Vol. 20 No. 22 · 12 November 1998

Island Politics

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

3804 words

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.

Our present masters were no sooner in office than they discovered a huge and unacknowledged deficit in the public accounts, which they used as a pretext to hoe into Aboriginal funding, social security, higher education, legal aid, community-based childcare and, most viciously, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). Since the dire contraction of press ownership in this country to the Fairfax and Murdoch companies, a most unhappy development in which the Labor Governments of the Eighties were enthusiastically complicit, the ABC’s radio networks constitute our only alternative press apart from Kerry Packer’s stable of junk magazines. No government likes independent critical enquiry, even from a public broadcaster; no Australian government has ever liked the ABC, but the assaults it has suffered from the Coalition are qualitatively worse than others.

In this, as in other areas, the responsible ministers could offer Foucauldian observers a field-day on the workings of surveillance. Richard Alston, Minister for Communications and the Arts, hounds the ABC for alleged bias – his Jesuit training shows. (Governments never seem to worry about the biases of Kerry Packer’s Channel 9, to take one example.) The funding cuts all but demolished Radio Australia, the shortwave service which is, or was, beamed into Asia and the Pacific. Pleas came in from very different quarters; Aung San Suu Kyi, who you’d think has more moral authority than anyone, sent a message asking that the news service be extended into Burmese, but there was no hope of this. Then Ali Alatas, the Indonesian Foreign Minister, wrote asking that the whole service be maintained. It must be the only time his wishes have been disregarded. They chopped the Francophone staff, closed down the service – thus cutting out a whole swathe of Polynesia – and prepared to sell off a brand-new transmitter on the Cox Peninsula near Darwin. ‘Welcome to Little Australia,’ the Australian Financial Review raged.

On labour relations and social security, the record is no better. It was one thing, eight months ago, to set about tidying up the waterfront – Labor already had that process underway, without too much blood on the wharves – but the present Workplace Relations Minister, Peter Reith, was amazingly unembarrassed by the way Patrick Stevedores abruptly kicked 1400 union members off their Melbourne dock one January midnight and replaced them with non-unionists. In the ensuing war the Maritime Union of Australia, nobody’s favourite union, won public support beyond its dreams; the pickets and the May Day marches were enormous. According to the Sydney Morning Herald’s senior political writer, Alan Ramsey, the machinations had been long, intricate and expensive: ‘Nobody believes the Government was ever an innocent bystander in the Machiavellian conniving that went on in ministerial offices and corporate board-rooms ... in the two years since the Coalition came to office it has spent more than A$900,000 of public money paying 11 consultants commissioned for a single project: a comprehensive scheme to destroy the MUA’s monopoly over waterfront labour. At the end of the day the waterfront workforce, though almost halved, remained fully unionised.

The Minister for Social Security, Jocelyn Newman, holds forth, grandly and often, about the thousands (in taxpayers’ money) being wrested back from alleged dole cheats; the Australian Council for Social Services, on the other hand, affirms that such monies add up to less than ½ per cent of the total disbursed. Then there’s John Herron, the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, who regards his special constituency with unremitting suspicion, admonishes them repeatedly for extravagance and calls for yet another audit of ATSIC, which spends all its time preparing its books for headmasterly inspection. In the new Administration, Reith, Newman and Herron retain their portfolios.

In the context of Australian race relations ‘reconciliation’ is not a loose or sentimental term; when Nicholas Jose, writing in these pages last February, called it therapy for whites he was being too cynical. The word describes an agreed and structured process centred on the educational and consulting work of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, a body of black and white citizens established in 1990 to prepare a formal document – perhaps even a treaty, a couple of centuries late – in time for the centenary of Federation in 2001. There are local Residents for Reconciliation groups all over the place working on improved coexistence, and it doesn’t go to waste.

On first coming to office, the Government cut that council’s budget by half, slashed into the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission and, making Howard’s cherished idea of the ‘mainstream’ its top priority, began its hounding of ATSIC, as though to put supposed ‘minority interests’ in their place and to let Aborigines know their votes did not matter. Channel 9 then ran two big Sunday morning programmes on venality in the Sydney Aboriginal Legal Service. Howard inveighed against ‘the Aboriginal industry’ and ‘the black armband view of our history’, and after somebody had told him about political correctness, devoted a number of speeches to the idea that Labor had encouraged the rise of a terrorist thought police. By refusing to repudiate the wild xenophobia and racism of Pauline Hanson’s maiden speech, Howard gave her a licence to carry on. With the Coalition in power, he said, Australians now had a freedom of speech which the tyranny of PC had forbidden under Labor. Hanson took up that notion with enthusiasm, berating Aborigines, Asians and, although she was one herself, single mothers. In late May 1997, a long-planned Reconciliation Convention took place in Melbourne: the Prime Minister had no choice but to co-preside and light a candle with the black chair of the Council, the temperate and thoughtful Patrick Dodson (spoken of as the first president of the Australian republic). This was widely understood to be a solemn and significant national event, but when Howard rose to speak, he wagged a finger at the audience and hectored them on the virtues of his amendments to the Native Title Act. A number of black Australians rose and turned their backs.

Meanwhile, the long-running enquiry into the separation of Aboriginal children from their families had submitted its report to the Government, which put off tabling this embarrassing document for as long as possible. Finally released and published as Bringing Them Home, it was a bestseller for months. Much of the evidence is excruciating; there were calls all round for a national apology to the Aboriginal people for the half-century of psychic and social destruction which had been painfully brought to light. The Japanese apologise to the Koreans, the British apologise to the Irish for the Great Famine; such acknowledgments mark the present national life of South Africa, where people seem to know that until you’ve properly remembered, you can’t begin to forget. Even in Howard’s Australia, communal apologies have been made and accepted in public places all over the continent, most remarkably in affluent suburban and country areas (in some blue-ribbon seats there’s evidence that the Government lost votes on the issue), but on the formal, national level, inherited responsibility is denied. No apology, no treaty: the only symbols that register have to do with royalty, Anzac Day or cricket: the PM’s persona is invincibly dreary, but Mark Taylor’s centuries produce almost credible smiles. A treaty, in Howard’s view, implies that there are two nations, and this can’t be; it’s divisive (a favourite word); we’re all Australians together. Rhetorically, the Government trades in the fantasy that class, caste and privilege, to say nothing of long-term dispossession, don’t exist.

John Howard has shown worthwhile leadership exactly once, when after the Port Arthur massacre in April 1996 he led the way on gun control, but having said then that we shouldn’t go down the American path, he’s been treading it ever since. He has expressed nostalgia for the way things were in the Fifties in his home suburb of Earlwood, in Sydney’s working-class southwest; he didn’t leave home and mother until he married at 32. Earlwood has changed a bit, and he should go back for a visit. The area is about one-third non-Anglo immigrant, with big problems in youth unemployment and dangerous levels of boredom; it votes Labor. In a truly bizarre campaign moment he announced a few million for work on youth suicide: he might also try renewing decent free education and social services, and putting a credible training component into work-for-the-dole. For all his talk of the mainstream, those populations, like Aborigines, are beyond his and his colleagues’ imaginative horizons. The Liberal Party, it seems, has mistaken its own lethally well-tended suburbs for the world.

Now it seems that on race relations and a few other touchy issues, the PM wants to change his spots; his minders suddenly noticed that he was losing the churches’ vote. Announcing his new-found concern for reconciliation, he wagged the finger again, and told the Aborigines that they must understand themselves as part of ‘one harmonious nation’. Once more, he does not know enough history. Aboriginal people have been seeking, and asking, to contribute to European-dominated national life since it became a reality two hundred years ago. (It’s a bit rich, incidentally, to kick Aboriginal affairs from one side of the continent to the other, and then expect Aboriginal dancers and artists to turn it on for the billion-dollar bash of 2000. A black boycott of the Olympics has predictably been mooted; luckily for all of us most Aboriginal leaders are too astute to insist on it.)

The present black leadership has defined the main components of the reconciliation process: they want, inter alia, constitutional protection of indigenous rights and customary law, a long-term capital fund as compensation for dispossession, confirmation that ‘an agreed document’ is the agreed goal, and the establishment of regional indigenous governance, with proper symbolic protocols of recognition. Some would also insist on the apology, on a reconsideration of the revised Native Title Act and, urgently, on replacing John Herron, the minister responsible. Howard is loyal, or else hopelessly obstinate: his friend Herron stays, but it is clear even to the Prime Minister that there are things Herron can’t grasp. He has therefore made Philip Ruddock, a moderate and conscientious member of the outer ministry, responsible for the reconciliation programme, in addition to Ruddock’s existing portfolios in immigration and multicultural affairs. The fragmentation of responsibility has angered the Aborigines, who, yet again, weren’t consulted. It has particularly angered the head of ATSIC, Gatjil Djerkurra, a conservative black businessman appointed by Howard. Having been installed as the Government’s own man, he has stood up to them intrepidly at every turn. He has publicly given up on Herron and let the PM know that he’d better start again.

The Government cannot see how fortunate we all are in this Aboriginal leadership; there could have been blood on the streets. They won the moral victory ages ago and are now well beyond banking on Labor. They’ll deal with the management of the day, because they must. Meanwhile, in the week of the election the UN called Australia to account on its recent race relations record, a most unusual rebuke to a supposedly advanced democracy; the observance of numerous human rights conventions, which the country long since ratified, is very much in question.

As for Hanson, she’s not after all Australia’s own Jean-Marie Le Pen. If we’d met her a while back in her fish and chip shop we’d probably have liked her, a stroppy, anxious, opinionated working-class girl with garish gear and Forties-Hollywood warpaint. She, her unpleasant henchmen and the travelling-circus party called Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, are by no means disposed of yet: they got a million votes and one Senate seat; and in her own seat, though she lost on preferences, Hanson was ahead on primary votes. What’s clear now is that her supporters aren’t necessarily racist to any extent that matters; they’re a scattered population which has been alienated, often with good reason, from the political process. That, and the widespread ignorance of history, are the real worries.

There was a sense in which Pauline won. She scared Howard into limiting his campaign to the issue of taxation; he wants to shift the Australian tax system to a reliance on a goods and services tax (GST, very like VAT). She scared Kim Beazley and the Australian Labor Party into running a purely reactive anti-GST campaign, predictably bolstered by promises to restore the funding the Coalition slashed in the main areas, and to drive down unemployment from its apparently immovable 8 per cent to 5. That kept the campaign almost contemptibly trivial. The media, even the best of them, played along; when the polls showed Labor in front they got excited, and it was almost a policy-free contest.

Within the terms of the campaign Kim Beazley did well, coming across as generous and good-humoured, even passionate on education and employment issues. With him we’d get another prime minister who reads books, even if too many of them are military history – it’s wryly said in Labor circles that he’s the Party’s first leader in decades without some major personality disorder. They won back 20 of the 27 seats they lost in 1996 – it was the biggest recovery ever of a party after one term in opposition – and Beazley was elated, claiming defeat rather than conceding it: ‘the ALP is back in town!’ His speech was infinitely more lively than Howard’s, and it generated great bonhomie; they think Labor will romp home next time for sure.

I think it would have paid off to be brave, to have taken a stronger line and not to have dodged the issues. Many of the young and alienated are looking not only for better access to jobs, training and income support, but also for commitment on the major matters of principle – race relations, the environment and human rights. They respond to idealism in their rock and country music: no doubt they could respond to it in politics. They trek off to Kakadu in the Northern Territory, where – against intrepid opposition on the part of the traditional owners and an international cohort of supporters – a new uranium mine, Jabiluka, is being opened in a World Heritage-listed wilderness.

Despite the Coalition’s contribution to the sum of human misery, Labor scarcely said a word about its record. Nor, of course, did they say that the only reason we need a GST, a VAT or anything like them, is that we can’t get people like Packer and Murdoch to cough up. After decades of political cowardice in which tax cuts have been the ritual electoral bribe, we’ve permitted a culture of approved tax minimisation, merging into near-criminal avoidance. The fundamental social-democratic issue, how to keep services and education funded, is fudged: now, in the globalised market, it’s more acute than ever.

Mark Latham, one of Labor’s younger thinkers, has tackled exactly this in his book Civilising Global Capital (1998). The Party heavyweights, Beazley included, praised the work when it came out earlier in the year, but then campaigned as though the issues Latham raises were avoidable. What he proposes is a Kaldor-type progressive expenditure tax and a general devolution of government functions; he wants to build ‘social capability’ and commit just about everybody to ‘lifelong learning’. He made sensible campaign proposals on higher education funding, which should have been listened to: because they weren’t, he has withdrawn from the Opposition front bench.

The tax laws remain a vast body of loopholes; the gap between rich and poor keeps on getting wider, public childcare closes down, and poor women can no longer afford to do the paid work that’s actually there. The drift to private schooling goes on, there are schools for nannies and butlers, and a small but sinister number of rich suburban enclaves, walled and guarded. Facing heavier debts on deferred fees, university students do so much part-time fetching and carrying that they’re too tired to study.

Nonetheless, that election was won and lost by a few thousand votes. The Guardian Weekly said it was a bad thing that it was so close, giving us weakened government. I think it’s terrific: I want all of them, Labor too, under ferocious pressure. That way, the balance of forces might just moderate the damage the Coalition could do in the next three years. They’ve got to sort out the difference between globalised trading and market fundamentalism as well as the conflict between tax reform and justice. They have also to find the necessary political skill, courage and generosity to stop kowtowing to the US, and deal with Indonesia as it falls apart, racked by poverty and murder; this is the neighbourhood. They’ve also got to learn what Ratih Hardjono of Kompas knows: that injustice inside this almost-republic reverberates irresistibly around it. As I write, there are anti-Jabiluka protests going on in Germany, France, Spain and Japan. The political establishment seek to trade on geographic isolation: but the place isn’t an island at all – it only looks like one.

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