Island Politics

Sylvia Lawson writes about the return of Australia’s Coalition Government

The headline news around the South-East Asian crescent after last month’s Australian Federal Election was ‘Hanson Loses Seat.’ For the South China Morning Post, the Straits Time and the Nation in Bangkok, it seemed that Pauline Hanson, the red-haired maverick of the populist Right, was all that mattered about Australia. Ratih Hardjono, who works from Melbourne for Jakarta’s daily Kompas, led with John Howard’s win and the election-night speech in which he promised, hand on heart, a new commitment to Aboriginal reconciliation. Hardjono also wanted Indonesians to learn something about the democratic process from Australia: compulsory voting, the distribution of preferences to candidates who get less than 50 per cent of the primary vote, the hectic dramas of late-night scrutineering. Like David Malouf, who has spoken of Australian election days as unacknowledged national carnivals, Hardjono enjoys them hugely. Better than most in early October, she also knew that there’s worse than Pauline Hanson.

The election, in which the conservative coalition (the Liberal Party and the minority rural-based Nationals) was returned with a quarter of its previous majority, was a charade, its campaign platform irrelevant to the real crises facing Australia and its region; and on race relations, the Right scarcely needed Hanson when it had the present prime minister and his team. Hanson had panicked them because she’s bad for trade and for selling Australian education in Asia, which is high on the country’s list of exports. The Government scrambled to limit the damage, but in her anti-Aboriginal pronouncements, Hanson was not very different from the incumbents. Insisting on ‘equality’, she wanted all special provisions for Aboriginals abolished, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), the elected body which dispenses funding, disbanded, together with the Native Tide Tribunal, established four years ago to mediate between interested parties on land claims. (The Aboriginal lawyer Noel Pearson once asked how many white people really wanted equality with black ones, given the life-expectancy statistics; on another occasion he shocked a TV interviewer by starting a sentence: ‘Now that I have entered the later part of my life ...’ He was 31 at the time.)

The Native Tide Tribunal was set up as a result of the all-important High Court judgment in Mabo v. Queensland, which in June 1992 overturned the old fiction of terra nullius, acknowledged the prior ownership of the continent by its first peoples and confirmed their right to make claims on it now. Two days before Christmas 1993, after months of intensely difficult negotiation by Aboriginal leaders and their communities with Labor, the Greens and the then conservative Opposition, all three of whom were pulling in different directions, the judgment was translated into law. It was a crucial moment for anti-racist whites. Henceforth, in the world at large and in our own imaginations, we were unashamed to be Australian. The legislation, though complex and limited – and protective of existing (i.e. white) pastoral and mining rights – brought Australia closer to the standards of racial justice in land management reached by Canada, New Zealand and parts of the US. It was also the former Prime Minister, Paul Keating’s finest moment. He had invested extraordinary persistence, energy and passion into the attainment of Mabo.

The opponents of Mabo were powerful; they were complacent and repressive, and it was great fun to see them affronted. The sight of Aboriginal leaders flying into Canberra – with suits, ties, high heels and attaché cases, knowing their law and their rights and their history, having to be met across the table – transgressed the order of things. But much of what has happened since the Coalition’s landslide victory of March 1996 stems, I am persuaded, from a collective wish for revenge for the pleasure so many took in that moment. At a guess, about half the population understands that real justice, substantive and symbolic, for the first Australians is at the ethical centre of our future. But in 1993 Paul Keating wasn’t nearly careful enough to bring the people with him; and that was the major reason for his crushing defeat in 1996. Too many of the population didn’t grasp what was going on; too many fell for the conservative line that Aborigines were getting unfair advantages in land and in publicly-funded services. Too many knew too little history, and even less about Australia’s human rights obligations under international treaties. The Hansonites’ open resentment of those treaties is only a few degrees cruder and less informed than that of the Coalition. In the course of the Howard Government’s strenuous, and partly successful, efforts to wind back native title, Aboriginal leaders have aired their case in Geneva and at international conferences on indigenous rights. They had to – in Australia they were frozen out of the negotiations – and were then accused of disloyalty by a government which has no notion of power-sharing.

Jaws fell. How could the Government not realise that in settler societies everywhere relations between the dominant and indigenous tribes are a matter of international concern? Talking to students in Central Europe, the US, UK, India or Indonesia, I and others find that the Aboriginal situation is sometimes the second question they ask about Australia, but more often the first. In Debrecen in eastern Hungary, the questions on race relations were especially insistent. After some forty minutes of doing my best as a striving white liberal, I turned the tables and asked the students about Gypsies – whom only one girl in the whole class could tell me of, because she was one. Political leaders, however, don’t generally talk to students, and never discover the dream they seem to harbour that Australia should be a truly alternative West.

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