weeli Wolli Creek management board, summed up the situation: "If we say no to Rio, they will go ahead anyway, we haven't got any way of stopping them and the thing we can do is minimise it — work together to look after it." In order to try and secure the proper funding necessary for remote communities to survive — funding that federal and state governments refuse to provide — they are forced to enter into negotiations with the mining companies for royalty payments.

The reality of these "negotiations" that governments and corporations hide behind, is that most Indigenous communities have very little real power to determine the outcomes. What power, standing alone, does a starving person have to resist the merest scrap of food? Our rulers feast off the land and throw crumbs to those they stole it from.

And sometime in the very near future, we'll see a community in the newly re-stolen NT told to shut-up and accept a sugarbag of meager health and education services or some paltry cash payout so the government can have somewhere to dump its radioactive waste from Australia's brave new foray into nuclear stupidity.

Howard's attack on Asian immigration in 1988, his attacks on Muslims since 2001, the Coalition's shadowboxing with Hansonite bigotry, and former PM Robert Menzie's "yellow peril", along with Labor's establishment and maintenance of the White Australia Policy, its reluctance to accept Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis, and its recent acquiescence to government attacks on refugees and Indigenous people, all show how the big parliamentary parties throughout history have been all too willing to beat the drum of racism, or, at the least, dance happily to its poisonous rhythms for political gain.

When it comes to Indigenous rights, both have worked tirelessly to limit any advances made by Aboriginal people. The ink was hardly dry on the High Court's 1992 Mabo ruling on land rights before Labor, conscious of the fears and interests of the mining companies and big pastoralists, acted to limit potential claims for rights and restitution by Indigenous Australians. Restrictions were deepened by the Coalition with its "10-point plan" and scaremongering after the Wik native title case.

We cannot rely on the major parties to lead us away from a racism that has been woven deep into the fabric of our society. Such a change would require a fundamental remaking of all our social structures and the taking of power from those who profit from division. Neither Labor nor the Coalition are ever going to willingly disenfranchise themselves or their mates.

We are living through an important time in the fight against racism, particularly in the struggle for real Indigenous rights. Aboriginal people now desperately need a new generation of independent leaders — not the bourgeois leadership of Noel Pearson or Warren Mundine, whose only visions for Indigenous people are of surrender.

Yet no leadership, no group in society, can achieve change without the support of others. The task for the rest of us is to actively support the fight of Indigenous people for their rights, and not to be blinded by Howard's double standards propaganda. We need to see clearly through the racist miasma of the right-wing version of history, its capital-driven policies, and its crocodile tears.

If you like our work, become a supporter

Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.

Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.