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Racism in Australia: where it comes from

By Iggy Kim

[from Green Left Weekly 20 November 1996]

Australia First's Graeme Campbell was dumped from the ALP only last year. He'd been a proud racist in the ALP for a long time before that. In his final years in the party, he repeatedly whined about (two of) Prime Minister Paul Keating's "grand visions"  -  the "push into Asia" and Aboriginal reconciliation. Campbell yearned for the good old days when Labor was led by Arthur "two wongs don't make a white" Calwell. 

Vincent Townsend, too (the Australians Against Further Immigration candidate in the recent Lindsay by-election), was a proudly racist member of the Labor Party until he resigned in the 1970s after Prime Minister Gough Whitlam took up too many "trendy left" causes. 

What Campbell and Townsend don't recognise is that Whitlam and Keating are no more friends of Asians and Aborigines than they themselves. On top of vast attacks on all workers' living standards, these Labor leaders oversaw major cuts to migrant intakes and services, and continuing discrimination against Aboriginal people. 

At the same time as it introduced multiculturalism into Australian government policy, the Whitlam government in 1972 reduced the migrant intake from 140,000 per year to 110,000. When the first multicultural immigration minister, Al Grassby, lost his seat in the May 1974 election after a racist backlash, Whitlam quickly replaced him with Clyde Cameron, one of the Anglophile Laborite old guard. Later that year, Cameron and Whitlam further cut the migrant intake to 80,000  -  nearly half the figure at the beginning of Labor's term. 

The next Labor PM, Bob Hawke, continued the attack. In 1984 he abolished the Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs, cut funding for language programs and reduced multicultural education in schools. Only after a concerted protest from migrant communities (reminding him of all those potential Labor voters), did Hawke reinstate some funding and establish new advisory bodies. Similarly, when his 1983 Aboriginal land rights proposals were greeted by a savagely racist advertising blitzkrieg from the mining bosses, he quickly dropped them. 

Then, under the Keating leadership, we had continuing deaths of Aborigines in custody, the shameful saga of Indochinese refugees imprisoned indefinitely in remote detention centres, the continuing denial of certain overseas qualifications, the imposition of a six-month waiting period for social security payments for new immigrants and the violation of the sacred site at the old Swan Brewery by a WA Labor government. All this beneath the happy gloss of multiculturalism and Aboriginal reconciliation. 

Graeme Campbell really should have stayed in the Labor Party; it's smarter than the average racist. 


The recent "debate" on racism has made it very clear that multiculturalism has been little more than a glossy public relations exercise. 

To some extent, the policy of multiculturalism did ideologically challenge the crudest traditions of white Australia, and there's no doubting the cosmopolitan advances in urban lifestyle. But at the bottom of it all, multiculturalism has served one overriding aim  -  facilitating Australian big business's penetration of the Asian markets and labour supply, and forging a new national image in order to sharpen that penetration. 

At the same time as formally ending the white Australia policy, Whitlam reaffirmed the former Liberal government's ties with Indonesia's dictatorial Suharto regime and actively encouraged Indonesia's invasion of East Timor in 1975. Then, on the basis of multiculturalism's obsession with difference and diversity, Hawke and Keating repeatedly argued for greater understanding of the "different" cultural approaches to democracy and human rights in Asia. (Never mind that many Indonesian working people don't accept Suharto's "inherently Asian" approach.) Becoming more " neighbourly" has been smoothly compatible with the manufacture of new Asian stereotypes which are racist in their own right. 

Multiculturalists' fetish of ethnic differences has led them to artificially lump together all migrant and racial groups into static cultural categories, regardless of class or other divisions within these groups. Multiculturalism then elevates these categories into fixed differences. So, Asians are always and inherently authoritarian and obedient to authority, and Aborigines are always and inherently spiritual, the modern "noble savages". 

These stereotypes fit nicely with traditional racist myths such as Asians are happy to work for low wages (and undermine Australian workers' wages), or "real" Aborigines are found only in the bush, their urban counterparts having been ruined by white culture which they simply can't hope to understand or take part in (for example, they "can't handle white fellas' drink", they're "prone to idleness", etc). 

Such grotesque myths have justified seemingly contradictory racial policies: white Australia (hostility to cheap coloured labour) versus Australian big business in Asia ("friendliness" to cheap coloured labour), and "protection" of indigenous Australians (segregation in reserves and the "let-them-die-quietly" approach) versus assimilation (the forced " civilising mission"). These myths have survived more than 20 years of multiculturalism precisely because multiculturalism has simply transformed and accommodated the myths rather than destroying them. 

This isn't to say that multiculturalism is some devious plot by Anglo- Australia. Multiculturalism probably would have failed disastrously without the enthusiastic collusion of migrant and Aboriginal bureaucrats who did nicely out of the Labor (and the Fraser Liberal) governments. With all its hype about different foods and Asian trade, multiculturalism has been a nice earner for the migrant business class, at the expense of the many non-English speaking background workers still trapped on the lower rungs. 

In foreign policy, too, Labor's "it's their culture" approach drew applause from the region's dictators, most notably from Lee Kuan Yew (the former PM of Singapore, home to the world's longest serving political prisoner) and, of course, from Suharto. 

Multicultural nationalism

While multiculturalism may be obsessed with difference, it must still maintain national unity if it is to serve the Australian corporate class. So the other side of the multicultural coin is the very powerful ideology of social cohesion or, more accurately, Australian nationalism. 

Migrants of all racial and ethnic backgrounds are expected, under multiculturalism, to unquestioningly accept Australian "national interests" and be grateful to their new homeland  -  or "go back to where they came from". 

Especially important is that migrants from oppressed nations leave behind " ethnic tensions" upon coming to Australia. In recent years, this message has been particularly directed against Croat- and Arab-Australians, but also against the Irish in the past. There's nothing more annoying for politicians and the ruling class than migrants bringing "their" politics into the country, especially if it includes such anti-establishment ideas as anti-imperialism, worker self-organisation and self-determination. 

As we saw on August 19, it's especially "un-Australian" for anyone to protest injustice in any way that could be construed as politically violent. Hence the following clause in the October 30 House of Representatives motion condemning racism: "That this house reaffirms its commitment to maintaining Australia as a culturally diverse, tolerant and open society, united by an overriding commitment to our nation, and its democratic institutions and values." 

Multicultural nationalism is like an unconditional tolerance of everything deemed "culturally diverse" or "different", including regional dictators, Israeli colonialism, Serbian atrocities and US invasions  -  everything, that is, except "un-Australianness" as defined by the bosses' media and servants in government. 

It was Keating who best articulated this new "plural" and "tolerant" Australian nationalism by weaving together multiculturalism, republicanism and Aboriginal reconciliation. This new nationalism was an integral part of Labor's main goal of forging a class consensus and wider social cohesion at a time when big business was ferociously restructuring to become internationally competitive, cutting back wages, jobs and social services in the process. 

While class consensus and republicanism have traditionally been central to Labor's nationalism, Keating introduced the new elements of multiculturalism and Aboriginal reconciliation. This new, more " sophisticated" nationalism tried to erase the Neanderthal crudeness of white Australia while preserving a strong national chauvinism in the Australian working class. 

The problem for Labor, however, was that Australian nationalism had, for nearly a century, been staunchly racial in character. Until the immediate postwar period, when southern Europeans were granted the privilege of being "new Australians", only those with fair complexion ("pure British stock" and other northern Europeans) qualified as Australian. 

Successive Liberal and Labor governments have tried to forcibly mash migrants of colour into the new national fabric, first through assimilation and then through multiculturalism. But as long as nationalism and the profit motive are the basic driving forces, racialisation of migrants and people in general will continue, and racial scapegoating will always be ready to be deployed any time the corporate class wants to wage a war for oil or steal more land from Aborigines, or needs to find a bogey. 

Labor racism

The ALP spearheaded the development of a racist nationalism in the late 1800s. Its crowning success was the white Australia policy of excluding non-white immigrants and denying equal rights to people of colour already resident in the country. Laborism and Australian federation were both founded on this viciously racist policy; all three fit together snugly. 

Laborism refers to the very narrow politics of that privileged layer of workers, exclusive to the first world, which ultimately seeks to conciliate with the bosses at the expense of the workers as a whole. Laborism's natural habitat is the Labor Party, but it's not limited to it. Laborites have used racism and nationalism to safeguard their privileged position against migrant workers and ensure a seat at the bosses' table, even if it's only for the leftovers. 

Labor racism against migrants of colour has its seeds in the 1850s gold rushes, when waves of Chinese arrived to seek their fortunes. In conditions of naturally scarce gold deposits and relative shortage of capital, the Chinese were a competitive threat to the white miners. So, while white miners of various nationalities abounded, the Chinese were picked out and scapegoated in acts of organised racist violence and intimidation. 

This was also a period of struggle over the colonial vote. On one side stood the white farmers and wage workers fighting for universal male suffrage; on the other, the pastoralists, merchants and bankers defending the vote for property owners only. The radical democratic fervour was accompanied by a vile, petty-minded type of hostility to the Chinese (much like the ideas expressed by Pauline Hanson today). 

This seeming contradiction was resolved when the colonial rulers coopted and contained the radical democratic momentum by enacting laws excluding Chinese immigration and granting limited political reforms. This reinforced white workers' identification with ruling colonial interests; they, too, saw their future in an economically strong colony, prosperous and dominant in the region. 

The racist alliance between big bosses, the middle class and the Laborites embarked on a new stage in the 1880s. An economic boom in the 1860s coincided with the end of assisted immigration from Britain, resulting in a shortage of skilled labour. As the balance of power shifted in favour of the workers, the white Laborites renewed their attack on the Chinese. 

The vehemence of the movement was demonstrated by the Queensland Shearers' Union, which not only excluded non-white workers, but also denied membership to any white shearer who worked for anyone who employed Chinese, had commercial dealings with Chinese or patronised any merchant or storekeeper who dealt with or employed Chinese. Hostility towards bosses was only against those who hired Chinese workers and were condemned as " white Chinamen". 

This second wave of the anti-Chinese movement heated up with the 1878 strike by white sailors of the Australasian Steam Navigation Company. They demanded the exclusion of Hong Kong sailors hired at less than a third of the white pay. 

The strike gained wide support throughout the colonies. In Australia, mass meetings of white workers, shopkeepers, professionals and politicians collected money for the strike fund. White employers who hired Chinese workers were publicly identified. Coal miners in Wollongong stopped supplying coal to the ASNC. The strike was won when the Queensland colonial government threatened to cancel a mail contract with the company and award it to shipping firms which hired white labour only. 

In subsequent years, the Australian Republican Association, labour federations, trades and labour councils, and many individual unions adopted resolutions against the Chinese as part of their general platforms. 

Despite the fact that the first strike on the Darling Downs was waged by Chinese coolies, the myth that "servile" workers of colour undermine Australian working conditions has its origins in 19th century Laborism. 

White Australian nationalism

Racism became all important in forging an Australian nationalism that could cement white workers' identification with the ruling class, thereby confining workers' demands to those acceptable to the powers that be and preventing the rise of a working-class movement aware of its own independent political interests. 

Both the anti-Chinese rabble and the 1860s economic boom peaked in 1888. In March, the Inter-colonial Trades Union Congress passed resolutions against Chinese workers. In the first half of that year, mass protests against the Chinese intensified in all the colonies, with one in Sydney attracting 40,000 people on June 3. 

At a time when the working class was highly organised and mobilised, the ruling class deflected workers' demands towards convenient scapegoats. Hence, during an anti-Chinese riot of 1000 people in Brisbane, the police made no attempt to intervene and, afterwards, arrested only one man for disorderly conduct. 

White chauvinism was central to the radical nationalism of union journals like the Worker, the popular writings of Henry Lawson and the Bulletin magazine. With the ruling class's active promotion, racism negated existing egalitarian sentiments and dampened any potential for a movement which consistently championed working-class interests. 

As the different colonial elites began to develop joint national interests and merge into a single class in the 1880s, ruling class commentators began to agitate for a federated nation-state. One of the first nationally coordinated colonial policies was in the area of immigration. On June 12, 1888, the six colonial premiers met in Sydney to assemble uniform legislation against migrants of colour. White Australia became formal national policy. 

Racism and nationalism further intensified in the 1890s, especially with the onset of a severe economic depression in 1891. A key plank in the platforms of the various Laborite groups (which eventually formed into the Labor Party) was commitment to a white Australia. 

This vile policy became federal law when the Immigration Restriction Act was passed, led by the Labor Party, at the time of federation. The act not only barred people of colour from coming into Australia; it also denied citizenship to those already resident in the country, even those born here. The Labor leader at the time, J.C. Watson, said during the parliamentary discussion: "The objection I have to the mixing of these coloured people with the white people of Australia  -  although I admit it is to a large extent tinged with considerations of an industrial nature  -  lies in the main in the possibility and probability of racial contamination". 

The 1905 federal platform of the ALP stated as its chief objective "the cultivation of an Australian sentiment based upon the maintenance of racial purity". Both the fighting and general platforms of the party placed the "maintenance of a white Australia" as the first plank. 

This racism easily translated into an imperial view of the world. For instance, the 1910 federal election manifesto of the Victorian Labor Party stated: "When a majority of the people of the principal nations, such as the USA, Germany and Great Britain, are converted to the Labor Gospel, war as we know it will cease. The only use for armies and navies then will be to police the world and keep the small and less civilised nations in order." 

In the decades following federation, the ruling class gained further strength, on the one hand by consolidating its state machine, and on the other by tying the Laborites more directly to its interests. In both, the Labor Party was crucial. The 1910 Fisher Labor government established the national currency, postal system, transcontinental railway and the army and navy. The Curtin government presided over austerity measures during the second world war. It was the Laborites who best championed the " national interest". 

During the postwar boom, the Chifley Labor government was used to bring in migrants from southern Europe to feed the bosses' hunger for super-cheap labour. Just as convicts were needed to give the colonies a kick-start, migrants were needed to expand manufacturing industries in the postwar period. 

This mass immigration program went hand in hand with a stricter application of racial criteria. Labor's immigration minister, Arthur Calwell, even denied entry to Japanese spouses of Australian military personnel. He also argued that defence against the "yellow peril", as well as economic growth, depended on more Europeans settling the country  -  something the pure British stock could not achieve alone. Australia was either to "populate or perish" before the yellow hordes. 

The communist challenge

While the Laborites dominate working-class history in this country, they certainly did not go unchallenged. 

Among others, the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) offered the most significant opposition to Labor racism upon its founding in 1920. Inspired by the Russian revolution, the CPA spearheaded solidarity with Chinese working people in the late 1920s, support for the Spanish republicans in the 1930s and boycotts of Dutch ships in the 1940s on request from Indonesian workers fighting for independence. In all these initiatives, the CPA clashed head-on with the racist and chauvinist Laborites. 

When the ACTU was formed in 1927, under mainly Communist leadership, it affiliated to the Pan-Pacific Secretariat, an initiative of the Communist International, which was made up of a majority of parties from non-white countries. When the PPS condemned the white Australia policy as "viciously anti-working class", the ACTU leadership pledged to "tear down the barriers that heretofore separated the toiling masses of the East from the labour movement of the West, and all the racial and national prejudice artificially created by imperialists and their hirelings". 

At this, the Laborites, led by the Australian Workers Union, were outraged. The AWU appealed to Labor parliamentarians to renew their commitment to white Australia. Scullin, then the ALP leader, replied that Labor "was stronger than ever for the policy". 

In the 1930s, Communist workers were sent to Kalgoorlie in Western Australia to counter the chauvinist attacks by Laborites on Italian and Slav miners. Armed with their party newspaper and a pamphlet written specifically for the occasion, this handful of young militants was so successful that one of them, Jock Findlay, was later elected secretary of the local AWU, which for so long had been used by the ALP to organise against the migrant miners. 

During the same period, Italian sugarcane cutters in northern Queensland, many of them left-wing escapees from Mussolini, were experiencing the same attacks from the local Labor Party and the AWU. Again, the bold actions of the CPA smashed chauvinist barriers and built solidarity between Anglo and Italian cutters, isolating the Laborites in the process. 

Through the 1940s and '50s, Communist workers aided struggles for equal wages by Aboriginal pastoral workers in the Kimberleys and the Northern Territory. This was possibly the most courageous defiance of the white Australia ethos that bonded all classes of British-Australian society. 

In the 1960s, numerous international impulses further eroded the white Australia consciousness: the US civil rights movement, the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, the growing Aboriginal land rights movement and the anti-colonial revolutions in Africa, Asia and Latin America. 

These struggles won the support of many Australian workers, students and intellectuals. The support consolidated around opposition to the Australian and US aggression against Vietnam and developed into the mass radicalisation of the late 1960s. 

In response, the Labor Party was forced to revamp its image and find new methods of containing and coopting the workers' movement. Racism was no longer as useful as it had been half a century earlier and, almost overnight, the Whitlam leadership was transformed. 

It is not widely known that Whitlam initially supported Australia's intervention in Vietnam in 1965. At the 1965 federal Labor conference, Whitlam used Calwell's opposition to the war (among other things) to oust him from the Labor leadership. It was only after mass opposition to Australia's role in Vietnam skyrocketed in the late 1960s that Whitlam switched sides. 

Whitlam did differ with Calwell on the white Australia policy, but he was motivated by only one thing: big business interests. New supplies of migrant labour had to be found because traditional European sources were drying up, and trade with Asia was increasing. 

Calwell's old-fashioned desire to protect white workers' privileges was replaced by Whitlam's more far-sighted drive into Asian markets and supplies of cheap labour. This signalled the birth of Labor's new nationalism: an ideological liberalism that is meant to make everyone feel warm and fuzzy while they're being shafted. Even John Howard, who in 1984 and 1988 dusted off the old white Australia ideology, has now opted for the Whitlam-Hawke-Keating approach. After a brief period during which he waited to see the response to Hanson, Howard has now come in behind corporate Australia, which, worried about Asian trade, wants Hanson put back on the leash. 

However, in a context of escalating suffering by the working class as big business demands more and more austerity  -  even lower wages, less public service delivery and fewer social supports  -  warmth and fuzziness can be stretched only so far. With a few practice drives from Hanson and Campbell, the rusty old white Australia may yet prove to be a more effective method of diversion, division and containment of the working class than the multicultural model with its slick exterior. 

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