THURSDAY, 26 JANUARY 2017 is a grey, overcast day in Sydney. Along the harbour front thousands of people gather, stretching out picnic blankets and chairs and settling in for the afternoon. Children pile their shoes up at the entrance of an inflatable pirate ship. Others line patiently to have their cheeks emblazoned with temporary tattoos.
The greenish-blueish water gently laps against the old sandstone sea walls. An elderly man on an electric scooter slowly and methodically packs up his fishing rods, seemingly annoyed at having to make way for the crowds lining the railing to peer out at the hundreds of boats crisscrossing the harbour.
Two children grasp the edge of the railing, the little girl bouncing on her toes. ‘It’s beautiful, it’s beautiful,’ she says, accent thickly Australian, turning to her Chinese-speaking parents. Two women in their fifties wearing tacky Australian-flag sombreros and shirts stand up from their camping chairs and start dancing to the music that plays from loudspeakers, wine glasses swaying dangerously.
A voice on the loudspeaker asks everyone to stand for the twenty-one gun ‘Salute to Australia’. A dozen or so soldiers in traditional green khaki and slouch hats begin firing cannons along the shoreline. The loud bangs ricochet off the huge pillars of the Harbour Bridge, smoke and the smell of gunpowder fill the air.
The national anthem starts playing, but the timing is wrong. The guns haven’t quite finished and continue blasting over the song. Only a few people manage to sing along, but no one seems to mind. Most look out happily on the water.
Three old colonial tall ships emerge around the head, their off-white masts outstretched. They move slowly, beating a steady path towards the bridge. The cloud cover is thinner now, and for a moment the sun emerges. A middle-aged man turns to look over his shoulder to his wife: ‘It might just turn out to be a gorgeous day,’ he says.
Across town, several thousand people march from The Block in Redfern to the CBD, carrying signs reading ‘Invasion Day’, ‘No Pride in Genocide’ and ‘Fuck Aussie Pride, Burn the Flag’. When a young Indigenous activist did try to burn the Australian flag, police rushed in, pushing through the crowd to tackle him and extinguishing the fire. The brief violent clash led the media headlines.
The difficulty in defining what it means to be Australian in the twenty-first century is perhaps starkest on 26 January. In Melbourne, up to fifty thousand protested against celebrating our national holiday on the day that marks the landing of the First Fleet, while on Sydney’s Balmoral Beach a small group of people in dress-ups celebrated the day with a historical re-enactment of the landing. And across the country everything happened in between; Triple J’s Hottest 100 played, people got drunk, others in the hospitality industry simply worked.
‘UN-AUSTRALIAN’ WAS THE label Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett gave the Fremantle City Council’s decision to move their Australia Day celebration from 26 January to 28 January after consultation with the local Aboriginal community in the hope of having a more inclusive day that everyone could also celebrate.
‘I’ve always made the argument that it’s actually more Australian. There is nothing more Australian than acknowledging that we live in a country whose history goes back way before 1788,’ Fremantle Mayor Brad Pettitt says. ‘If we want to be truly Australian and celebrate that long history we need to not have our national day on a day that symbolises that Australia only really started with colonisation. So for me I don’t feel un-Australian at all, for me this is trying to be more holistically Australian.’
The move split the local community, and the council weathered a barrage of attacks from the conservative media. Politicians in Canberra forced them to back down on their plans to move the official citizenship ceremonies to the new date. Pettitt said he believed the backlash the council received showed that this was already a debate happening around the country, and he was proud they did their part in helping to bring it further out into the open. ‘I think what it showed in retrospect was that this conversation around Australia Day, and the uncomfortableness with it, was certainly not just something being talked about in Fremantle, this is something that is happening all around the nation.’
The dispute over Australia Day can be seen as part of a broader, growing debate around defining our national identity. And it’s a debate that is reaching fever pitch. Discussions around racism have moved from something mostly limited to the progressive space of society into the mainstream. The booing of Adam Goodes in 2015, for example, propelled conversations around race onto prime-time television and forced the Australian Football League to confront an issue that had been simmering for some time. According to a survey by Reconciliation Australia, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians believe that racism is a growing problem: 39 per cent of the general public and 57 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders agreeing ‘Australia is a racist country’, up from 35 per cent and 48 per cent respectively in 2014.
When Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a revamp of the citizenship test in April 2017, he said the new test would include questions about ‘Australian values’. The announcement set off an online debate about what exactly the values were that Turnbull described as ‘uniquely Australian’. Turnbull’s definition, as he later told ABC’s The 7.30 Report, was ‘freedom, equality of men and women, mutual respect, the rule of law, democracy and a fair go’. Several members of Labor’s left faction attacked the proposed changes as ‘dog whistling’.
Others have sought to claim and define ‘Australian values’ differently. As part of a campaign to counter the government’s anti-refugee policies, in 2015 artist Peter Drew put up hundreds of posters around the country proclaiming that ‘Real Australians Say Welcome’. Another poster by the same artist used photos of nineteenth-century migrants from Asian backgrounds to Australia, like the Indian hawker Monga Khan, with the label ‘Aussie’ across the image. In Melbourne, many ‘Aussie’ posters were ripped off or racist graffiti was added on top of the images. Debating whether migrants of specific ethnicities are welcome in Australia was unheard of in Canberra when Pauline Hanson made her maiden ‘swamped by Asians’ speech in 1996. In 2016, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said it had been a mistake to let Lebanese refugees into Australia, and television personality Sonia Kruger joined Pauline Hanson in declaring Muslims shouldn’t be allowed into the country at all.
The invisible lines in the sea that make up our national borders are being enforced more harshly than ever by the Australian Navy. Those seeking asylum who cross the border by boat are sent to languish for years in detention camps in the far-flung corners of the Pacific Ocean, and – as our politicians will endlessly point out – will not come to Australia.
Yet at the same time, Australians are more globally connected than ever before. Our international borders were crossed 36.2 million times, incoming and outgoing, in the year ending June 2016, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. That’s up from 17.3 million crossings a year at the turn of the century, just sixteen years ago. While 54,500 migrants permanently settled in Australia in 1985, every year since 2008 the number has hovered between 180,000 and 300,000.
While technology has facilitated a greater economic relationship with the world, new media has also opened the possibility of stronger cultural and social ones. There is usually only a short delay from when topics trend on social media in the US to when they trend here, while in the days following the 2014 Sydney Lindt Café siege, the social media campaign to support Muslim Australians fearing a backlash sent the hashtag #IllRideWithYou trending globally.
A wider variety of Indigenous Australian voices are becoming increasingly prominent in debates around Australian culture, largely due to the new platforms afforded through social media and blogging. One example is the Twitter account IndigenousX, established by Luke Pearson in 2012, which has a different Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person from the account’s twenty-nine thousand followers tweet each week about issues they want in the spotlight. Indigenous activists used the American ‘Black Lives Matter’ mantra in an attempt to draw more attention to the long-running issue of Aboriginal deaths in custody. Ms Dhu’s death in custody in Western Australia in 2014 prompted rallies around the country and a long social media campaign calling for police accountability. After the coronial inquest handed down its report into her death, which concluded her death was preventable and the WA police acted ‘inhumanely’, Facebook users ‘checked-in’ to South Hedland police station where she died, copying a tactic used to gain attention by American First Nations protesters opposing the Dakota Access oil pipeline at Standing Rock. While such campaigns have won more attention nationally and internationally than ever before, there has still been little concrete change in policy in Australia.
This era of global connection also means Australians are closer to global fears and concerns. Only three victims have died in terrorist attacks in Australia since the turn of the century, two during the 2014 Sydney Lindt Café Siege and the 2015 shooting of police employee Curtis Cheng in Parramatta in 2015. Terrorist events in other Western countries increase anxieties about terrorism here. According to a 2016 Australian National University study, 55 per cent of Australians are concerned about being the victim of a terrorist attack within Australia.
Australians felt the shock of Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the US election, perhaps partly because we watched the American presidential race more closely than our own election in 2016. According to research by Isentia, a few weeks out from the ballot, Australian TV and radio stations ran a total of nine thousand items on the Australian federal election in one week, while running seventeen thousand items on the US election over the same period.
According to a YouGov poll in The Economist in November 2016, almost half of Australians over the age of fifty-five agree with the statement ‘My country is the best in the world’, while that number goes down to just less than a quarter among 18- to 34-year-olds. Of the nineteen countries surveyed, both developed and developing, more Australians answered in the affirmative than people in any country, other than the United States.
DEFINING AN IDENTITY that is uniquely Australian has always been a fraught, complex and contested task, which is perhaps why at many points in time people residing here have found it easier to unite behind what they weren’t. The British declaration of the continent as terra nullius was the beginning of a series of policies that actively excluded Aboriginality from having a place in the Australia of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
During the Gold Rush, Victoria became one of the first colonies in the world to introduce legislation aimed at specifically limiting migration from a specific ethnic group, in this case the Chinese. The 1855 ‘poll tax’, which taxed Chinese migrants arriving in Victorian ports, slowed immigration to the gold fields. Soon after, other states in Australia followed their example, as did New Zealand, Canada and the US. La Trobe University historian Nadia Rhook, who specialises in pre-Federation migration studies, argues that at Federation in 1901, politicians and a significant proportion of the public saw it as essential that there was a generation of specifically non-British, Australian-born whites to lead the country. Then, at the end of 1901, the Immigration Restriction Act, commonly known as the White Australia Policy, was passed, placing a clear ethnic stamp on who was to be considered part of this new nation.
Rhook said the 1880s and 1890s were a high mark of increased movement of labour within the British Empire, including Asian nations. The push for the White Australia Policy was in part a backlash to the resulting multiculturalism this movement of people across the Empire was creating. Politicians at the time weren’t interested in building a nation with ‘undesirable’ migrants, which included those from China, India and other Asian nations. ‘At the moment of Federation there wasn’t a question about whether migration was good or bad,’ she says. ‘There was still an urgent desire for European migrants – but not this so-called undesirable Asiatic migrant.’
In many ways, Australia’s economy was deeply interconnected with global trade. Goods moved along the British Empire’s trade routes throughout Asia, while Chinese and Indian goods flowed into the colony. Rhook points out that movement of goods was inseparably linked to the movement of people – the Asian merchant traders. Those advocating a white Australia and the racial exclusion of Asian migrants had to deal with the economic impacts of imposing borders. This created an ongoing tension between those who aimed to build a white nation, and those who enjoyed the economic benefits of trade with Asian nations and peoples.
Rhook says she sees parallels with the UK’s recent vote to leave the European Union, where those advocating for a globalised approach focused on the economic benefits of trading across open borders, while those promoting protectionism focused on social issues and immigration concerns. ‘There was this moment after 1901 which reminds me of Brexit,’ Rhook says. ‘This moment when they want to expel coloured people from their midst, but also realised white people were reliant on their labour, their trade, reliant on coloured services. Not just here, but also over there in China and in India.’
Just as today’s far-right politicians like Geert Wilders of the Netherlands tour western countries seeking to inspire similar far-right groups (such as the Q Society in Australia), the ethnic-nationalists of the nineteenth century were also global in their thinking. Australia’s early white nationalists looked to similar movements abroad for ideas and inspiration, and Australians were at the forefront. ‘Politicians were travelling from Australia, to America, to South Africa, to New Zealand,’ Rhook says. ‘They would meet in London to share ideas about protectionism, immigration restriction, and feelings about being white men and the desire to create countries for white men.’
IN APRIL 2015, the first Reclaim Australia rallies were held in major cities around the country. Attending the protests in Melbourne as a reporter, I saw a kind of Australia I hadn’t witnessed before. Hundreds of people gathered in a sea of red, white and blue. Australian flags were worn as capes and signs read ‘No Sharia Law’ and ‘No Mosques’. Amid the chanting of ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi’ was ‘Ban the Burqa’. This version of national identity was evidently nostalgic – apparent in their choice of songs, the national anthem followed by a blasting rendition of John Farnham’s ‘You’re the Voice’.
While hundreds turned up for the Reclaim Australia rally, they were outnumbered by counter-protesters who declared the so-called patriots ‘unAustralian’. The groups clashed and fists and bottles were thrown; the police appeared unprepared for the scale of both the rallies.
During interviews with Reclaim protesters I was questioned on my background several times, and the photographer I was working with, a bearded South-Asian man, was asked quite aggressively whether he ‘loved Australia’. Protesters were quick to declare that they weren’t against certain races, but that they were concerned about Australia’s changing culture. I was told this was about preserving ‘Australian values’, the ‘Australian way of life’ and ‘Australian identity’. Migrants from Asian backgrounds like myself were accepted, but only if we were willing to adopt an Australian cultural identity as understood and defined by the Reclaim protestors.
Despite the dubiousness of their claim to be unconcerned about race, it’s interesting they felt there would be more sympathy for a debate around values and identity rather than one that – as in the past – focused on skin colour. The Scanlon Foundation’s annual Mapping Social Cohesion survey suggests many Australians share their concerns about Australian values, even if not in such an overtly racialised way. In the 2016 survey, just a third of those surveyed thought immigration numbers to Australia were too high, and only a quarter disagreed with the statement: ‘Accepting immigrants from many different countries makes Australia stronger.’ However, 91 per cent agreed with the statement that ‘in the modern world, maintaining the Australian way of life and culture is important’.
Shakira Hussein is an academic and a journalist who has studied far-right nationalist movements and anti-Muslim bigotry in Australia. Her book From Victims to Suspects: Muslim Women Since 9/11 (NewSouth, 2016) details how the perception of Muslim women in Australia and around the world went from that of helpless victim to one where they were regarded as a menacing threat during the ‘war on terror’. She charts how Australia’s political obsession with Islam is part of a greater global context.
Hussein notes Australian nationalists ‘are very quick to import’ political ideas and strategies from similar groups in other western countries. ‘The internet has meant that there a lot of obvious flows between ideology from nationalist groups abroad. But it flows in both directions,’ she says.
In 2015, far-right campaigners raised concerns that the money raised through the halal certification of everyday supermarket items was being used to fund terrorism. Cory Bernardi, then a Liberal Party senator, spearheaded a successful push for a parliamentary inquiry, which found no links to terrorism in its December 2015 report. Hussein said that previous anti-halal campaigning in Europe had focused on animal rights, but that after the Australian inquiry far-right groups in the Netherlands and Germany began copying the ‘uniquely Australian’ angle on the so-called links between halal-certification and terrorism.
Since being dumped as Liberal Party leader in 2015, Tony Abbott has taken several speaking tours to Europe, hoping to export Australia’s hardline approach to refugees and asylum seekers. Hussein said while Australian far-right nationalist groups borrowed the language and discourse of foreign groups with similar ideologies, due to the higher number of terrorist attacks and the large Islamic populations in some European countries, they portray Europe as a cautionary tale. ‘The Australian far-right is using Europe as this sort of dystopian vision of the future, of where we will end up if we don’t wake up,’ she says. ‘If we don’t take precautions, this is where multiculturalism will take us.’
Hussein said the popular notion in mainstream Australia that only new migrant groups experienced racism and cultural tensions that eased over time had been shaken by globalisation and the ‘war on terror’. Much of the recent spotlight has been on Lebanese as well as other Muslim Australian migrant groups who arrived decades ago. ‘You can think you are settled, you can think you are not the primary target of racism and then some global event, something which has little connection to here, can come and throw that up in the air,’ Hussein says.
After several violent street clashes between Reclaim Australia and counter-protesters in and around Melbourne through 2015 and early 2016, much of the heat around the rallies had died down by the end of 2016. The group and similar outfits, such as the United Patriots Front and the True Blue Crew, still held occasional rallies, but numbers were far smaller than when the movement began. By then Australian nationalists had found a new vehicle for their voice. Well, an old vehicle made new.
The day after a lone gunman stormed a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, systematically and calmly shooting indiscriminately with a semi-automatic rifle, on the other side of the Pacific, Pauline Hanson stood in front of a camera and began to speak, shaky hands, stern face. The horrific shooting in the nightclub Pulse in June 2016 left forty-nine people dead and queer communities around the world in shock and mourning. Hanson’s may have seemed like an unlikely voice to be raised after an anti-gay hate crime on the other side of the world, but this was the middle of an election campaign. And this was 2016. And the shooter was Muslim. ‘Let’s have a serious chat about the latest terrorist attack that’s happened in America,’ Hanson began shakily, but had warmed up within a few seconds. ‘We have to take a strong stance against Muslims, strong stance against Islam and its teachings and its beliefs. We have laws here that we don’t bring in pit bull terriers because they are a danger to our society. We have to take a strong stance to ensure that people that come here are compatible with our culture our way of life, our beliefs and our laws.’
For those of us too young to be politically aware during Hanson’s first time around, she wasn’t a particularly familiar figure in 2016. She was a sidebar, a footnote, that has-been politician from the 1990s who kept running for election and losing. John Howard wasn’t just speaking wishfully when he called her ‘an irrelevance in the Australian political scene’ in a pre-election interview for the SBS documentary Pauline Hanson: Please Explain!
Yet on 2 July 2016, the cameras would cross to an Ipswich pub and to a jubilant Hanson surrounded by supporters. She would win four seats in the Senate, and an influential position on the Senate crossbench.
Hussein says the resurgent far right won’t internally collapse as quickly as it did under attack from the Liberals in the late 1990s, partly because the public sees One Nation as part of a trend. Last time around Hanson was dismissed as merely a Queensland phenomenon – but this time she is viewed as part of a global movement with links to the Brexit vote in Britain a month earlier. Right-wing populists, once considered on the margins, are now convinced their arguments are winning and they are no longer isolated. Hanson celebrated Trump’s election win as a sign that her brand of anti-immigration, anti-globalisation politics was growing in credibility and popularity. Polls throughout late 2016 and in early 2017 that predict Hanson will do well in the Western Australian and Queensland state elections were enough to send shivers down the spines of both left-leaning voters and the Liberal-National Party. Despite underperforming at the Western Australian state election in March, the national popularity of One Nation appears to be holding. It shows a growing appetite in some sections of the electorate for anti-establishment far right parties. Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives, which swallowed up the Family First Party in April, are waiting in the wings should the Hanson juggernaut fail to lock down the anti-establishment vote nationally.
But is it something of a self-fulfilling prophecy that all global trends are closely replicated? Journalists and politicians suggest a Trumpian Australia may be just around the corner: a survey of sixteen thousand people in twenty-two countries around the world by IPSOS in January 2017 found 71 per cent of Australians agreed with the statement: ‘We need a strong leader to take the country back from the rich and powerful’ – a higher rating than the global average of 63 per cent. But perched on the edge of Asia, during a time of economic boom for the region, Australia’s trajectory may not follow other Western countries. The same IPSOS survey found Australians agreed that the country ‘was in decline’ and that ‘traditional parties and politicians don’t care about people like me’ at lower rates than the global average.
The Scanlon Foundation’s 2016 report also highlighted that since 1974 the trend lines of Australians saying they believed the immigration intake was too high followed the unemployment rate almost identically. As the global financial crisis showed, Australia’s economic prosperity certainly doesn’t automatically follow that of the US and European nations. Sukhmani Khorana, senior lecturer in cultural and media studies at the University of Wollongong, considers that globalisation had produced the contradictory forces seen in today’s widespread acceptance of multiculturalism by the mainstream of Australia. She states that Australia is now accepting non-Anglo Australians and there is a mainstream place for Australians with ‘hyphenated identities’, such as Asian-Australians or African-Australians. ‘But then there is also the kind of pull in the opposite direction, which is happening because a number of local and global reasons. One of the reasons is obviously the fear of terror.’
The positive case for immigration, she argues, often remain transactional, with the economic benefits of new migrants or the cultural additions such as cuisine often used to promote acceptance. However, she says those advocating migration should focus on breaking down the idea of ‘us and them’ and the disconnect Australians see between themselves and their region. ‘Under the Howard government we set a very bad precedent on how we treat refugees. But if we look at Howard’s skilled-migration policies they were much more conducive to settling more people than the subsequent Labor governments’.
BY EARLY AFTERNOON, the January sky was again unusually grey and gloomy, and I followed the crowds as they packed up their chairs and rugs. The colonial tall ships and the Royal Australian Navy’s HMAS Canberra had left the harbour, but smaller boats still sailed leisurely back and forth. The train back over the bridge was filled with families, some children still excited but many worn out from a long tiring day. Stretching far out to the west were the suburbs, then the bush, the plains and the endless outback. To the east the ocean and the rest of the world.
In an increasingly globalised world there is a certain irony about calling something ‘un-Australian’. Sydney Morning Herald columnist Tim Dick points out that the word is an adaption from the United States during the McCarthy era when those with left-leaning sympathies were labelled ‘un-American’. As we move into further into the twenty-first century, some will be pulled towards globalised identities, abandoning the idea of trying to define the ‘Australian’ others will cling to it. Regardless of how messy that may be.