Facing foundational wrongs

Careful what you wish for

ROMAN QUAEDVLIEG STANDING tall in his smart black suit – medals glistening, insignia flashing – looked every bit the man-in-uniform from central casting when he stood between Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton on 1 July 2015 to launch a new paramilitary unit to protect Australia’s borders. Australian Border Force was modelled on a similar agency created in Britain two years earlier but with a distinctive accent. Operation Sovereign Borders had changed the culture of military, policing and customs agencies in Australia as they were pushed out of their silos with a new shared priority: stop refugees arriving by boat. Just fourteen months earlier Scott Morrison, then the Immigration Minister, had announced the formation of the new armed and uniformed force, describing it as the ‘reform dividend from stopping the boats’. The seventy-year-old department had gained a new role: ‘Border Protection’. The old tags, ‘Multiculturalism’, ‘Citizenship’ and ‘Ethnic Affairs’, were artefacts of other ages when population growth coupled with social cohesion had been the goal.

The announcement that the armed Border Force had emerged out of the chrysalis of the old customs service, complete with new uniforms, ranks and insignia, on that mid-winter day was another sign of Canberra’s increasing preoccupation with security and militarisation. Fear and safety were still at the heart of the political narrative just as they had been for most of the time since 2001, when Prime Minister John Howard won an unlikely election victory by declaring over and over, ‘we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances under which they come’. He liked to reassure people that Australia would still be taking more than its share of refugees, but the proportion of overseas-born residents fell over the early years of his prime ministership. After decades of multiculturalism the Australian ear was once again being attuned to new arrivals as threat.

Fourteen years on, the politicians who bookended the smartly uniformed commissioner verbosely laboured the same point. By then Australia’s proportion of overseas-born residents was nudging the all-time high of 30 per cent reached in the 1890s, but multiculturalism was still a grubby word. Without a hint of irony, Commissioner Quaedvlieg cut to the chase and reduced the new nearly 6,000-strong agency’s role to its essence: ‘to protect our utopia.’

Decades before, the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin had elegantly demolished the idea of utopias, suggesting they were ‘a fiction deliberately constructed as satires intended to shame those who control existing regimes’. A month after the launch of Border Force, its first big public exercise, Operation Fortitude, was announced. Officers were to walk the streets of Melbourne and seek proof of the right of residence of ‘any individual we cross paths with’. The warning was clear: ‘if you commit border fraud you should know it’s only a matter of time before you are caught.’ The residents of the Melbourne branch of ‘our utopia’ fought back with a dose of theatricality, to prove Berlin’s point, and the joint operation with the Victorian Police was abandoned in a flurry of protests and press releases. Prime Minister Abbott declared, ‘Nothing happened. It was just a badly worded press release.’ Within two years the uniformed commissioner from central casting had also gone. The intent, however, remained clear. Immigration might be at an all-time high, but exclusion was still the key.


DECIDING WHO COULD come and the circumstances under which they could enter the country has, as we have been again reminded during the Covid years, been central to the management of the Australian utopia since 1901. As Isaiah Berlin noted, the ‘idea of the perfect society is a very old dream, whether because of the ills of the present which lead men to conceive what their world would be like without them…or perhaps they are social fantasies – simple exercises in the poetical imagination.’ Australia at the time of Federation was awash with bad poetry by mediocre poets. So if conceiving the nation as utopia was an exercise of the poetical imagination, it was inevitably flawed.

The first step towards the creation of Australia’s white utopia was brutal and relentless. It depended on the humiliation and elimination, by design and neglect, of the million First Nations people who in 1788 still called the continent home as they had done for countless generations, managed with an elaborate, ancient patchwork of languages, social relations, trade and lore. Although the Australian Constitution explicitly excluded them from the census, by the time the 3.7 million new arrivals became Australians in 1901, the First Nations population had been reduced, systematically and deliberately, to about 90,000 people.

The men who debated the legislation that would shape the new nation preferred to avert their eyes. Instead they looked to the future and drafted laws to create their utopia. They were not, however, ignorant of what had gone before. Even in a world shaped by race there was argument, opposition and some shame. Months after Australia became legally, unequivocally white, the parliament debated whether to recognise the survivors who preceded them. The senate leader and future High Court justice Richard O’Connor argued that just as the right to vote was being extended to women – because in some states, they already had the franchise – the same principle should apply to Aboriginal people who had the right to vote in four of the former colonies. ‘It would be a monstrous thing, an unheard-of piece of savagery,’ he declared, ‘to treat the Aboriginals whose land we were occupying to deprive them absolutely of any right to vote in their own country.’[i]

Not everyone agreed. The former Tasmanian premier Edward Braddon summed up the majority sentiment: ‘We are told we have taken their country from them. But it seems a poor sort of justice to recompense those people for the loss of the country by giving them votes.’[ii] This argument prevailed. White women and Maori were the only exceptions: ‘no aboriginal native of Australia, Asia, Africa or the Islands of the Pacific’ could enrol to vote. Suffrage was not universal in this utopia. Within two years the parliament had failed two moral tests.

At the heart of the Australia embraced by those who met in Melbourne in the Federation Parliament was the idea of a model society populated by men like them. Utopian dreams had played out in many ways in shaping the new nation. A decade earlier, nearly 300 colonialists sailed to Paraguay in a flawed attempt to create a more perfect, and even whiter, society. The lesson learnt here from the American Civil War was not primarily one of equality but of the long tail of disruption slavery could bequeath. It was this fear that animated the campaign to end the use of kidnapped and indentured Melanesians in Queensland agriculture and pass laws to deport them, not humanitarianism.

Prime Minister Edmund Barton, in the middle of the first year of the century, firmly grounded the new nation in the ‘instinct of self-preservation quickened by experience’. Optimism tempered by fear. What became known as the White Australia policy was necessary, he said, because ‘we know that coloured and white labour cannot exist side by side; we are well aware that China can swamp us with a single year’s surplus population’. Future prime minister Billy Hughes spelt out the two steps of this dance when he candidly observed that having ‘killed everybody to get it’, the inauguration of Canberra – which they considered calling Utopia – as the national capital ‘was unfolding without the slightest trace of the race we have banished from the face of the earth…we should not be too proud lest we should too in time disappear. We must take steps to safeguard the foothold we now have.’[iii]

In 1923 Myra Willard – a recent graduate of the University of Sydney – paid Melbourne University Press to publish its first monograph, her book History of the White Australia Policy to 1920. She wrote with a contemporaneous eye. The debates in the colonies before Federation were still close enough for the lines between them and the 1901 legislation to be thickly etched with detail. She grimly recounted the way each colony penalised and excluded ‘coolies’ and ‘celestials’. ‘The desire to guard themselves effectively against the dangers of Asiatic immigration was one of the most powerful influences which drew the Colonies together,’ she wrote, describing the desire for ‘uniform measures’ as overwhelming but much misunderstood in the rest of the world. She quoted with approval the now infamous speech by Attorney-General Alfred Deakin in which he described the principle of white Australia as the ‘universal motive power’ that had dissolved colonial opposition to Federation. At heart, he declared, was ‘the desire that we should be one people and remain one people without the admixture of other races’.

The Australian utopia depended on a ‘united race’. This would be ensured by ‘prohibiting the intermarriage and association that could degrade’. As Deakin declaimed in September that year, ‘inspired by the same ideas and an aspiration towards the same ideals of a people possessing a cast of character, tone of thought…unity of race is an absolute essential to the unity of Australia.’

The legislation was finally, if somewhat reluctantly, signed by Governor-General Lord Hopetoun just before Christmas 1901. London was discomfited by the determination of the new nation to exclude and proposed amendments to save face with her imperial allies in Europe and Japan. Willard wrote in 1923, ‘Australia’s policy does not as yet seem to be generally understood or sanctioned by world opinion’. It was, she maintained, despite the negative connotations, really a positive policy that ensured Australia would be a productive global contributor of resources and supplies.

The nascent nation was determined to shape her own utopia despite the ‘mother country’ chiding ‘her daughter colonies’.[iv] By the time the national legislation passed, those with Chinese heritage were fewer than they had been in the nineteenth century. It did not take long before Indian residents who had lived in Fremantle for years, as British subjects, were denied the right to return to Australia after visiting their homeland.[v] The Australian iteration of a caste system in the making was determined primarily, but not exclusively, by skin colour.[vi] Those of German heritage, who made up about 5 per cent of the population at the turn of the century, soon became pariahs – wartime internment was followed by the deportation of 6,000 Australians of German heritage.

The echoes still resonate. Fast forward to this year, when the average time in immigration detention rose to 627 days[vii] and the then Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton, described deporting New Zealand-born long-term Australian residents who had been jailed as ‘taking the trash out’. He seemed to have forgotten that the foundation story of the nation before Federation was one of transformation. Charles Darwin noted with astonishment in 1838 that it had been possible to ‘convert vagabonds the most useless in one hemisphere into active citizens in another’ and create ‘a splendid country and grand centre of civilisation’.[viii]

The suite of bills passed in that first parliament – arguably more than the Constitution – determined the social nature of Australia for much of the twentieth century. As Deakin said a couple of years after the White Australia policy was adopted, ‘it goes down to the roots of our national existence, the roots from which the British social system has sprung’.[ix] By the time he was prime minister, the bureaucratic method of exclusion was even clearer: ‘the object of the [language] test is not to allow persons to enter the Commonwealth, but to keep them out’.[x] John Howard could not have asked for a better crib sheet than the speeches of the Federation Parliament when preparing his 2001 election campaign.

The romanticised view of Australia as a land of mates, a global leader in social and political reform, had always depended on exclusion: of First Nations people, who were not recognised until 1967; of anyone who failed whichever European language test the immigration official set until it was abolished in 1958; and of women. Although women were given the right to vote in federal elections in the 1902 political deal, it took until 1923 before they could stand for election in every state, forty-one years before a woman was elected to Canberra and until 1984 before women were legally equal. If a nation can be shaped by traumatic or shameful epigenetic memories, these are ours – and like groundwater they bubble up.


THE NATION-BUILDING IMPULSE that prevailed in the postwar reconstruction years after 1945 challenged some of these assumptions. The determination to maintain a homogeneous society was not easily displaced, despite the central lesson of that war. Just as the demand for labour drove the importation of ‘coolies and celestials’ and South Sea Islanders as indentured workers in the nineteenth century, the need for labour galvanised postwar migration a hundred years later. Assimilation remained an article of faith. First Nations people were regulated, confined to missions and reserves, underpaid, their languages banned, their children removed. Migrants needed to fit in, adopt the English language, forget their old ways. For many arriving from war-devastated lands this was a blessed gift, but it denied a fundamental human need to belong, remember and learn from the past.

From the perspective of contemporary multicultural Australia, the White Australia policy dressed up in the garb of assimilationism lasted a long time, adding new rungs (labelled things like wogs, dagos, reffos) to the lower reaches of Australia’s caste system. As late as 1960, Prime Minister Robert Menzies declared the policy was ‘unaltered and unalterable’ and newspapers supported him, warning against the ‘admixture of Asian and European races’.[xi]

In 1966 Myra Willard wrote a new preface for a second edition of her book. She noted that although the ‘Pacific region was very different’ and ‘Australia had changed’, the new volume was ‘almost an unaltered reprint of the first. The 1901 Act remains amended only in such minor details as may seem advisable from time to time.’ The campaign to revoke the policy gained momentum during the 1960s in response to both domestic and international pressure, but the process of changing the legislation was fraught. It might have been a shameful policy, but few in Canberra were ready to stir the hornet’s nest of foundational values. There were intense debates in the political parties, but they were nervous; the old ethos would just not die. Malcolm Fraser, who was then Minister for the Army, described the beginning of its legislative dismantling in 1966 to remove variable waiting times for naturalisation for people from different countries: ‘I can remember the speech in parliament. It was very carefully worded and [you] almost had to get the speech again and say what is this meaning? Nobody in those days wanted to stir up a backlash and say “No this is wrong”. We didn’t want people going around saying the White Australia policy should remain.’[xii] Gough Whitlam revoked the policy as one of his first acts as prime minister. ‘Right up to our election in 1972,’ he recalled, ‘there had to be, from any country outside Europe, an application for entry referred to Canberra and a confidential report on their appearance. In practise they could make it very difficult for people who were not white skinned to come to Australia. The photograph wasn’t enough, because by a strong light or powdering you could reduce the colour of your exposed parts. It was said that the test was in extreme cases, “Drop your daks” because you can’t change the colour of your bum…’[xiii] For Michael Wesley, now deputy vice chancellor international at the University of Melbourne, and thousands of others, this was personal. In his case, it meant that his Australian-born mother could at last return home with her Indian husband and brown babies without fear of deportation.

When Malcolm Fraser later allowed large numbers of Vietnamese refugees to enter the country at the end of the Vietnam War, and Bob Hawke agreed to extend the visas of Chinese students after the Tiananmen Square massacre, the old order became a thing of the past. That these people arrived when the official rhetoric was one of multiculturalism eased their path. But, as became clear after Pauline Hanson was elected, it did not obliterate the racism that was still deeply ingrained after a century of official sanction.


THE RAPID CHANGES in the years that followed the end of the White Australia policy transformed the country. There wasn’t much talk of utopias, more of getting on with things, but there was a cultural flowering, a new celebration of Australian stories, even some that discomforted and, although the Anglo caste hierarchy still predominated, it was under challenge. The poetical imaginings tended to be about the past rather than the future. When Donald Horne took ‘Australia for the White Man’ off the masthead of The Bulletin in 1961 he was on the receiving end of abuse we would now describe as trolling but then was more physical: letters smeared with excrement, death threats. By the time The Lucky Country was published three years later, with its damning indictment of the legacy of second-rate national leadership, people were getting ready for change, adjusting to the ‘betrayal by Mother’ as the UK favoured Europe over the remnants of Empire, and ready to embrace the region their forebears had sought to barricade out.

The economic, social, legal and cultural changes the Whitlam government introduced in the 1970s were the product of decades of debate and long-pent-up frustration. Their extent and speed were transformative and half a century on continue to influence the society Australia became. The country had lagged behind much of the developed world in implementing the rights-based, nation-centred reforms that had arisen in response to the decolonisation movements remaking the world in the middle of the twentieth century.

To protect the old and ease the path to the new, governments promoted a less exclusive version of the white utopia that had taken root earlier in the century, compatible with ideas of egalitarianism, equality and opportunity, with the state exercising a firm regulatory hand.

But as the dismissal of the Whitlam government demonstrated, and as we have been reminded recently with the release of the letters between the Governor-General and Buckingham Palace, those discomfited by the changes did not give up without a fight. Coincidentally, the Keynesianism that had dominated economic thinking after the war was challenged by a market-based ethos, which forced big structural changes. The political scientist Marian Sawer described the rise of this new politics in the early 1980s as a fundamental break with the prevailing postwar logic:

The state’s role is not to promote social change, but to hold the ring for a free market system, which will operate efficiently so long as it is not interfered with. Goals such as equal opportunity for disadvantaged groups have entailed a growth of state interference in free market contracts, and hence an unjustifiable increase in state coercion... The pursuit of equality in any form represents an inevitable increase in the volume of state coercion, because such goals go against nature and the natural workings of the market.[xiv]

The scene had been set towards the end of the Whitlam era, when the precursors of the libertarian think tanks, which have shaped public policy since, organised the first of two national tours by the economic darling of the day. Milton Friedman arrived in the country in 1975 and began to gather acolytes in influential quarters. His was a sophisticated argument, colloquially distilled by the mining magnate Lang Hancock (Gina’s dad) in the preface to the publication that accompanied the tour and still (perversely) resonates today. ‘The emphasis,’ Hancock wrote, ‘must be placed at all times on making people understand that the basis of all civilisation is mining, because everything comes from the earth...this is not understood by the media, bureaucracy and government, but it is understood by the communist controlled unions who realise that by destroying mining they are able to achieve their aim of destroying Australia.’[xv]

Those raised on the ideals of nation-building and a strong state, the limited and cosy provincial cocoon of interlocking businesses and families, were personally challenged by the thinking that rapidly took hold. As the economy opened to international competition, tariffs reduced, the currency floated and state-owned businesses privatised, many of the old verities were broken. A new class and style of wealth emerged. Money flowed and the social order reconfigured itself around principles of individualism. Bankers displaced industrialists at the top of the rich list, old Australian companies relocated their headquarters to London or New York, houses became an asset first, a home second. Australia was no longer the inward-looking, self-satisfied, oligopolistic society it had been. By the 1980s the victory of the market had profoundly shifted the prevailing established viewpoint. There were now winners and losers, not so much ‘we’re all in this together against the world’. Fairness was rarely invoked as more than a process aspiration, egalitarianism an embarrassing artefact of another age. Australia had become more outward-looking and richer. It was a country that worked: internationally admired and copied, more diverse and with even a meaningful settlement with First Nations people at last a matter of serious consideration – although not one accompanied by much meaningful action.

That the bulk of this structural transformation occurred under a Labor government with strong roots in the labour movement meant Australia included more social checks and balances than the neoliberal ethos produced in the United States or Britain. Fairness, social justice, human rights, decent wages and income support tempered the transformation. But the change was profound. Politicians became spruikers for the new world order and economics became the sole lingua franca of policy. The state was there to moderate but also to enable the market to flourish.

The Australian National University was created with close ties to the government departments on the other side of Lake Burley Griffin. Department heads and ministers turned to the university for advice and research, and in their retirement many found sinecures, researching, teaching and feeding ideas back into political debates and public policy solutions.

By the end of the 1980s the nation-builders of the postwar generation were being challenged by the new market-driven orthodoxy. Tension was thick in the air in the iconic and utterly confusing multi-sided Coombs Building, named for the university’s former chancellor and the public servant Nugget Coombs – the person who probably did more than any single individual to shape mid-century Australia. By the time the switch from nation-building to neoliberalism became dominant, the head of the ANU’s Research School of Social Sciences was an economist-philosopher with close ties to James M Buchanan,[xvi] the Nobel Prize-winning architect of American neoliberalism. Geoffrey Brennan was keen to see similar ideas reflected here. His big project, Reshaping Australian Institutions, had a radical intent. Public choice theory, the motivating principles for what Australians came to know as economic rationalism, meant people would make the best decisions based on self-interest. Brennan sought to assure sceptics who were not persuaded by the arcane economic logic at the heart of his argument that this human impulse would prevail.

Nation-builders and social democrats of the old school were not convinced. They researched and wrote chapter after chapter for books arguing that despite some benefits in removing the rigidity of the old system, there was a fundamental problem with economic rationalism: social goods would be devalued, the rich would get richer, the state would not have the capacity to effectively regulate. The old guard, many of whom still had offices in the Coombs Building – men and women who had fought to abolish the White Australia policy, modernise the economy, pursue treaties with First Nations people, take a more active role on the world stage – knew in their bones that an unfettered market-driven system would serve the needs of capital but would be unlikely to meet the complex needs of the society they had imagined and helped to build. They advocated ways of finding a balance by asking tough questions: Did the market really care about people for anything other than their wallets? What if people were not equipped to make rational choices? Wasn’t being a citizen more than being a consumer? How could an independent, robust and knowledgeable public service continue in such an ideologically determined context? Would state regulation be able to hold the powerful to account? Why should international capital care about Australian economic or cultural priorities? The old guard was not going to easily give way to the new order. Until it prevailed. Over time it became clear that when the political will to ameliorate was absent, their worst fears could be realised.


THE END OF the Trump era and the spread of Covid seemed to some to sound the death knell for neoliberalism in much of the world.[xvii] In 2020, The New York Times marked the fiftieth anniversary of Milton Friedman’s seminal essay with a damning critique – ‘Greed is good. Except when it’s bad.’ [xviii]  Suddenly governments were digging deep and giving money to citizens and businesses, diverting research priorities to address the existential threat of a virus that had piggy-backed its way around the world, rebuilding infrastructure, providing housing to the homeless, healthcare to all and meaningful income support to those who had lost their jobs as a result of industry restructuring.

Australia did better than most in its response – as it should have. A vast island continent with deep pockets, functional systems and a small, well-educated, sensibly compliant population was well equipped to pull up the drawbridge and protect those on the inside – although the speed with which this happened in a country where a third of the population was born abroad and more than eleven million overseas trips were taken in 2019, was astonishing.

As always Australia lags in picking up the big global trends. And if history tells us anything, we cannot be sure we will learn the right lessons. The Covid lockdown has provided an opportunity to genuinely rethink fundamentals, but the political appetite for this discussion is wanting, preferring to focus on the immediate. Yet not since the early days of economic rationalism has there been such a welter of books and seminars suggesting new ways of thinking, doing and being – Renewal by Sophie Cousins, What Happens Next by Emma Dawson and Janet McCalman, Upturn, edited by Tanya Plibersek, Reset by Ross Garnaut, Econobabble by Richard Denniss, The Write Stuff, edited by Nick Dyrenfurth and Misha Zelinsky, The New Social Contract by Tim Wilson, Glimpses of Utopia by Jess Scully. Some address the challenge of climate change, the need to modernise and diversify the economy, the urgent need to fix social inequity, the enduring fatal flaw of the old white utopia, the transformative power of the local, the possibilities of technology, of a connected, innovative, culturally rich society with much to share. Even though several books were edited by influential members of the political class, the political response to this outpouring has been muted – as if it were easier to stick to the old prevailing viewpoint, to watch and see what happens elsewhere first. If that is to be the preferred mode of national governance, it will be a great loss; these opportunities do not often present themselves. Money has flowed like flood waters spreading across river plains but without direction or clear destination. Australian political leaders are locked, by fear or self-interest, into thinking of climate change as an operational rather than existential threat that must drive a new approach to economic development. History tells us that as the Americans and Europeans rediscover a new form of public investment-based economic Keynesianism, Australia is likely to follow. But although the May budget sloshed money around like a drunken sailor, little was directed to investments that would be economically or socially transformative in the long term – there was no allocation for new industries that could transform the minerals under the soil needed for the digital era, no game-changing investment in education, public housing, early-childhood education or aged care.

As the economist Adam Tooze remarked in a long London Review of Books review of Paul Krugman’s recent work Arguing with Zombies, he had thought it would take another world war to change the orthodoxy. Instead Covid and one US election did it. The infrastructure program Biden announced on 31 March 2021 is designed, Tooze wrote, like the great projects of the past, to ‘unify and mobilise the country to meet the great challenges of our time: the climate crisis and the ambitions of an autocratic China’. Perhaps, he pondered, ‘Krugman’s Martians have arrived after all’.[xix] In Australia the old political and economic orthodoxy shaped by the fear of ‘debt and deficit’ has given way to a spending spree unsupported by any clear principles of what public investment might deliver to the society as a whole – as opposed to companies and individuals.

As the books that have been published in the last year demonstrate, there is an appetite for rethinking a new utopia that is something more than a ‘satire of shame’. In it, economics, public policy, science, history, philosophy and culture all need a place at the table. The old mantra of ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ has given way to ‘It’s the politics, stupid’ – and the politics need a reboot.


THAT AUSTRALIA HAS emerged as a cohesive multicultural society, with people drawn from hundreds of different countries – and increasingly from those that were once explicitly excluded – is a remarkable achievement. That the First Nations people have survived is in many ways even more remarkable. But the foundation story of our notional utopia is still undigested and recurs unwittingly in policy language and political rhetoric, in legal and administrative practice and personal abuse. Over and over again, like bubbling groundwater. The brutal speed and wilful political rejection of the Uluru Statement from the Heart would have shamed even the members of the Federation Parliament; the failure to turn enquiry into action on the oldest issue in the land – treaty, truth-telling and settlement with the descendants of those who have always been here – is unconscionable. Methods of border control are now more likely to be couched in the convoluted small print attached to visas, employment conditions and bureaucratic processes, but at some level the old order prevails – there has been no national apology to those who were humiliated by the White Australia policy, no formal truth-telling to address these sins of the past. Hands are thrown up in mock astonishment when another example of institutional or official racism, discrimination or maltreatment makes the headlines. Over a decade, the cost of detaining (and breaking) those refugees who felt compelled to leave their homeland reached double-digit billions. International criticism is once again worn with bravado as a badge of honour rather than a mark of shame. It was surprisingly easy to jettison fifty years of careful relationship-building with China.

Ever since those first debates in the Federation Parliament there has been a moral deficit in Australian politics, a reluctance to go back to first principles, to meaningfully make amends. Until this is addressed there will always be an action deficit. The big public-health campaigns have not extended to addressing the lingering racism that has equally pernicious consequences. No political leaders rose to the defence of Adam Goodes when the 2014 Australian of the Year was called ‘an ape’ and booed off the footy field. None came to the defence of Yassmin Abdel-Magied when she sought to contribute to public life. The response to the never-ending list of Aboriginal deaths in custody is couched in mealy-mouthed administrivia. When Prime Minister Julia Gillard was battered by misogynist hectoring, the message to other women was clear: don’t get ideas above your station. Almost every week a woman dies at the hands of her intimate partner, but overwhelmed police seem powerless to help. Our treatment of refugees attracts a global condemnation that is dismissed as readily today as it was in 1901. Behrouz Boochani will probably never set foot in the country he described so searingly in his much awarded No Friend but the Mountains, and despite public support, the Murugappans – the Biloela family – have entered their third year in costly detention on Christmas Island. Yet when the government banned Australian citizens and permanent residents who happened to be in India as Covid raged from returning home under threat of fines and jail terms, the outcry was impossible to ignore. The brutality of the old ways still lives in the memory. A colleague recalled her traumatic fear, during the family’s first trip to India with their Pakistani-born father, that the White Australia policy would be reintroduced and they would be denied re-entry. It had happened to those returning to Fremantle Harbour a century earlier – and, astonishingly, again in 2021.

Public sentiment is at odds with that of those who are most committed to the old status quo. Survey after survey shows a populace willing to embrace change that means people are treated better. But there are few leaders willing to make the case, leaving transformation to the slow accretion of a new normal. Tens of thousands turned up at the football waving ‘I stand with Adam’ banners years before the AFL officially apologised to Goodes. Those affronted by official treatment of refugees engage in endless protest campaigns, travel to detention centres, find accommodation and lobby. The Black Lives Matter movement has galvanised some of the biggest demonstrations seen in the country, despite Covid, and the calls for action on the unfinished business of the thirty-year-old Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the other inquiries are becoming impossible to ignore.

There is much to be learnt from First Nations people. Their survival and generosity is an inspiration that needs to be taken seriously and acted upon. Without righting this foundational wrong, this country will be forever stuck on a political treadmill, running but going nowhere.

It is striking that one of the most important Aboriginal artists to have captivated the world came from a place called Utopia. Hers was the land of the Alyawarr people for millennia before its brief life as a cattle station. It is a place as impoverished as any of the remote settlements in northern Australia, returned to their traditional owners with only grudging support from the state. But the semi-arid country is the source of dreaming and a culture that speaks to the world when brought to life on canvas. Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s paintings are displayed in galleries, palaces and private collections around the world. They are more than great works of art. In the words of the influential Aboriginal scholar and advocate Marcia Langton, Emily’s paintings ‘fulfil the primary historical function of Australian art by showing the settler Australian audience, caught ambiguously between old and new lands, a new way to belong in this place rather than another… It is what Australian art always aspired to be.’

Creating a utopia, or at least an aspiration to do better, requires more imagination and courage than our current system of professional politics permits. It needs more art and better faith. Politics, like everything else, is now in thrall to corporate modes of organisation and communication. The emphasis is on the mission (to get elected) and KPIs (to deliver on promises). The headline of every corporate plan is the ‘vision’. It is always the hardest thing to define. But without a vision, any plan is meaningless. Our utopia needs a new vision, one not tinged by shame. The old ones have failed the test of time.

9 June 2021



[i] Kelly, P 2001, 100 Years: The Australian story, Allen & Unwin, p. 160.

[ii] Kelly, 100 Years, p. 160.

[iii] Evans, R 2004, ‘Pigmentia’: Racial fears and white Australia, Berghahn Books; Meaney, The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 March 1913.

[iv] Willard, M 1923, History of the White Australia Policy to 1920, Melbourne University Publishing, p. 77.

[v] Khatun, S 2018,, Australianama, UQP, pp 45–46.

[vi] Wilkerson, I 2020, Caste: The lies that divide us, Penguin UK.

[vii] Doherty, B 2021, Indefinite detention of refugees is unlawful under international law, but Australia has quietly made it legal, The Guardian, 16 May.

[viii] Malouf, D 1998, A Spirit of Play, ABC Books, p. 13.

[ix] Willard, M, History of the White Australia Policy, p. 204.

[x] Evans, ‘Pigmentia’: Racial fears and white Australia, Berghahn Books, p. 6.

[xi] Page, B 2003, The Murdoch Archipelago, Simon and Schuster, p. 106.

[xii] Kelly, 100 Years, p. 32.

[xiii] Kelly, 100 Years, 100 years, p. 198.

[xiv] Sawer, M 1982, Australia and the new right, Allen & Unwin, p. x.

[xv] Sawer, Australia and the new right, p. 17.

[xvi] McLean, N 2018, Democracy in Chains, Scribe; The Collected Works of James M Buchanan, foreword by Geoffrey Brennan, Harmut Kliemt, Robert D Tollison, 20 vols, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999–2002.

[xvii] Tooze, A 2021, The gatekeeper, London Review of Books, vol. 43, no. 8, 22 April.

[xviii] Greed is good. Except when it’s bad. The New York Times, 13 September 2020,

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review