My previous essay was about the so-called Voice to parliament. The good (self-indulgent) thing about writing my essays is that it always stimulates my own thinking causing me to question and try to reconcile my own beliefs.
After writing about the Voice and the seeming attempt to ensconce a race-based bias in our constitution, it caused me to deliberate on what it means to be Australian.
Noel Pearson, in his usual perceptive way, proposed a tri-partite model of Australians, constituting peoples that inhabited the country in three waves. He has promoted the notion that Australians comprise the original indigenous population, a European colonising population principally emanating from the UK, and an immigrant population from countries around the world that embedded multiculturalism in Australia.
The two pertinent questions to ask in response to this taxonomy are:
- Should any of these components of the Australian population be afforded more rights and privileges than any other?
- What is the nature of the contribution to Australian society of each of these demographics?
With respect to the first question, most of us would answer “no” to such a proposition. Certainly many would agree that we should make an effort to right disadvantage wherever it might occur. It is in our nature to offer a helping hand where those who, for no fault of their own, find themselves in need. We do not begrudge extending a hand to the poor, the sick and the disadvantaged. But we should offer this to all Australian citizens, regardless of ethnicity or country of origin.
The second question is more difficult to answer. But let us explore a few concepts and some historical background that might help us answer this vexed question.
If you look objectively at our history there was no “Australia” before colonisation. Indeed no matter how idealistically we might refer to “First Nations” there were no aggregations of peoples we could reasonably refer to as “nations” or even “states”. The indigenous population comprised of diverse tribes with different languages, cultures and belief systems.
As much as the activists on the left would have us believe otherwise, it took colonisation to unite us all as one citizenry. That is of course not to deny that there were not tragedies and injustices along the way. But, largely ignored by the “black arm band” historians, there was also considerable human progress and indeed some triumphs as well.
But the colonisation of Australia, much as the left like to rail against it, was not such a unique historical development.
Since the first recorded history of the world, colonisation has been ubiquitous around the globe. European colonisation peaked in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with European countries gaining footholds in the Americas, Africa, Asia, Indonesia and elsewhere, and was a rather late example of this phenomenon.
European colonisation followed hot on the heels of European discoveries of other lands remote from the European continent, led initially by Portugal Spain and Holland, soon followed by the English, Germans and the French. Indeed the Dutch discovery of Australia (which they named unimaginatively New Holland) preceded the English discovery by a couple of centuries. The motivations for such colonisation were mixed. It was sometimes a way to enhance the wealth of the coloniser, sometimes a defensive strategy to shore up defences against enemies and occasionally an aggressive tool for Christian evangelism.
In the wake of colonisation, Australia soon adopted a liberal democracy modelled on the Westminster style of government accompanied by market capitalism. Now while the left may argue against it, history suggests this has been the most successful form of government ever adopted in terms of the freedoms it offers and the opportunity for individual personal and economic advancement. All of us, including indigenous people, are beneficiaries of this development. (The only possible exceptions may be those who have embraced the folly of indigenous separatism promoted by the idealistic “Nugget” Coombs.)
Despite the fact that colonisation has been so prevalent in world history, the West has been particularly excoriated for its recent (in historical terms) forays into this seemingly eternal and ubiquitous practice.
The superficiality of the debate on colonialism was highlighted in the irrational responses that followed the black lives matter (BLM) demonstrations. After the death of George Floyd in the USA American activists went on a rampage that authorities did little to suppress that resulted in many deaths, billions of dollars of property damage, and the ruination of small businesses. Inexplicably most of those who suffered as a result of this supposed reaction to white racism were black Americans.
The wrath of the demonstrators was soon unleashed on significant figures in early American history like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, whom the demonstrators seemed to link to slavery and colonisation, with their statues consequently being pulled down and memorials vandalised.
This was soon followed by similar demonstrations in Australia, and the Covid pandemic, which in other respects had caused authorities to restrict public gatherings, was temporarily ignored to allow the activists to indulge themselves on the streets of Australia’s major cities. Then slavishly following their American counterparts, they looked for statues to vandalise. Inexplicably, their wrath turned to James Cook. They sought to deface his statues and those of other prominent Australian historical figures.
Cook was above all a renowned Naval Captain, scientist and explorer. He was not a coloniser. He did ceremoniously seek to take possession of Australia’s east coast on behalf of Great Britain before he left our shores after his 1770’s exploratory journey. But what was he supposed to do? Part of his commission after travelling to Hawaii to observe the transit of Venus was to look for evidence of the Great South Land (New Holland) on his return voyage. He could hardly return to the Lords of the Admiralty and claim he had found nothing of interest!
Yet our historically illiterate black activists focussed their attention on Cook as the principal architect of colonisation.
Ex Deputy Prime Minister and National Party Leader, John Anderson, complains how “wokeness“ has distorted our view of history. Decrying our historical amnesia, he writes:
Australia has a deep appreciation of the Anzac heritage, but beyond that, things get vague. We do have an education system that is obsessed with our history, but only the worst aspects of it. Google-search what education officials and policymakers have said about historical ignorance among Australians and you’ll find that they’re solely concerned with indigenous history and massacres. The ruthless focus on the darker moments of our history, with no attempt to explain the positive achievements, has the effect of encouraging our children to believe that they are the inheritors of a nightmarish culture that is not worth defending…………..
Inherent in this negative view of Australian history is the assumption that colonisation was an abhorrent practice that had only negative implications for indigenous populations.
It behoves the question of how evil was colonisation in the first place?
Douglas Murray, in his fine book The War on the West, outlined how this controversy regarding colonisation has played out in the UK. When the BLM protests were in full flight, statues of Cecil Rhodes were first targeted.
Murray writes of the experience of Regus Professor of Ethics, Nigel Biggar, who is renowned as a rigorous scholar:
When the Rhodes Must Fall campaign began, he started by doing what any diligent scholar might do and read the essay on Rhodes in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. From there he developed a growing interest, not just in Rhodes but in the whole way in which Empire was being approached. Without issuing any political pronouncements in any way, he suggested the university (ie Oxford University) could best respond to current turmoils by doing what universities are meant to be best at: scholarship.
He proposed the university should set up a project, composed of historians and others, dedicated into looking into “the ethics of empire”.
Well this, predictably, created a great deal of angst among the “woke” brigade who were content to vilify all aspects of colonialism wherever and whenever it happened without any tempering of such behaviour by trying to gain a more realistic understanding of the history of colonisation. Further as Murray reports:
….(a problem) Biggar identified was that this solely negative view of empire that led to a feeling of guilt among former colonial powers had in turn led to a reluctance to deal with any of the world’s present day problems. Former colonial powers that had found themselves constantly compared with the worst regimes of the twentieth century might easily find themselves denuded of the will or confidence to even act against serious rights abuses going on around the world today.
Another academic that Murray instances is Bruce Gilley employed at Portland State University in Oregon, USA. Gilley had published in Third World Quarterly a provocative article titled The Case for Colonialism. He insisted that the attempts to turn “colonialism” into an entirely negative concept were a mistake. He wrote:
The notion that colonialism is always and everywhere a bad thing needs to be rethought in light of the grave human toll of a century of anti-colonial regimes and policies.
As you might expect the call for rational analysis and historical fairness promoted by Biggar and Gilley did not go down well with their “woke” critics. Both suffered academic shaming and various cancelling initiatives as a result of their controversial views. It seems that academia is now more interested in stifling controversial debate rather than trying to understand the underlying issues.
But looking objectively at the history of countries impacted by colonisation we would have to concede it is a mixed bag. I would argue that many countries in the British Empire did in fact benefit from colonisation. The USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand provide examples of British colonies that subsequently have prospered in the modern world despite their colonial history. Other countries with a colonial history have not fared nearly as well. Hence it is foolish to conclude that colonisation in itself was necessarily a bad thing, nor was it a reliable predictor of future prosperity.
Even the Nigerian novelist and hero of anticolonialism, Chinua Achebe commented in 2012:
The legacy of colonialism is not a simple one but one of great complexity with contradictions – good things as well as bad.
The British governed their colony of Nigeria with considerable care, There was a very highly competent cadre of government officials imbued with a high level of knowledge of how to run a country …………….. British colonies were, more or less, expertly run. One was not consumed by fear of abduction or armed robbery. One had a great deal of confidence and faith in British institutions. Now all that has changed.
Those early settlers who, after the penal colonies were established, came to Australia to cement a British presence should also be absolved of personal blame. They were largely doing the bidding of their government and motivated to come to a foreign land because there were opportunities here for advancement that were not available to them in their native country.
Nor was it easy for them. Australia in many ways provided a far different and often a much more difficult and hostile environment than “England’s green and pleasant land”. And of course as these new settlers spread across Australia they were confronted by an often hostile native population. Unfortunately it was an uneven match for the indigenous population. They had to face the double jeopardy of the new diseases that the invaders brought with them and their more advanced technologies.
But overall, I would assert, that all current Australians, whether they have European or indigenous ancestors, are benefitting from colonisation and its subsequent development to deliver democracy and a liberal capitalism to our country.
Of course this development came at some cost, particularly to the indigenous community. And perhaps five generations ago one of your ancestors might have shot an indigenous person or an indigenous person might have speared one of your progenitors. But what does it matter now? It was a matter of fate that they perhaps found themselves as antagonists at that time and place. It is now history and cannot be undone. And despite that time of conflict and sometimes racial vilification, history has moved on. If we are to be objective (and many on the left are determined not to be) Australia has developed into one of the most racially tolerant societies on earth. Researcher and indigenous commentator Anthony Dillon has often remarked that whilst there are, no doubt, some racists in Australia, Australia is far from a racist country.
It is certainly true that in the forging of this country, atrocities and indignities occurred. Unfortunately it is almost impossible to find examples in international communities where it was ever otherwise.
Colonisation, whilst incurring hurt on the indigenous population at the time, eventually conferred benefits on all Australians. It seems impossible to me that anyone might think otherwise. From my observations the only ones that seek to do so are those who want to forever perpetuate the sense of victimhood.
It is hard not to argue that those first European settlers of Australia, who explored a country that was in many ways alien to them, opened up European settlement in a harsh land, that brought to us British law and democratic government, established industry and constructed public infrastructure, provided universal education, health services and social welfare, contributed positively to the Australia we know and love today.
I cannot help but wonder at the emotional expenditure required to keep this animosity alive for more than two centuries.
Many of the men in the generation before mine, including indigenous men, went to war to defend our freedom. Those that fought in the Pacific confronted the might of the Japanese Empire. Because it is difficult for most of us to kill another human, soldiers going to war are often indoctrinated that the enemy are somehow subhuman demons.
In the early days of my professional career I worked with a number of returned soldiers who had been active in the theatre of the Pacific. They, reflecting such indoctrination, were quick to tell me about the depravity of the Japanese people. In all other respects these men who demonised the Japanese were brave, moral, upstanding citizens who were often leaders in their communities. And there was no doubt that, particularly in the prisoner of war camps, Australian soldiers had been grossly mistreated by the Japanese army. But within a decade or two, Australia had re-established positive relations with Japan. There was little residual animosity. We had harmonious relationships and participated in joint development projects, particularly in the resources industries. Now Japan is one of Australia’s most important allies. It took us less than a generation to be reconciled with the Japanese. After more than a dozen generations activists want to perpetuate historial animosity between indigenous Australians and the white colonisers.
Then after the Second World War there was an influx of Eastern European migrants.
Living in North Queensland I first encountered Italian migrants working in the sugar industry. My family became quite close to some of these “new Australians”. Those we knew worked as cane-cutters and some had been industrious enough to raise sufficient capital to own their own farms. To our surprise they ate salami, cooked in olive oil and drank copious amounts of rough red wine. They laughed a lot, loved to sing and provided the most convivial company.
My cousin married an Italian construction worker who worked on the Snowy Hydroelectricity scheme where many such migrants worked.
But of course there were more than Italians in this post-war wave of European migrants and they, all of them, helped to rebuild Australia.
Then later on we were joined by Indians, Malaysians, Vietnamese and many others from South East Asia.(Long before this of course we had substantial numbers of Chinese who had been attracted to Australia to fossick for gold.).
When I left home and went to university in the mid-sixties to study engineering, many of my classmates were young people from the Indo-Pacific region who had been given the opportunity to study in Australia by the Colombo Plan. Those in my cohort at University were largely males from Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong. They spoke good English were quite bright and often inveterate gamblers. One in my year had represented Hong Kong at boxing in the Commonwealth Games. He was envied by many of the young male engineering students, not because of his boxing prowess, but because he had a “live-in” girlfriend which was rather risqué in those days! Many of these bright young people chose to stay in Australia after graduation.
In the Electricity Industry where I worked, in the 1970’s and 1980’s we were faced with a huge expansion of electricity generation and transmission. There was a subsequent skills shortage and the industry again looked overseas to meet the skills shortfall. We recruited some fine engineers and technicians predominantly from the UK and India.
(Some however ended up in managerial positions to which they were not particularly suited. As a power station manager by then, I observed with interest how my overseas peers approached management. Some of the British managers seemed too authoritarian to me and seemed reluctant to use participatory practices to engage with their workforces. On the other hand there was one excellent manager that I learnt a lot from. Possibly the most inept placement was an Indian engineer that worked for me in a managerial role in a power station I was brought in to reform. He had the unfortunate notion that his positional authority was enough to ensure that those in his workforce would just do as he told them without any further justification. He was a lovely man but totally unsuited to a managerial role in Australia and had to be relegated to a strict technical role.)
But in a nutshell, Australia has broadly benefitted from extensive immigration that has diversified our cultural underpinnings and enhanced our economic development. Although we must concede it was not all roses. Immigration brought us crime gangs and inner city congestion and so on. But Australia’s immigration has provided a net benefit to the country.
Most of us are “accidental” Australians in so far as we had no conscious choice in the matter being born into families that were already Australians. Many of our migrants however, have made a conscious choice to come to this country and take on the mantle of Australian nationality.
In some regards we have a contradictory dichotomy in our country. On the one hand we have migrants flocking to our shores because they know Australia will offer them a better life than they are likely to attain in their native countries. But on the other hand we have a resident population many of who are being indoctrinated to believe that Australia is a hateful place, whose history is built on lies and exploitative colonisation. Our children pass through education institutions that teach them there is nothing special and most probably something abhorrent about being Australian. Fewer and fewer of them respect our institutions and most see nothing particularly praiseworthy about our form of government, our history or our traditions.
Some people say they are “proud” Australians. Many with Aboriginal heritage say they are “proud” indigenous men and women. It seems inappropriate for me to say I am a proud Australian because I had nothing to do with it. Being Australian was just an act of fate over which I had no control. But I will strenuously and forcefully say I am lucky to be Australian. And while I might possibly be wrong, I can’t help but believe that celebrating being Australian is a far more useful stance than either being ashamed of my nationality or allowing it to fuel some contrived sense of victimhood.
Positive psychologist Martin Seligman has pointed out that gratitude improves our sense of well-being more than almost any other emotion. Instead of dwelling on historical wrongs and injustices, Australia would be a better place if we could acknowledge how fortuitous we are to be Australian.
If we accept Noel Pearson’s taxonomy of Australians, let us conclude that each component of his three part model has made its own useful contribution to who we are today as Australians. The Australia we know and love has been formed by the efforts of such renowned Australians as Bennelong, Neville Bonner, Cathy Freeman. Jacinta Price, Sir John Monash, Robert Menzies, Sir Donald Bradman, Anh Do, Li Cunxin, Peter Bol and tens of thousands of indigenous people, the so-called colonisers and their descendants and the migrants and refugees who came more latterly to enrich our country in many ways.
Those who are unable to accept these multitudinous and diverse contributions as significant factors in shaping and enhancing our nationhood are to my mind, dare I say,“unAustralian”!