Australia's racist past and present

February 23, 2007

The nationalist rejoicing and fervour displayed on January 26 each year celebrates the 1788 colonial invasion of Australia. However, this year the jingoism was broken by the Palm Island victory against the racist cops of Queensland. This resulted from the combined mass actions of the Palm Islanders themselves (including physical struggle in the immediate wake of the murder of Mulrunji Doomadgee), a similar grassroots response by the Aboriginal community at Aurukun against racist cop violence, and the urban solidarity campaigns centred in Brisbane.

The 1788 invasion, at first, was hesitant and limited — the colonial invaders not entirely sure of their intentions beyond a small penal settlement. There is evidence that many of the first settler-invaders morally grappled with the question of relations with the Aborigines. However, once the material significance of the invasion became clearer, a deep social conflict was set in train.

An expansionist and rapacious capitalism — economically and militarily far stronger — was bound to embroil itself in permanent conflict and smash the Aboriginal hunter-gatherer communities through violent conquest. In the process, Australian capitalism erected a full-blown system of racial oppression, not only towards Aborigines, but against all non-white people. This was then legitimised and justified by a rich literature of racist ideology.

Australia's racist conquest of Aboriginal people lives on today in truly catastrophic social indicators:

•Aboriginal life expectancy is around 20 years lower than other Australians. The gap actually increased between 1997 and 2001, from 20.6 to 20.7 for men and 18.8 to 19.6 for women. For men, this is a lower life expectancy than in Papua New Guinea, Burma and Cambodia. For women, it is the same as sub-Saharan Africa with AIDS factored out.

•The Aboriginal infant mortality rate is 2.5 times that of the rest of Australia, with the rate in the Northern Territory four times the national average. Moreover, the number of babies of low birth weight is double the non-Aboriginal average and actually increased over the late 1990s. The figure is higher than those for Ethiopia, Senegal, Mexico and Indonesia.

•The unemployment rate for Aborigines is about three times higher than that of the non-Aboriginal population.

•Aborigines are imprisoned at 16 times the rest of the population and, consistently since 1999, have made up 20% of the prison population — a rise of 6% since 1991. In 1990-99, 115 Aborigines died in custody, representing 18% of all such deaths. But not only are Indigenous people the most victimised by the police, courts and prisons, they also suffer higher rates of crime. A 2001 study in NSW found that Aborigines are 5.5 times more likely to suffer domestic violence, 3.4 times more likely to suffer assault, 2.8 times more likely to suffer sexual assault, and 2.5 times more likely to be murdered.

•Aboriginal households on average earn about $200 less per week.

•Aborigines are half as likely to have completed schooling and only about 40% are employed.

•A January 2004 study by the Australian National University's Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research found that "labour market discrimination is more likely to manifest in an inability of Indigenous individuals to secure a job, rather than in being paid low wages".

How can the capitalist ruling class continue to get away with such an appalling situation, a situation that many overseas visitors find incredible while many Australians accept as a basic fact of life in this "lucky country"?

This is where racist ideological justification comes in. One highly potent example of this is the very way in which Australia's racist history is whitewashed and trivialised — something that cannot be redressed by any number of token Aboriginal dancers and didgeridoo players at the official Australia Day ceremonies.

Of all the colonial-settler countries, only Australia and Israel celebrate the days of colonial conquest as their most revered national holidays — "Australia Day" and Israel's misnamed "Independence Day". In Australia, only Anzac Day — eulogising a foolish military adventure in defence of the British empire — comes close to January 26.

By contrast, in the United States, the Fourth of July celebrates a mass revolutionary struggle for national independence. Canada Day marks the federation of that country. In New Zealand, Waitangi Day commemorates the Treaty of Waitangi, akin to the founding document of modern New Zealand, and it is seen as a day of reconciliation.

Any argument that massacres and bitter colonial wars defined the very formation of modern Australia — let alone the idea of a formal treaty — is howled down by a legion of ruling-class mouthpieces and scribes as a "black armband" view of history. And yet, by federation in 1901 — a mere 113 years after invasion — some 20,000 Aborigines had perished in Australia's colonial wars.

If this staggering number of casualties had been white, "our histories would be heavy with their story, a forest of monuments would celebrate their sacrifice", Henry Reynolds argued in his 1989 book Dispossession.

Only colonial-settler Israel shares this sort of racist denial of invasion and dispossession, with Zionism's equivalent of terra nullius: "A land without people, for a people without land."

Moreover, the denial of racism is not some embarrassed silence about a taboo subject. The denial is proudly sung from the rooftops. Just think back to PM John Howard's arrogant declaration to the 1997 Reconciliation Convention that Australia is "one of the fairest, most egalitarian and tolerant societies in the world".

This was said to a particularly special convention marking the 13th anniversary of the 1967 referendum. Understandably, many of the 1800, mostly Aboriginal, delegates stood up and turned their backs while Howard banged on (literally, thumping the lectern as he hectored the audience).

The oppression of Aborigines, and its racist justification, lives on today because Australian capitalism is not only founded on, but continues to thrive on the soil of Aboriginal dispossession.

The ruling social interests of Australia in the 21st century are only a couple of generations removed from those social interests that sponsored genocidal "hunting" parties to guard stolen land and forcibly separated Aboriginal children from their parents in an equally genocidal policy.

In essence, they are the same social interests. As such, there has been no reversal of the extreme social, economic and political disadvantages that have historically accumulated as a result of the dispossession and destruction of Aboriginal societies. There have been no amends for recent policies of racist social control. Full reparations are denied to the stolen generations; state governments refuse to fully return the millions of dollars of Aboriginal wages stolen when Aborigines were wards of the state under the racist "protector" system.

To serve the dominant class interests, the legacy of historical oppression must be continually reproduced and racially justified.

We cannot understand the Aboriginal struggle today without also understanding how vital and fundamental the oppression of Aborigines remains for Australian capitalism.

In Australia, the question of land tenure is still so sensitive for a ruling class led by the mining and pastoral heirs of the colonial old guard. Not only are the rights of mining exploration far more comprehensive here than anywhere else in the advanced capitalist world, but the land question has instilled the owning class with a fanatical, combative stance toward any attempt to redress or correct the history of coloniser and colonised.

That is why the charging of Sergeant Chris Hurley is so significant. Not only is it a sharp crack in such a crucial pillar of Australian capitalism, but it comes against a tsunami of anti-Aboriginal attacks from federal and state governments in recent years that, in turn, has surged on because of the weakening of Indigenous organisation and activism since the great victories of the 1960s and '70s.

These recent attacks include the mandatory sentencing laws passed in Western Australia and the Northern Territory in the late '90s, the dilution of the Native Title Act in 1998, the federal government's outright hostility to the findings of the stolen generations inquiry, and the continuing dragging of the heels by the NSW and Queensland governments over the theft of Aboriginal wages during the period of the racist protector system.

Furthermore, there was the abolition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, the Queensland government's abolition of the Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Policy last September, the cessation of funding to the WA Deaths in Custody Watch Committee last December and, most significant of all, regressive changes to the historic NT Aboriginal Land Rights Act carried out last September. These changes will allow the NT government to elbow its way onto Aboriginal freehold land on behalf of mining companies, under the guise of 99-year "township leases".

Through the 1940s, '50s and '60s, a combined urban and rural campaign for formal equality for Aborigines formed the foundations of the contemporary struggle. This centred in the northern half of Australia, traditionally the heartland of Australian capitalist wealth in pastoralism and later mining, the area with the highest proportion of Aborigines, and an area where colonisation was most recent, with Aborigines still alive today who have memories of first contact with whites.

In the pastoral empires of the north, Aboriginal workers, employed in semi-slave conditions, mounted a determined strike campaign for equal wages. The most famous of these took place in the Pilbara in 1946 and in Darwin in the early 1950s. In both, white leftists and organisations played key roles. Communist Party sympathiser Don McLeod helped lead the Pilbara strike. The North Australian Workers Union helped organise and lead the Darwin strike.

This link beyond the Aboriginal communities was crucial in sparking off solidarity campaigns in the south, the most crucial of which included the Committee for Defence of Native Rights in Perth and the Council for Aboriginal Rights in Melbourne.

There had been other organisations in the southern capitals, but the latter in particular was pivotal in developing a more mass-oriented campaign, eventually leading to the nationwide formation of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in 1958. The FCAATSI spearheaded the campaign that won the 1967 referendum, which marked the beginning of formal equality.

This victory overlapped with the momentous Wave Hill strike and land occupation by the Gurindji people of the NT, which marked the beginning of the land rights movement. Again, the Communist Party and North Australian Workers Union, as well as other unions, were key to building solidarity in the south.

Indeed, during the late '60s, this northern movement struck a loud, defiant and vibrant chord among the radicalising youth of the major southern cities (including Brisbane). This included young urban blacks in the south who, inspired by the worldwide anti-colonial revolutions and mass black upsurges in the US and South Africa, took up the torch.

They applied one of the actions of the US civil rights movement here, in the Freedom Rides through rural NSW to break the segregationist policies in force there.

Black nationalism, black pride and black power were adapted by these radical young Aborigines to fight the racist system here. Demands for self-determination and Aboriginal sovereignty were raised, much of it focused on the first Aboriginal Tent Embassy in 1972.

This led to a new stage of the Aboriginal struggle. It occurred against the backdrop of a major turn in the Australian ruling class's approach to questions of race.

The global catastrophe of the second world war had put all the major imperialist powers in massive danger — of mutual destruction, of defeat at the hands of expanding socialist revolutions looking to the Soviet Union, of risings by colonial peoples, or some combination of all three.

In the wake of this combined threat, all the imperialist powers scrambled to reform their image and distance themselves from any likeness to the Nazis. No one wanted to be left holding the rotting corpse of eugenics and racial pseudo-science, though apartheid South Africa continued to dig its heels in.

The Australian bourgeoisie, mindful of its growing reliance on Asian trade, was forced to turn away from the South African path and adopt the US ruling class's strategy of appeasement and cooption.

Gough Whitlam's Labor Party came into government at the end of 1972 and introduced a comprehensive range of reforms to modernise the Neanderthal image of Australia under the White Australia Policy. This included the historic hand-back of a large section of the Wave Hill pastoral station to the Gurindji people in 1975.

Whitlam also initiated the historic Aboriginal Land Rights Act which was put to parliament by the succeeding Fraser Coalition government in 1976. This act allowed for Aboriginal people to gain freehold title over a large part of the NT.

These were undoubtedly victories. However, both in government and in opposition, the now-reformed Labor Party sought to use these victories to coopt Aboriginal demands and struggles into a framework of legislation, expert committees and implementation by the state bureaucracy.

This cooption strategy was continued under the Fraser Coalition government, and by the Hawke and Keating Labor governments.

Many black activists and spokespersons were sucked into the bureaucracies of the new Aboriginal services, the securing of which was a victory but one that upped the pressures for demobilisation.

Bob Hawke and Paul Keating greatly expanded the Aboriginal bureaucracies and channelled much of the energies of the Aboriginal movement into the work of legislature, parliamentary committees and symbolic gestures.

Hawke made an attempt to redress outstanding land rights issues in 1984 by introducing uniform national legislation but backed down in the face of a ferocious media campaign by the mining and pastoral lobbies.

Keating tied up many Aborigines in native title legislation, which was a continuation of Labor's attempt to modernise Australia's national image by bringing the indigenous land question firmly within the framework of bourgeois property law, something which had been done in the US and New Zealand more than 100 years before.

The original demand for "land rights" slowly but inexorably slid off the agenda.

Keating also downgraded the call for a treaty to one of "reconciliation", something much more symbolic and nebulous. In both manoeuvres he had the full cooperation of many prominent Aboriginal leaders.

So, like the trade unions and other social movements coopted and bureaucratised by Labor, by the time Howard came into government in 1996, the Aboriginal movement had been emaciated, divided and fragmented.

A small number of black radicals continued to organise and fight, such as Clarrie Isaacs, Ray Jackson and Sam Watson. But they were often politically at odds with more established Aboriginal figures and left without support from the bureaucracies.

And yet, the feelings of solidarity among non-Aboriginal Australians with Aborigines ran deep, undoubtedly galvanised and inspired by the mass anti-Hanson movement of 1997-8, in which the socialist youth organisation Resistance played a central role, organising large high school student strikes around the country.

These feelings of solidarity by non-Aboriginal Australians were vividly displayed in the enormous Sydney Harbour Bridge "walk" of May 28, 2000. This "walk" was part of the national Corroboree 2000 events which mobilised some 1 million people around the country. Unfortunately, organised by tightly controlled reconciliation committees, these mobilisations stopped there. They did not develop into a mass-based, popularly controlled campaign.

The struggle against anti-Aboriginal racism, like the trade unions and other social movements, continues to suffer the legacy of the recent history of division and cooption. However, as the Palm Island victory nonetheless shows, breakthroughs of resistance are possible.

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