Whose 'Aussie values'

January 20, 2007

As "Australia Day" approaches, heralded by government advertisements telling us to "celebrate what's great", the question arises again: what is nationalism?

It seems like a vague concept, nothing too sinister. Many would see it as synonymous with national pride, and what's wrong with being a proud Australian? Don't we have a lot to be proud of?

We're proud of all the things that make Australia a bonza place to live — the stunning natural environment, the happy-go-lucky attitude, the laid-back sense of humour, good pubs, good music, good sport and, some would say, good acting. Good politicians? Hell no, but that's another thing that makes us who we are — a healthy scepticism about the blokes in suits.

Sure, there are lots of positive things we could associate with being Australian, but could we seriously say that a Burmese dissident doesn't also believe in "a fair go"? Could any one of us truly say that an Indonesian democracy activist under the Suharto dictatorship didn't have a healthy distrust of authority? Would a single one of us honestly say that a Jew in a Nazi labour camp didn't believe in "mateship"?

The fact that so-called Australian values are in fact universal values, shared by the vast majority of working-class and oppressed people the world over, is indisputable when you think about it.

Yet the rulers of our land have taken the values that people everywhere hold dear and poked an "Australian-made" flag on a toothpick on top, while behind our backs they ride, slash-and-burn style, over our civil liberties and our rights as workers, students, Indigenous people, pensioners and so on.

John Howard's government is using the idea of protecting "Aussie values" — such as "freedom" and "democracy" — to justify both its brutal foreign policies, such as its participation in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and its attempts to criminalise political dissent. The Coalition, aided by some state Labor governments and the media, has been whipping up Islamophobia and racism, trying to convince us that this is consistent with "Australian values".

Racism turns working people against each other, makes them suspicious of and hostile to one another. Racist ideas lead working people to identifying more with capitalists of their own ethnicity or religion, instead of with their fellow workers who have a different skin colour or religion. In the constant struggle under capitalism to defend and extend the rights and living standards of the majority, racism undermines working people's willingness to unite and fight collectively against capitalist exploitation.

Today in Australia, racism and nationalism are dividing and weakening the working class at a time of massive attacks on our rights at work. Work Choices was proposed and passed amid some of the largest protests ever seen in this country. People took to the streets in the hundreds of thousands to defend a "fair go" for workers. Workers' right to organise collectively in the face of the inordinate power of employers is an "Australian value" that has ensured us some pretty fundamental things like sick leave, holiday pay and maternity leave.

Howard and his Chamber of Commerce pals, referring to the mass protest against Work Choices on November 30, 2006, said the protest was a "fizzer", but then complained about how much it had cost "the country" (as they like to imagine themselves).

It's not hard to see what's really costing "the country". It's the same thing that's costing the United States, where 47 million of the roughly 300 million residents have no health insurance and therefore no access to decent health care — a sick reality in "the greatest country on earth". It is the unrelenting drive for more and more profits by the rich minority — the big capitalists — that is impoverishing millions of people in the richest nations in the world, and many times more in the Third World.

The resurgence of racism and nationalism is not unique to Australia; it is happening in nearly every advanced capitalist country. First World governments are using racism and Islamophobia to win public support for — or at least passive acceptance of — their big attacks on working conditions and civil liberties.

Of course, the capitalists have to constantly battle to convince workers that their values (greed, individualism, competition) are our values, because ordinary people's everyday experience indicates otherwise. Nationalism is one of the sharpest tools in the box for capitalists to win that battle.

We all watched in horror in December 2005 as Sydney's Cronulla beach was taken over by a vicious lynch-mob of "Aussies" draped in the flag attacking passers-by with darker complexions than themselves. Far-right political organisations pushed an SMS campaign and distributed placards with slogans like, "If you don't like it, LEAVE!"

Perhaps Cronulla was a case of the Howard government's policies having unexpected dire consequences. More likely, Cronulla was an in-your-face example of the desired outcome of the establishment's dirty nationalism embodied in their "Aussie values" campaign.

How immensely far from the solidarity-driven protests against Work Choices was this frightening explosion of race-hate at Cronulla? What a perfect diversion from the terrifying implications that Work Choices has for the livelihoods of each and every worker.

The ruling class knows that "national pride" can easily be turned into a weapon against minorities who suffer most under laws that reduce workers' rights — for example, the immigrant workers who toil as second-class citizens, for much lower than average wages, under the government's section 457 (guest worker) visas. Many other workers blame 457 visa workers for taking their jobs by "undercutting" their wages. The 457 visas have served the double purpose for bosses of replacing union-organised workers with underpaid foreign workers and weakening the working class's defence against the attacks on workers' rights by turning the Australian workers against their immigrant counterparts.

When our politicians play the nationalist card, they are pulling the wool over our eyes, plain and simple. It's systematic and it's obscene.

The bosses and their administrators in Canberra know that working people have always fought for the things that we hold dear — a living wage and democratic rights. They know that our instinct is to defend these victories. So when they want to take these rights away, they have to generate fear — of losing your job to someone else, for example.

With the assistance of the mainstream media, they direct the fear, and the consequent anger, against those people whom they exploit most, and whose rights and ability to defend themselves have already been stripped away — refugees and immigrants, Indigenous people, Muslims, 457 visa workers. Then, while we're busy distrusting or fighting among ourselves, they bring in another raft of anti-worker laws that screw us all equally.

Recognising that, in fact, we are all under the same whip is the essential basis for moving forward, towards a just world in which everyone stands for values that are universal, that reflect and safeguard the needs and interests of the great majority of people in all nations.

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