An Australian Canker

 

Canker: An eating sore; gangrene; anything that corrupts, consumes, irritates or decays; to eat into. Destroys, infects of pollutes; to grow corrupt, to decay; malignant. 

 

There is a foul smelling canker rotting the body of Australian society. It is fed by the money and ignorance of all Australians and it resides, quietly and unobtrusively, in the Hallowed Halls of one this country’s most prestigious institutions, the University of Melbourne. 

I was alerted to this suppurating sore by an excellent article penned by one Brianna McKee of the Institute of Public Affairs’ Western Civilisation Programme and published in The Spectator.[1]

Entitled ‘Undoing Australia’, it describes in detail a University of Melbourne Faculty Arts, Australian Centre Public Conversations Webinar programme of the same name. So utterly astounded by the article I immediately went to the university website to check its veracity. The good Ms McKee had not exaggerated. In short, that university is funding and supporting, thereby imbuing with legitimacy, a programme to train cultural activists whose sole intent is the total deconstruction of Australian history, culture, traditions, and heritage. 

But, let the university speak for itself:

"In 2022, the Australian Centre’s Critical Public Conversations webinar series will showcase interdisciplinary scholarship that undoes ‘Australia’. The series seeks to denaturalise the settler colonial nation-state and reveal Australia as an unfinished political project; one that is constructed, negotiated, contested, and indeed refused every day. The webinars will question how, where, when, why and for whom the colony manifests, interrogating key nation-building sites such as policy, law, education, literature, and the media."[2]

Just for the moment let us just consider just one, key, aspect of this statement: The series seeks to denaturalise the settler colonial nation-state and reveal Australia as an unfinished political project… This is pure unadulterated nonsense. The world is an ongoing project – every day is part of that process! Of course Australia is an unfinished process – does history ever finish? What has gone before has gone before. It should be understood and appreciated in the context of its time. It cannot be undone or rewritten.

However and moving on. The series comprised four webinars, each presented by two ‘academics’. I provide each of the individual synopses in their original and full detail. I have however removed the ‘academic’ puff of the presenters. Suffice it be said each and every one has lengthy ‘credentials’ in the study of aboriginal history and activism. Should you wish to follow this detail the content is fully footnoted. 

WARNING. The following contains jargon, unsubstantiated assumptions and tedious prose. Readers not interested in this detail my scroll down to the Critique to continue the essay.

 [Webinar One]

Keynote: How should we tell the truth about Australia? [3]

"Truth-telling is emerging as a central political dynamic in Australia. As treaty processes take shape in several Australian jurisdictions it is clear that truth commissions are going to be at the heart of future treaty negotiations. Victoria has already created the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission, with the mission to ‘investigate both historical and ongoing injustices committed against Aboriginal Victorians since colonisation’, while Queensland and the Northern Territory have also signalled that truth-telling will play a significant role in their emerging treaty processes and Tasmania has committed to finding a pathway towards treaty and reconciliation. These new processes build on the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart, which made an explicit recommendation for a Makarrata Commission that would ‘supervise agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history’ (Referendum Council 2017). As Appleby and Davis (2018) contend, the demand for truth in Australia is explicitly linked to the hope for political transformation. Truth, it is hoped, will offer a way to understand what is at stake in future relations between First Nations and the Australian settler state. Linking truth-telling to treaty only emphasises such aspirations. As the Yoo-rrook Justice Commissioners have collectively argued, ‘There can be no Treaty without truth’ (Walter et al 2021).

"Yet even as this new commitment to truth-telling emerges it is not clear that there is shared understanding of what truth might offer, and Australia has attempted to follow a treaty pathway before. International experience suggests that truth-telling rarely lives up to its promise. If Australia seeks to avoid such disappointment then there are questions to be asked. This paper explores some of the challenges and opportunities that truth-telling in Australia suggests, to ask the fundamental question: how should we tell the truth about Australia?"

PresentersProfessor Sarah Maddison; Dr Julia Hurst 

 [Webinar Two]

Counter-monuments: Challenging distorted colonial histories through contemporary art and memorial practices[4]

 "Increasingly across the globe, statues and monuments celebrating imperial conquest and colonial oppression are being defaced, recontextualised, removed by authorities or spectacularly toppled by protestors. It is evident from such acts that public memorials have become significant sites for inciting debate and action on the histories and ongoing legacies of colonial and racist violence.

"In Australia, it is routinely noted that there are contradictions in public remembrances that tend to honour white settler lives and accomplishments over Indigenous ones, and a culture of active silence on the violence of colonialism in public presentations of the past. In response, many contemporary Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists have produced public "counter-monuments" to make visible contested histories. In this lecture, Genevieve Grieves and Amy Spiers will discuss how the public’s view of colonial history and its legacies can be confronted and transformed through creative counter-monument practice by drawing on a number of contemporary Australian examples."

Presenters: Genevieve Grieves [a proud Worimi woman]. Dr Amy Spiers

 [Webinar Three]

Dismantling settler futures[5]

 "In previous work together, we identify settler colonial technologies of temporality operating through Australian Indigenous policy, and argue that often unacknowledged stories of the colonial future sustain the settler project. In this discussion, we explore the relationship between what Tuck and Yang (2012) have called settler futurity, and the violence produced by a settler order permanently invested in securing an inherently fragile claim to sovereign legitimacy. As white colonisers simultaneously complicit in and seeking to challenge the Australian racial-colonial project, we consider how European understandings of sovereignty shape settler temporalities and inflect our commitments to apparently ‘decolonising’ agendas at the level of political orders, settler political and academic institutions, and subjectivities. We discuss the implications of this for our own political investments and responsibilities, and reflect on what this might mean for our models of solidarity. How might settler anti-colonial praxis engage the here and now – and begin to more effectively refuse settler futures?"

PresentersDr Alissa Macoun; Dr Elizabeth Strakosch

[Webinar Four]

Black Stories Matter: the media, power and Aboriginal aspirations[6] 

 "Mainstream media reporting of Aboriginal people has long been governed by the broader inequalities and racism that shape Indigenous-settler relations in Australia. In a major study of how media had covered Aboriginal political aspirations, we identified three major narratives that operated to delay and deny Aboriginal self-determination. We also uncovered an alternative narrative of Indigenous sovereignty and nationhood – present across Indigenous communication texts and in interventions of Aboriginal political actors and their supporters – which worked to unsettle the dominant narratives and challenge their constraining logics. In this collaborative lecture, we aim to share the tools and resources we developed to understand and analyse the discourses and narratives that shape our ways of knowing Indigenous-settler relations. We consider how they have changed and can be changed to advance sovereignty and self-determination claims. By understanding the media’s ways of knowing Aboriginal people and political worlds, we can be armed to disrupt the patterns of the past."

Presenters: Professor Heidi Norman; Dr Archie Thomas

 

Critique

I think there can be no dispute that this is a totally politically charged programme. Moreover, I don’t think there can be even the slightest hint of objectivity or reasoned scholarship. The programme commences with the assumption that all hitherto existing Australian history is bad. It continues that this history has been deliberately distorted and these distortions need to be exposed and rectified. It posits that visible signs and expressions of this history should be removed or effaced by counter-monuments and visible contested histories; it continues by suggesting we reflect upon how this will reflect on ‘our own models of solidarity’ [whose models?] and finally it suggests that black stories matter and that ‘we’ [who?] can be armed to ‘disrupt the patterns of the past’. 

I shall address each synopsis commencing with number one. How should we tell the truth about Australia?

How should we tell the truth about anything? How should we tell the truth about history? This is a complex philosophical matter that constitutes the core of the discipline of historiography – a significantly important word in any discussion about history which, I note, is completely missing in the synopsis. It is concept integral to this subject. However, this programme is not so much a question of academic ‘truth’ and professional rectitude but rather a more insidious, somewhat Orwellian programme of blame and guilt centred around ‘truth commissions’ of colonial injustices and so forth. And yet, in the presenters own words: “International experience suggests that truth-telling rarely lives up to its promise”. Quite right – truth commissions have spawned all manner of judicial abuses over the past century which includes Nazi Germany, the USSR, China, North Korea and South Africa and other pillars of freedom and truth.  

Referring to the sentence: As the Yoo-rrook Justice Commissioners have collectively argued, ‘There can be no Treaty without truth’ (Walter et al 2021) - I would have thought that the Commissioners would have been far better in approaching the subject by observing that ‘There can be no Treaty[?] without good intent'. This is of course the nub of the problem. These activists would rather rake over old coals to cause divisions rather than genuinely seek constructive pathways towards reconciliation.

It is of course an awkward ‘truth’ that, should the same post-modern critical theory underlying this entire programme, be applied to the programme itself, the presenters would find themselves in a most sticky contradiction. What is the truth? Post-modernism is founded upon the premise that truth is relative. There can be no absolute truth! In this context it is fair to ask therefore - why are they wasting their time?

There is of course a straightforward answer to the question of ‘truth’ telling in Australian history – that being sound and educated scholarship by those trained in the discipline of history. Simple when you think about it.

The second webinar addresses the simpleton’s fad and fashion of defacing, destroying and ‘toppling’ statues. This of course would appeal to any ill-trained anarchic soul or to an emotional mob. The only thing such action achieves is to demonstrate the emotion of the perpetrators. Tearing down a statue is not a reasoned act; it is not an intelligent act but rather the act of an ignoramus or vandal at heart. A statue is an inert representation about a given point of time. It is that point in time which is critical.

There is a discernible difference between the newly liberated peoples of, say, Eastern Europe in the late 1980s tearing down statues of Joseph Stalin, Lenin or Karl Marx. These were symbols of immediate and direct oppression. Emotion is to some large extent explicable. By contrast, tearing down long-standing statues in free liberal democratic societies cannot be justified for the same reason. One might object to a statue for any number of sound or unsound reasons. But it exists and has existed as a reference to a specific point in time. To tear it down because some people’s mores and values have changed is no reasoned excuse. The statue exists as a reminder to all of what once was – good or bad. It is tangible, a visual representation of a period in history which should and certainly ought not, to be erased. Moreover, because one section of the community doesn’t like the statue, it is highly likely that other sections do for equally sound historical, sentimental or simply aesthetic reasons. Personally I love to wander around the parks and urban spaces looking at statues and their various plaques or historical signs - whatever or whosoever the designated grandee may have been. An urban space is, in my view, much poorer for the lack of same.

The retrospective ‘cancelling’ of those once historical luminaries for some supposed offense or retrospective crime or immoral action is, in my view, extremely dangerous. When we start to sanitise our history we start to burn our books. We start to censure our knowledge, we start to deliberately erase or rewrite what is taught in schools and colleges. Aside from this quite obvious critical objection, it is an offence against common sense and aesthetics.

Thus, rather than remove the visible memorials of Australia’s colonial pioneers, or endeavour to disencumber ourselves of our visible reminders of colonial history – much of it of great inspirational value I might add – we can and perhaps should add to it by remembering and indeed honouring our aboriginal heritage.

Webinar three addresses the post-modern visceral objection to Australian history. One may readily discern this without actually understanding the synopsis itself simply by its incomprehensible language, jargon and plethora of nonsense.  However, in honest endeavour I shall do my best to decipher same for my readers.

The first line is a stumper: In previous work together, we identify settler colonial technologies of temporality operating through Australian Indigenous policy, and argue that often unacknowledged stories of the colonial future sustain the settler project.

What on earth ‘settler technologies of temporality’ is anybody’s guess. But evidently they ran through and sustained ‘the settler future project’. Moreover the idea of ‘unacknowledged stories of the colonial future’ cause me intellectual indigestion. I would remind readers that this nonsense is written by academics of one of arguably our most prestigious university.

The second line furthers the confusion: In this discussion, we explore the relationship between what Tuck and Yang (2012) have called settler futurity, and the violence produced by a settler order permanently invested in securing an inherently fragile claim to sovereign legitimacy.

Messrs Tuck and Yang deserve twelve months at remedial writing school for this shocker. I think what is meant is that future settlement was dependent upon violence over contested land.

The third sentence, aside from being far too long with too many subordinate clauses is where the bile bites: As white colonisers simultaneously complicit in and seeking to challenge the Australian racial-colonial project, we consider how European understandings of sovereignty shape settler temporalities and inflect our commitments to apparently ‘decolonising’ agendas at the level of political orders, settler political and academic institutions, and subjectivities.

‘As white colonisers simultaneously complicit in and seeking to challenge the Australian racial-colonial project,’… What does this mean, except for the obviously unnecessary use of the adjective ‘white’? The colonisers were British ergo white. The use of the word is to reinforce the connection: White therefore Bad.

But to continue, how were the white colonisers simultaneously complicit in challenging ‘the Australian racial-colonial project’? Of course they were complicit – they ran the show.

I am afraid the following part of that sentence is obviously so much puff and indigestible nonsense I cannot be bothered wasting my time on it. Work it out as you will.

We now arrive at the concluding two sentences: We discuss the implications of this for our own political investments and responsibilities….. [It is totally apposite here to ask: ‘whose own investments and responsibilities?’] …and reflect on what this might mean for our models of solidarity. Whose and what models of solidarity]?] How might settler anti-colonial praxis engage the here and now – and begin to more effectively refuse settler futures? [Praxis: a much favoured Marxist term implying from theory to practice]. 

Given that colonial settlement ended with the colonial era well over one hundred and twenty one years ago we must assume the writers of this provocative and jargon strewn rubbish are referring to contemporary Australians and their continuing settlement of the continent. What the writers are asking webinar attendees is to help establish an effective programme to deny legitimacy to those Australians who are not of aboriginal descent.

It seems obvious that in their view a totally new Australian political and societal structure is required.

Webinar Four, referring to ‘Black Stories Matter’ the media, power and Aboriginal aspirations is written in the same tendentious jargon-filled phraseology, which, in plain English, suggests that Aboriginal stories are ignored and that the mainstream media and the white establishment controls the historical narrative about Aboriginal history.  

To some large extent this was true in the past. We have however moved on considerably. Indeed, Ms. McKee’s eloquent dismissal of this nonsense is well-worth citing:

“[The] accusation that there is a ‘culture of active silence on colonialism’ in Australia collapses upon examination. In fact, the opposite is true. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Culture is one of the three cross-curriculum priorities taught in all Australian schools from kindergarten to year 10. Most Australian universities have entire departments and multiples policies devoted to educating students about indigenous culture. The so-called ‘culture of active silence’ on indigenous issues is well and truly dead.

“Educators involved in the Undoing Australia project who suggest otherwise are weaponising words like ‘truth-telling’ to impute the guilt of historical figures onto current mainstream Australians. They claim that this nation’s institutions are riddled with racism and need to be replaced.”[7]

No serious student of Australian history could or indeed would defend the point that the Australian aborigines have suffered greatly since the Crown’s appropriation of the continent under the legal doctrine of terra nullius [nobody’s land]. This was always going to be the case when stone-age man met the world’s most technologically advanced power. British encroachment and advance around and into the continent were predicated, in part, on grave misunderstandings and injustices. British policy however was also predicated to and must be judged by the times, in its historical context. Sadly, in the emotional debate about aborigines and our colonial history, what are usually overlooked are the official policies of protection, of the many unofficial acts of kindness and understanding. These are not the headline grabbing stories that feed the activist cause.

Of course the aborigines were dispossessed of their land. Whilst regrettable, it was the natural corollary of one superior and stronger civilisation imposing its culture over a primitive and disparate collection of tribes. This has been a constant dynamic of world history. It is extremely regrettable, tragic indeed, that sacred sites and places of significance to these tribes were subsumed by the new civilisation. It is tragic that the aborigines largely lost their identity and their ancestral lands in the rapid transformation of the continent into modern Australia. All the foregoing is sad beyond belief. 

However, it should never be overlooked that, from day one in the exercise in colonisation, the authorities had some manner of policy in place to protect the native inhabitants. That this policy was often honoured in the breach is not necessarily the fault and good intention of the British Colonial Office. Since the end of the colonial era each state had numerous and varying policies to protect, advance the interests of and generally endeavour to treat with dignity the native inhabitants. The number of church missions, schools and medical centres around Australia amply demonstrates the fact that the plight of the aborigines was firmly in the mind of Australians. That some of the policies have been proved inadequate does not lessen the sound intent in which they were implemented. Since the 1967 referendum on citizenship and the ascension of the Whitlam Labor Government in 1972 the flow of Commonwealth government monies and government programmes for the aborigines has been endless and munificent. Land Rights legislation brought for many aborigines new sources of income. And yet the problem persists. Money has proved not to be the answer. 

On the3rd June 1992 the High Court of Australia determined a landmark case recognising the pre-colonial land interests of the aboriginal people within Australia's common law. It effectively nullified the doctrine of terra nullius giving the aboriginal people some stake in their land.

Around this positive note a baneful industry has arisen. This is the true canker in our Australian society. It is the industry of white activism whose sole intent is to endeavour to rectify the actual and perceived injustices of the past. It is driven by academics and exercised by their acolyte activists and, as the foregoing discussion on the webinar series amply illustrates, it is intent on the complete restructuring of our society. Its chief ideological weapon is guilt – it intends to make Australians guilty for the actual or perceived sins of the past. This is not only dangerous but it is nonsense. One cannot hold forever a people in debt for the supposed sins of their fathers. To take as example, the grotesque atrocities committed by Germany, Japan and Russia during the Second World War. These are now, after some four decades, largely forgiven and forgotten. The perceived crimes of Australian colonists extending over two hundred years ago are quite clearly not the province of today’s generation of Australians.

This cankerous research programme supported by the University of Melbourne beggar’s belief: it is overtly political; it is socially divisive; it is unscholarly and it is inherently negative.

The aboriginal community of Australia are also citizens of Australia. They are entitled to the same rights and privileges as every other citizen. They are also obligated with the same responsibilities and duties of citizenship. This is a lesson that has to be inculcated constantly. Our past policies have varied so widely across the spectrum one can only feel sympathy for their confusion. Telling them that the ‘white’ community is the source of their problems is poisonous nonsense. The activist industry posits some manner of ‘treaty’ between aborigines and the rest of the community. This is again, poisonous nonsense. It will serve, as in the case of New Zealand, to entrench the idea of two peoples, giving one of those two favoured status.

In this debate it is worth remembering that at the 2021 Census only 812,728 people identified as being of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander origin, representing 3.2 per cent of the total population. Some 167 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages were used at by 76,978 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.[8] Given the reality of this disparity and percentage of the national population it is an extremely noisy and squeaky gate. Giving this percentage a favoured status is cultural and political nonsense.

There is however much we can do to give effect to decent and common sense reconciliation between the aborigines and general society. Political posturing, truth commissions, rewriting history and tearing down colonial era monuments are not the way to do it. Neither is divisive policies intended to recognise Australia as two races of peoples. We are all Australians. We should be proud of each other’s achievements, whoever we are. We as a nation could make much of our aboriginal heritage – this could and should be a shared heritage, implemented and taught properly in a non-doctrinaire manner with good will and intent. We could erect more monuments and symbolic artworks recognising our Aborigines and their achievements and so forth. But these have to be done in a meaningful and sincere manner.  Reciting meaningless welcome to country ceremonies at the opening of a dunny door doesn’t cut the mustard. 

Given that Ms McKee alerted me to this appalling travesty academic education in the first place, it is fitting perhaps to allow her the last word on the matter:

"Unfortunately, while there are plenty of criticisms in this webinar series, solutions are few and far between. What is clear is that apologies, reparations and welfare will abound. It will be a world of colonial statue-toppling, indigenous politics, truth commissions and treaty negotiations. The University of Melbourne’s plan to ‘Undo Australia’ is self-destructive, disingenuous and fails to recognise the great achievements of this country. Australia would be better served by its oldest and most prestigious institutions of higher learning if they focused on building up rather than tearing down this nation." [9]

Historical Postscript

In 1535, King Henry XVIII appointed Thomas [as opposed to Oliver] Cromwell as Vicar General to give effect to the King’s programme for the dissolution of the monasteries. Extending until 1540, this programme gave rise to one of the most revolutionary periods in English history, bearing witness to a period of official vandalism as Cromwell’s thug’s looted priceless artworks and destroyed relicts, monuments, abbeys and monasteries around England, all in the name of the Crown. One hundred years later, during the paroxysm of the Civil War[1642–1651], England’s church treasures were once again looted and smashed by zealous puritans.

It is a tragic axiom of history that barbarians can always be relied upon to act barbarically. In today’s Anglosphere the tradition continues: our new politically doctrinaire, poorly educated, witless and humourless barbarians are busy rewriting our history by casting aside or smashing our existing traditions and monuments with the same rapaciousness as their forebears. It is sardonic that these neo-puritans and putative custodians of our cultural health continue to treat with our traditions, our religion and our existing civilizational culture, in the most cavalier fashion.  Sadly, I don’t expect this cohort of intellectual pygmies to appreciate the pun, let alone understand the irony. 

Ends



[1] Undoing Australia (ipa.org.au)

Brianna McKee. ‘Undoing Australia.’ The Spectator Australia. 6 August 2022.

 [2] Undoing Australia (2022) (unimelb.edu.au)

[9] McKee. Ibid