When British essayist Samuel Johnson wrote in 1774 the famous words “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel” the context was an aggressive British colonial expansionist push and associated wars with its European colonial competitors.
When Tanya Plibersek, Labor’s shadow minister for education and training, used her speech at a January 26 citizenship ceremony to rehabilitate Australian patriotism, there was also a context — the most insulting being that it took place on Invasion Day, the day that Australia officially celebrates the British colonisation of this continent.
Plibersek declared: “I’ve always loved the citizenship pledge new Australians recite on days like this.
"From this time forward, I pledge my loyalty to Australia and its people,
whose democratic beliefs I share,
whose rights and liberties I respect,
and whose laws I will uphold and obey.
“Every Australian school student should learn this, and think carefully about what it means. It’s an elegant expression of what it takes to be a good citizen — of the rights we hold and the responsibilities we owe.”
She argued: “Contrary to what some people seem to think, patriotism is not about exclusion. It’s not about policing the boundary of who does or doesn’t count as Australian.
“Patriotism, like mateship, is about solidarity. It’s about what we owe each other as citizens.”
The context in which Plibersek is attempting her insulting dressing-up of Australian patriotism is the ugly, nakedly racist push by right-wing politicians to whip up nationalism and jingoism at a time when Australia (and the rest of the world) is divided by greater inequality, spawned by a sharper exploitation by the corporate rich.
It is a time when racists and misogynists have had more license to abuse and discriminate than any other time in the last 70 years or more.
It is a time when one in four First Nations children are dying by suicide and when Indigenous incarceration rates are 12 times higher than non-Indigenous people.
It is a time when the indefinite detention without trial of asylum seekers on offshore concentration camps has been normalised by Labor and Liberal-National governments.
It is a time when ethnic and religious minorities are routinely branded “unAustralian” and subjected to routine racist abuse on the streets, in shopping centres, schools and on public transport.
It is a time when school history syllabuses are being rewritten to glorify Australian nationalism and military interventions — all of which have been nakedly imperialist.
Meanwhile, sensing an opportune moment, violent neo-Nazi groups proudly declare themselves “patriots” and true “Aussies”. Plibersek’s paean to patriotism puts her in some extremely vile company, although the more “respectable” patriots who crowd the opinion pages of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp or the right-wing nut job playground of Sky News after dark are not much better.
Plibersek’s decision to opine about the official Australian patriotic pledge comes at a time when the greedy corporate elite who run this country need nationalist fervour to distract people from the growing divide between exploiters and the exploited.
The jingoistic declaration that we are “all Australians” working together get louder and louder in direct proportion to it becoming more and more the opposite. As Oxfam reported recently, Australia’s rich keep getting richer, with the top 1% having more than double the wealth of the entire bottom 50%.
Finally, contrary to what Plibersek claimed in her speech, the bushfire emergency showed that we are not all working together for our common interest.
Rather, it showed that the giant fossil-fuel mining and exporting companies and their governments (and loyal opposition parties) looked after their own interests first and left it to communities and numerous brave volunteers to carry the load.
The stinging fury of volunteer frontline firefighters and the residents of the little fire-raged town of Cobargo, on the New South Wales South Coast, were telling the blunt truths that Plibersek’s patriotism obscures.
Even today, as the horrific cost of these unprecedented bushfires becomes clearer, we face a bipartisan political silence on the climate emergency.
Perversely, federal Labor opposition leader Anthony Albanese chose this moment to reaffirm his party’s commitment to the coal industry and Australia’s role as a major fossil fuel exporter.
[Peter Boyle is a member of the Socialist Alliance national executive.]