Those familiar with right wing columnists would be well used to the types of defences they mount when one of their own is taken to task on race issues, and this Josh Manuatu article in the Spectator has little to distinguish itself. But I was struck by one passage, and I’ve been meditating on it:
“I am very supportive of Australia being open and accepting of immigrants to our nation, if it is done in an orderly way that ensures that immigrants understand our way of life and, importantly, our values.” – Josh Manuatu, The Spectator
It’s always struck me as curious that people expect immigrants to be subject not only to Australia’s laws, but also to our ‘ways of life’ and ‘values’. On the face of it, reasonable enough requests, but these seem such vague and tender notions, and I always wonder what exactly they mean. How do Australia’s values differ from those of other nations? Is there truly a set of Australian characteristics that constitutes an Australian identity?
It seems natural that when thoughts turn to ideas of Australianness, those burnished cultural idols are brought out – the likes of Barnsey and Boony; Bob Hawke and Ned Kelly; those parched Aussies with their strong accents, those sunburnt barbecue drunks. If there’s a common thread in all this, you might observe that the figures of Australian folklore are iconoclasts, outsiders, challengers to the existing order. You might also find it notable that Australia’s celebrated national heroes were almost universally white men.
You can get it being a white fella
When John Howard dismissed the ‘black arm band’ view of history, he reassured white voters that the once conventional narrative of Australia was complete and correct. It reassured us that the foundational myths of Australian national identity still held. It was okay to believe that British colonisation of this country was largely of a benign nature, and that Australia was by and large the product of the honest, enterprising spirit of the early white settlers.
Howard’s argument against the black arm band warned that revisiting our founding narratives by acknowledging injustices against Indigenous people was by and large a bad thing, a moral hazard. Howard’s long fight against land rights was couched in similar terms: the dangers of waste and welfare dependency justified continued white control. His Intervention borrowed from the rationale of the British colonial state, and his refusal to apologise to Stolen Generations followed its obstinate legal logic.
While Howard’s politics have a clear lineage, it is said they harkened back to a cultural memory of white suburban Australia that never truly existed – a supplanted memory. This imaginary cultural moment might have borne some resemblance to Howard’s own childhood and that of some Australians, but these national mythologies by their very nature require outsiders and insiders.
Conceptions of national character have long been a staging ground for mythmaking, for ideological engineering, and for excluding and including certain groups. We should remember that our political class have a long and fond history of harnessing nationalist sentiment and outright racism.
If decades of culture wars have taught us anything, it’s that matters of Australian identity are still very much open to debate. In this context, it’s hard to ignore the reemergence of Pauline Hanson, a woman whose identity borrows something from Australia’s iconoclastic and brash character, and whose politics draw from its deep well of anxieties. If you asked most Australians about our shared values, they might be more inclined to mention inclusivity, equity and fairness, and reject Hanson’s values outright. But figures like Howard and Abbott show us that these sentiments can be given a far more mainstream voice.
It’s clear from Hanson’s resurgence many white Australians continue to reject multiculturalism, in practice if not in principle. Perhaps it’s worth acknowledging that other seemingly intrinsic Australian characteristic, the tendency to regard outsiders with suspicion or distrust, to turn our back on indigenous Australia, to turn the boats back, and to excise refugees from our borders.