By Benjamin Eorlingas:
In 1788 the First Fleet arrived in Australia. The history books would have you believe this to be a grand moment in our history, but to those who had already occupied this land, and had done so for some 40,000 years, it was the beginning of the end.
The New South Wales Government stated at the Vivid Festival in 2014 that it was the beginning of a “diverse cultural exchange”, yet this doesn’t quite add up with history. Governor Lachlan Macquarie, whose tombstone in Scotland reads “Founding Father of Australia”, once infamously commanded his soldiers to hang Aboriginal people on site as a warning to any others who may be about.
Racism in Australia was nothing if not diverse, because at the time Irish convicts made up a not insignificant chunk of the population in New South Wales. Many of these people were sent on the prison ships to Terra Nullius for petty crimes such as theft in the aftermath of the famine. Throughout early colonial history the Irish weren’t the only non-Aboriginal people exploited by the Colonial powers. Chinese and South Sea Islanders were both exploited in indentured labour schemes which saw them working in conditions akin to slavery with high workplace fatality rates. Racism and exploitation in Australia is nothing new. Our country is racist by its very design, and inequality is entrenched in the system.
Perhaps this is best demonstrated by the birth of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, which is also the year that the infamous White Australia Policy was enacted. Racial discrimination was the law of the land up until 1973. Throughout this period Greeks, Italians as well as Jews fleeing fascism in Europe were thoroughly rejected by a Nation that since inception, was designed to be run, populated and controlled entirely by White Australians. This all looked likely to change when the White Australia Policy was dismantled piece by piece by successive Governments.
The outlook for a racially inclusive Australia was on the up when Aboriginals got the vote, and Vietnamese refugees were actually welcomed with open arms. For the first time in two centuries it appeared that Australia was on the right track to celebrating the things that we have in common, rather than demonizing the things that are different. But it did not last. In the 90’s the One Nation party rose to prominence in Queensland on the back of anti-Asian hysteria. It was dubbed the yellow peril and the Asian invasion, to name a few of the derogatory terms used, and after great progress in dismantling the racist barriers between human beings we fell back into old habits that continue to play out today. These days One Nation is a fraction of what it once was, but it inspired other splinter movements such as Reclaim Australia, the movement to ban Halal accreditation and even the scapegoating around Sharia law used to further vilify and dehumanise Muslims.
In a bid to quell support for the One Nation party and other Nationalistic forces among his own support base, Prime Minister John Howard turned his back on the previous pro-refugee stance of the Liberal Party. He stopped the boats to win the votes, humanitarian obligations and even facts were cast aside. They concocted fanciful tales about refugees throwing their babies out of boats in a bid to build public support for one of the cruellest border regimes ever enacted by a modern Government.
Our history has created space for Nationalism to thrive, and Nationalism is the greatest enemy to diversity. It is the belief that people who, by virtue of random chance, are born within a certain area, who speak and look a certain way, are somehow superior to other people. It is divisive, and it excludes people who do not fit into the tiny box of what it means to be Australian.
Today this legacy continues as Muslim women are having their hijabs forcefully removed in the streets, as Neo-Nazis abuse people in Lakemba and as hundreds rally against a religion and a people they do not understand. We see it play out with our Government as refugees are locked away in countries where their sexuality is actually a punishable offence under the law, or the way that Queer kids can be excluded from religious schools in New South Wales. We even see it in the way the first people of this land continue to suffer from easily preventable disease, and have a life span 10 years below the national average.
Fortunately, what the Nationalists in the Liberal Party and in the erroneous movements like Reclaim Australia have feared most has come to pass. The so-called floodgates have opened and migrants now make up an integral part of our community. Narrow-minded people grip on to the past while we move to the future. They build movements which are glued together by hatred but struggle as they may, the future is coming and that future will belong to every person regardless of race, gender, sexuality, religion or creed. We will make amends for the atrocious history that plagues this land and we’ll drag the racists kicking and screaming to a world where everybody is valued for who they are, not attacked for who they’re not.
A better world is possible, but only if we put divisions aside and work together to create it.
IMAGE: Le Bihan