The right's culture wars and colonialism

May 26, 2020
'Mounted Police and Blacks' (1852) by Godfrey Charles Mundy depicts the Waterlook Creek massacre of 1838.

“Sudden arrival of an invader from another land, decimating populations, creating terror. Forces the population to make enormous sacrifices & completely change how they live in order to survive. COVID19 or Cook 1770?”

This tweet by Victoria’s deputy Chief Health Officer Dr Annaliese van Diemen, posted on April 29, the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s arrival in Australia, provoked the right-wing warriors to demand that she be sacked. Right-wing politicians criticised van Diemen for starting a “culture war debate” while rushing to make their own reactionary views known.

She continues in her role, but had to face an investigation by the state’s public service watchdog to determine whether she had breached her department’s code of conduct or “undermined” public confidence.

 Van Diemen’s analogy was not disrespectful, divisive or, as some tried to argue, a distraction from the pandemic. It was an accurate acknowledgment of the colonisers’ violent dispossession and genocide of First Nations peoples and their survival despite that and the pandemics they brought.

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government was forced to cancel its extravagant and ahistorical “commemoration” of Captain James Cook’s arrival in the Pacific. The government had allocated $48.7 million for the occasion which, among other things, involved constructing a replica Endeavour to circumnavigate Australia, something Cook never did. 

Neither did he “discover” Australia.

In one small tweet, van Diemen demolished the right-wing culture warriors who had been looking forward to commemorating British invasion. Cook was not simply an explorer: he played a significant role in the British colonisers’ hostility to First Nations people. His own diary states that he fired his musket three times at two Dharawal men in what is now known as New South Wales.

Thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people died from diseases spread by British colonists, who were already immune to viruses such as smallpox. Countless massacres almost wiped out the entire Indigenous population, leaving survivors without family, land and resources, and changing their lives forever.

Aboriginal people continue to live with the devastating results of colonisation, with many communities disproportionately plagued by disease and early death. People who have been dispossessed deal with higher rates of unemployment, incarceration, suicide and a higher burden of chronic diseases. Aboriginal people often live in overcrowded accommodation where quarantining has been difficult. Concerns surrounding food security, which has been a problem for decades, became worse at the height of the COVID-19 emergency.

Hypocritically, Coalition politicians did their best to discredit van Diemen for sharing her opinion. But the mud didn’t stick, possibly because it was so apt.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said “people should stick to their day jobs”. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton declared van Diemen “unfit for that office”. Tasmanian Liberal Senator Eric Abetz said: “This tortured, non-relevant attempted analogy may enhance her ‘wokeness’ credentials amongst the few but will leave the vast majority of Australians demanding a focus by her on the urgent task at hand”.

Politicians and senior public officials tweet messages unrelated to their jobs all the time and are not threatened with their sacking.

Abetz’ underwhelming tweet on April 29 said: “Today marks the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s landing at Botany Bay. In the words of renowned historian Geoffrey Blainey, Captain Cook ‘indirectly made possible present-day Australia which, despite its many failures, is surely one of the success stories of the world.”

The attacks on van Diemen are part of a right-wing culture war against acknowledging colonial dispossession and its ongoing legacy.  

Van Diemen was prepared to speak the truth about Australia’s violent colonial past. While she had to delete Twitter from her mobile phone, that’s a small price to pay for such an onslaught against speaking the truth. Hopefully, her tweet inspires others to do the same, and raise public awareness about how colonial history has shaped today’s discrimination against First Nations peoples.

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