White Australia Policy – The Background
In the simplest means, White Australia Policy was a restrictive immigration policy pursued in Australia. But if we dig deep, it was a systematic racial approach by the capitalist ruling class. In the mid-19th century there was a shortage of labour and Chinese and Pacific Islanders were brought in as labour. By the 1880s developing trade unions were calling for a policy to protect the “White working man”. By 1890 all states had legislation to preserve the purity of White Australia, Alfred Deakin being one of its strongest advocates. The new Commonwealth government legislated to exclude non-Europeans in its 1901 Immigration Restriction Act. The main device used was to be a dictation test in any European language – with the language being chosen to ensure failure. This policy of exclusion continued until the 1950s. The Labour administration repudiated the policy in the early 1970s.
Racism does not come down to racist ideas and attitudes alone, rather it’s something more material and long-term at stake as basis for a system of racial inequality to be established and maintained over generations. In the case of Australia, the most central was the expansion of private property in land. With the growing significant pastoral interests in the early 1800s, a coherent social practice of racial oppression began taking root – the steady, systematic, deliberate and calculated expropriation of Aboriginal land by the colonial property-owning class. At that time, land was the earliest, and most plentiful and lucrative, form of wealth in the emerging settler colony. It was key to the early development of capitalism and the consolidation of independent colonial bourgeoisies throughout the Australian continent towards the mid-1800s.
Aborigines were dispossessed, massacred and driven to the margins of Australian society, not because of the racist convictions of the colonists, but because there was something really valuable to be gained by the theft of a continent. Hostile policies and action against Aborigines became systematised and permanent as colonisation engulfed the whole continent, resulting in a war where Aboriginal societies were defeated and destroyed. Aboriginal men, women and children were massacred and confined on reserves, which was then explained and justified by the central racist notion of nineteenth century Australia, that the Aborigines were bound to “die out” as an inferior race. The escalation of the frontier war conveniently coincided with the rise of “scientific racism” in Europe and the United States. As part of this, the evolutionary law of survival of the fittest was imported and converted for racist use against the Aborigines.
As an independent, wealthy capitalist economy flourished and primary production became ever more industrialised and expansionist, the treatment of Aborigines became increasingly more brutal. They were slaughtered by regular “hunting” parties well into the twentieth century. Tens of thousands of Aboriginal children were forcibly taken away from their parents and put into camps to be trained as domestics, labourers or stockmen — a policy fully abandoned less than three decades ago. In remote areas, large agricultural and pastoral empires were built with the labour of Aborigines who were “paid” with meagre rations of tea, sugar and flour. When these station owners were legally compelled to pay wages, following the determined and courageous struggles of the Aboriginal workers in the late 1960s, many workers were sacked and driven off the land.
The results of this racist history still live on today! Australian capitalism is not only founded on, but continues to thrive on, the soil of Aboriginal dispossession. The powerful pastoral agribusinesses and mining monopolies — chief beneficiaries of early capital accumulation based on the theft of Aboriginal land — are the social roots of continuing anti-Aboriginal racism. There have been no efforts to reverse the extreme social, economic and political disadvantages that have historically accumulated as a result of the dispossession and destruction of Aboriginal societies. There have been no amends for recent policies of racist social control.
Australian history is bitterly contested ground due to the continuing racial oppression of Aborigines. The social interests of Australia at the beginning of the 21st century are only a few generations removed from those social interests that sponsored genocidal “hunting” parties to guard stolen land and forcibly separated Aboriginal children from their parents in an equally genocidal policy. In essence, they are the same social interests.
Australia’s historical whitewash is reflected in everyday life in the dismissal of charges of racism. Individual victims of racist abuse and discrimination are often accused of exaggerating, overreacting, being oversensitive, or “whingeing”. Especially since 1996, when John Howard refused to condemn Pauline Hanson’s racist inaugural speech to federal parliament, racists feel a measure of political protection and ideological legitimacy when spouting their views.
Just as the expansion of the landed frontier put race at the centre of the colonial political economy, race also became a driving principle in the maturing of an Australian nation and national consciousness towards the late nineteenth century. White racial unity acted as an ideological and social-psychological cement for the emerging Australian national identity, of what it meant and felt to be Australian.
Every bourgeoisie needs a national home. The nation (and nation-state) is the basic unit of capitalist economic development and political power. However, for national unification to become reality, economics must go over to politics. Thus, as the rulers of the colonies worked to meet their shared objective interests, a consciously national bourgeoisie came to be forged in political battles and alignments. Integral to this was the political-ideological task of winning the support and allegiance of the popular classes. The nation-building process is a mass political movement. No nation can be imposed top down by a stroke of the bureaucratic or legislative pen. This was all the more so for a scattering of small, disparate settlements separated across a vast continent. What consummated the objective integration of these settler colonies and elevated it into a process of conscious national-political unification was the pursuit of racial purity, a White Australia. This racialised national identity and nationalism came to bind – and override – the often grating class and sectional interests of the continent. In the build-up to federation, the dazzling power of the appeal to racial unity was felt deeply by political elites; its value for the grand project of national unification pushed all else to the margins.
There was a convenient amity of racism between all sides of the Australian class divide. It is this mutually reinforcing dynamic of inter-class racism that is crucial for understanding the origins of the White Australia policy. For, elsewhere in the European settler colonies, the general trend was towards incorporating non-white peoples as indentured, semi-slave, and otherwise subordinate strata of the working class, as in South Africa and the United States. This met the twin needs of cheap industrial labour and the sowing of racial divisions. By contrast, the Australian ruling class opted for a policy of expulsion and exclusion, not just because of its peculiar geopolitical position but also its need to absorb popular discontent into the nation-building project. That specific variant of racism – an exclusively white nation (for Aborigines were thought to be “dying out”), as opposed to white supremacy in a racially hierarchical nation – was undoubtedly a concession to popular demands, necessitated by the pursuit of national unity.
The anti-Chinese mobilisations of the 19th century were mainly led by middle class politicians and yet they were mass mobilisations. At Lambing Flat, about a quarter of the total white population violently rioted against Chinese miners in June 1861 – as a culmination of many months of harassment and violence – fuelled by the malicious agitation of the local newspaper.
All this was stimulated by fierce competition for the best diggings, water to work the diggings and other scarce resources, in what was an arduous and fickle industry, where, despite elements of cooperation, every digger ultimately stood or fell by his own individual labour. The Chinese provided a large, visible target to vent the tense social psychology of such competitive conditions and, by that logic, restrict the field of competition. But the logic of capital, in any case, inevitably throws all but a handful to the margins of wage-labour. The racially purified goldfields were no exception. In fact, economic concentration was rapid, due to the transient nature of mining. From the 1870s, diggings consolidated into company-run operations able to muster the capital to dig beneath the surface soil with expensive new technology, worked by waged miners.
The graduation of the petty-bourgeois digger into wage-worker proper did not see racism subside. On the contrary, with increasing industrialisation, urbanisation and the growth of a mass working class, the anti-Chinese movement grew in size, concentration and organisation. Miners’ unions organised to exclude and expel Chinese workers. In 1874, the Amalgamated Miners’ Association of Victoria gained the dubious honour of becoming the first major union to formalise exclusion by passing a motion “prohibiting any member thereof from working in any mine where Chinese are employed”, along with an amendment to “urge on the Government the necessity of imposing a poll tax on Chinamen of such a nature as would effectually prevent any further increase of that moral and social pest”. Political representatives of labour wielded the machinery of the bourgeois state to run their racist campaign.
The truly mass dimension of a new wave of urban anti-Chinese movement was first revealed in the 1878 Seamen’s Union campaign – against the Australasian Steam and Navigation Company (ASN). Under competitive pressure from a Hong Kong shipping company, the ASN had taken on Chinese sailors on half the pay of whites. The union responded by agitating a mass anti-Chinese campaign, in which the ASN was a secondary target. The campaign gained wide support throughout New South Wales and Queensland, where ASN centred its mail run and southwest Pacific shipping operations. Public meetings drew thousands. The Trades and Labour Council (TLC) formed a specific anti-Chinese committee that spearheaded a petition, garnering tens of thousands of signatures. One of the speeches even mentioned a “war of races”. Two mass rallies in support of the strike, held at Sydney’s Hyde Park, attracted some 10,000 people each.
In 1880, Melbourne joined the new wave of anti-Chinese movement amid sharpening competition in the furniture trade. A public meeting called by the unions attracted 3000 people and led to the re-establishment of an anti-Chinese league. At the Intercolonial Conference of December to January 1880-81, the colonial premiers met to draft for the first time a uniform anti-Chinese legislation, but without final resolution. Both NSW and Victoria passed such laws in the second half of 1881, with the former occurring in the wake of a rally of some 10,000 at the Domain and a subsequent burst of mass anti-Chinese hysteria triggered by an outbreak of smallpox.
As with all movements, while mass mobilisation went through peaks and troughs, the work and organisation of the activists of the anti-Chinese movement continued unabated throughout the 1880s and 90s, underwritten by the deepening mass labour nationalist consciousness in the emerging Australian nation. Unions and union leaders were at the forefront. In 1884, a former president of the Sydney TLC set up a vigilance committee drawn from various unions to police the employment of Chinese workers in the maritime industry. In 1886, the furniture union of Victoria set up a Stamping Committee to agitate for laws to require the stamping of all furniture made by Chinese workers. Anti-Chinese resolutions were passed at the second, third and fourth Intercolonial Trades Union Congresses. The Queensland Shearers’ Union not only excluded Chinese workers but also 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”. White employers and workers alike, if seen to be soft on the Chinese, were condemned as “white Chinamen”.
Boycott campaigns were organised against Chinese businesses. Various anti-Chinese organisations were established throughout the colonies. An Anti-Chinese Market Garden Company in north Queensland attracted some 300 shares. The visit to Sydney of representatives from the Chinese government in July 1887 triggered a new round of mass activity. Large rallies, public meetings and an anti- Chinese conference were held in Brisbane. A similar conference took place in Melbourne. The Sydney anti-Chinese league was reorganised on the most elaborate platform to date, ranging from a preamble accusing the Chinese commissioners of “spy[ing] out the land”, to calls for a raft of special taxes against the Chinese, restriction of inter-marriage, stamping of Chinese-made products, special inspections of Chinese market gardens, banning of certain Chinese organisations and restrictions against Chinese mining. The league handed out some 20,000 leaflets to publicise this platform. It held a series of large public meetings and participated in the Eight Hour Day procession. At this time, there was also a considerable campaign for the racial segregation of Sydney’s trams.
In the following year, the agitation reached a new level, as nationalist sentiments came together around the celebration of a centenary of white invasion. In late April 1888, the imminent docking in Melbourne and Sydney of the Afghan, carrying hundreds of Chinese arrivals, triggered a mass backlash organised by the anti-Chinese leagues. A delegation from Melbourne Trades Hall Council successfully pressured the Victorian premier to turn the ship away. The anti-Chinese league held a mass rally on May Day to celebrate this victory. A similar reception was prepared for the Afghan in Sydney. On 3 May a 5000-strong meeting at the Sydney Town Hall was accompanied by a street rally outside for those who could not get in. The subsequent march to parliament attempted to storm the chamber and forced the government to place stringent restrictions on the Chinese arrivals. A so-called Grand National Anti-Chinese Demonstration was held a month later, on 2nd June at the Domain, attracting some 50,000 people. By the end of that month, eleven unions and the Trades and Labour Council had formally affiliated to the anti-Chinese league. On 30th June, a rally targeting the use of Chinese workers in the shipping industry attracted a crowd estimated between 6000 and 50,000. Violence in the cities were directed at Chinese businesses, often resulting in serious injury and property destruction. Perpetrators who were caught generally escaped with a fine.
In that centennial year, on 12th June, the six colonial premiers met in Sydney to successfully assemble a uniform legislation against migrants of colour. This was the beginning of “White Australia” as a formal national policy.
The cross-class anti-Chinese campaigns of the late 1800s comprised a popular nationalist movement co-led by petty-bourgeois labour leaders and ruling class politicians. Through this movement, labour and capital negotiated an equilibrium between the former’s desire for labour market protection and the latter’s urgent need for popular unity behind its grand national project of consolidating Australian capitalism. The ruling class’s legislative consummation of the clamour for a White Australia was both driven by its own interests and a concession to popular demands. These dynamics reflected a relationship of class forces that was, on the whole, favourable to workers, principally due to a labour shortage that persisted throughout the late 19th century. At the same time, the ruling class had the wealth, founded to make sizable concessions, and not just in terms of racial protectionism.
As the Australian nation and bourgeoisie emerged and unified, so too did a nationalism of labour, deeply imbued by a defensive outlook toward all classes of economic competition. Protecting Australian living standards meant sheltering local capital and excluding cheap labour. Hence the earliest federal governments rested on a coalition between the Labor and Protectionist parties, for whom the White Australia Policy went hand in glove with industrial protection.
Racism was mutually reinforced by the contending classes. In the process, they found national unity. The big bourgeoisie, imbued with a natural aspiration towards national strength and unity, therein saw White Australia as the organising principle for such aims. Working class racism both reflected and reinterpreted this racism of the bourgeoisie, for which collective bargaining was one means. The nationalist and pro-capitalist nature of working class organisation at this time enabled the colonial bourgeoisie to give it due recognition.
So Australian workers were not merely duped by ruling class racist scapegoating and fear mongering. Working people are not blank pages waiting to be passively inscribed by bourgeois ideologists. Nor did racism take hold because it successfully deflected class antagonisms. The racist colonial bourgeoisie and the capitalist system are fundamentally responsible for the White Australia Policy and racial oppression in general. But this only reveals one side of the dynamic of how and why ruling class ideology exerts mass influence.
Nationalist movements of oppressed nations have a generally democratic thrust, pursuing the right of self-determination and political parity, compared to the oppressor nation. By contrast, nationalist movements and programs in the advanced capitalist countries have a chauvinist and racist character, as they rest on the preservation and protection of privilege in relation to the claims of the world’s poor. This is even more pronounced in an island continent such as Australia, surrounded by some of the poorest countries in the world. The peculiarity of the embryonic nation of Australia in the late 1800s was that it arose on the basis of, firstly – comparative material privilege and secondly – the global march towards imperialism that was accompanied by a renewed, even deeper penetration of colonial rule, morally-politically justified by a more effective, pseudo-scientific reassertion of racist ideology in all the aspiring imperialist powers, including Australia. In this context, nation-building, federal unification and national identity could not but be racist.
Racist ideology took more effective hold at this time, not only because it manipulated the scientific ideas of the age, but also because of the greater ease of its propagation in the new demographic conditions of mass literacy, public schooling, urban concentration and the mass print media. More crucially, the people who spread racist ideas were popular cultural figures who attracted a mass following. In Australia, a whole swag of labour nationalist publications, poets, cartoonists and journalists played the leading part in popularising racism.
Any anti-capitalist sentiment was directed against those who sought to introduce coloured workers for the sake of profit – not driven by solidarity with these workers against such super-exploitation, but by hostility to their supposedly natural servility and inferiority that allowed them to be used by the capitalists.
The political vehicle for this populist labour nationalism has historically been the Australian Labor Party (ALP). The colonial Labor parties that eventually formed the ALP were, among working people, the most authoritative and trusted champions of the policy of racial-national unity. A key plank in their platforms was commitment to a white Australia. In fact, race not only united the nation, it also held together the very party of labour nationalism. For it was the commitment to racial exclusion that cemented the first federal Labor caucus, which was otherwise divided between opposing camps of protectionists and free traders.
The White Australia Policy became national law when the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, initiated by the Labor Party, was among the first to pass the new federal parliament. Little known is the fact that the Immigration Restriction Act was only the centrepiece of a package of three federal laws that made up the total White Australia Policy. The Pacific Island Labourers Act of 1901 legislated for the deportation of Islanders from 1906. Section 15 of the Post and Telegraph Act of 1901 required all ships carrying Australian mail to employ only white workers, thereby directly addressing a key historic grievance of the white labour nationalists, focused as they were on the maritime industry in the previous decades.
A racial “citadel” is an apt description of Australia’s historical and geopolitical role of an imperialist military outpost in the Asia-Pacific region, going as far back as Queensland’s attempted annexation of eastern New Guinea, followed not long after by Australian troops’ participation in the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion in China, counter-revolutionary wars against Korea and Vietnam, and continuing through to its role today as neoliberal enforcer in the island states of the southwest Pacific and resident “war on terror” mandarins in Indonesia, Thailand and other southeast Asian countries. Racist labour nationalism has easily translated into a populist imperialism – an imperialism of the little people.
To argue that workers may be active agents of ruling class racism is merely to restate, in a different way, the basic dialectic of working class sociology. That is, there is a deep contradiction inherent in the proletariat’s position within the class structure of capitalism, a contradiction that drives both the class’s revolutionary potential and its vulnerability to capitalist ideology and politics.
The proletariat is defined by its relationship to the means of production as a seller of a commodity – labour-power (ability to work). When conditions for its sale are favourable (as they were for much of the 19th century), workers are more susceptible to the influence of pro-capitalist ideas and propaganda, including racism. Even when disputes erupt against an immediate grievance, this aspect of the dialectic – the day to day commodified social existence of the worker – limits them to (temporary and partial) settlement within the framework of capitalism; that is, unless there is conscious revolutionary political organisation based on the strategic application of scientific socialism.
Nevertheless, the very nature of the commodity they sell puts the workers at systemic odds with the capitalist class which, in the process of purchasing their labour power, exploits them. This seething antagonism then ruptures into open, even revolutionary struggle when the contradictions of capital accumulation produce economic and political crises of one sort or another. This aspect of the dialectic contains the objective potential for the proletariat to revolutionise capitalist society and strive towards the withering away of social classes altogether. And such relentless, unyielding pressure towards political rupture and radicalisation in this “epoch of wars and revolutions” contains the dynamics for anti-racist revolutionary struggle.
Fully recognising and embracing this revolutionary potential need not deny the dialectical unity of opposites inherent in the nature of the working class. If it is merely a result of the sowing of lies, then such lies should have been well and truly exposed by now. But that is the primitive limit faced by all such idealist conceptions of history, thoroughly exposed by Marx and Engels around the time of the first of the racist epidemics to infect Australia’s colonial masses.
White Australia Policy was used to cement nationalism – it encourages white Australian workers to identify more with union bureaucrats and Australian capitalists and capitalist parties than other workers, including those overseas, and to facilitate the increased exploitation of migrant workers and Aborigines here. And as such, the task of propagandistic work to combat that created ideology was and still is very important, as the remnants of that White Australia Policy are still alive and kicking and still being encouraged by various capitalist interests.
Ongoing Racism in Australia
Since the repudiation of the White Australia Policy in the early 1970s, immigration from Third World countries has grown considerably – but that does not necessarily mean that racism in Australia has been totally whitewashed.
The unemployment rate among new migrants from non-English speaking backgrounds is higher than average. But this is not because they are unable or unwilling to work. On the contrary, when racial prejudice and discrimination do not prevent them from obtaining work, new migrants do most of the hardest, dirtiest and lowest paid jobs in Australia. Their unemployment rate is a direct result of the fact that there are virtually no new jobs being created by either governments or businesses.
It generated dire consequences for all other Australian workers as well. Fierce competition for too few jobs enables employers to use new migrants as battering rams against the wages, working conditions and organisation of workers. For new migrants deprived of social security, it’s a matter of taking the job, at whatever cost to themselves or others, or starve.
Only when the most secure and organised workers actively campaign, not only to defend their own wages and conditions, but also to stop the government’s attacks on new migrants’ rights to social support and security can we defeat the government’s efforts to pit new migrant against citizen, unemployed against worker, Asian against Anglo and thereby drive down the living conditions of all.
What made Australia’s racism attitude significant was the recent series of attacks on Indian students in Victoria. The number of Indian students studying in Australia has doubled in the last three years, second only to Chinese students in numbers. Fees paid by foreign students are now Australia’s third-largest export earner behind coal and iron ore. While Australian citizens are able to study through a subsidised higher education scheme where fees are deferred until students enter the full-time employment, all international students are required to pay full fees in order to study at Australian institutions.
On top of educational expenses, Indian students have to pay Australian living costs which are considerably higher than those in India. Often the high cost of living in Australia forces Indian students to live in poorer neighbourhoods far from the campuses where they study. The Australian government also places visa restrictions on international students that only allow them to work 20 hours per week. Given the high cost of education and living expenses, many Indian students are forced to earn wages “under the counter” in order to get around Australia’s work laws. These unofficial employment arrangements enable employers to super-exploit their employees, who are not protected by minimum legal conditions. The difficulties finding steady work can lead to Indian students doing night shifts and then having to walk home alone late at night.
These conditions go hand in hand with the ingrained anti-Asian racist prejudices that pervade Australian society. These prejudices were institutionalised by more than half a century of the “White Australia” immigration policy, a policy that was only officially abandoned in 1973, to be replaced by official promotion of an Australian nationalism that sustains xenophobic prejudices against immigrants from non-British backgrounds.
In response to the attacks on Indian students, up to 10,000 protesters – overwhelmingly Indian students – gathered in the centre of Melbourne. Most of the Indian students who attended the protest action were acutely aware that the police had generally failed to investigate racist attacks. Even when they witnessed such attacks, police officers tend to take the non-white victim to task and tell them to leave rather than the white perpetrator.
Police officers in Melbourne’s western suburbs have long been perpetrators of racist abuse. In 2003, Hussein Farah, a Somali student, was beaten to the point of unconsciousness inside a police station while being racially taunted by several police. Farah woke up on the pavement outside the police station. When Farah reported the police for their actions, they claimed that Farah, a small-framed man, had assaulted police officers inside the station. Farah’s assault sparked a series of Somali community rallies that for a short period appeared to diminish the amount of racist police harassment that Somalis faced in Melbourne’s western suburbs.
Australian racism towards Asians stemmed from Australian working-class resistance to the importation of Asian labour, something that significant parts of the Australian capitalist class supported.
The inequality, poverty, and violence caused by the division of the world between the rich, developed, capitalist nations and poorer, under-developed Third World nations naturally leads some people from the latter to seek a better life in the former. The existence of this persistent inequality among the nations of the world also risks outraging and radicalising working people in the First World, encouraging solidarity against their common exploiters, the super-rich families of the First World that own the big corporations that dominate the industry, agriculture and trade of rich and poor nations alike.
By controlling the movement of people between countries, the governments of the developed capitalist nations make it easier for their corporations to super-exploit the workers of the Third World by limiting their options for migration and criminalising them when they do manage to cross borders. Campaigns by capitalist politicians and corporate media in the imperialist countries to demonise immigrants from the Third World undermine the development of solidarity with these migrants among First World workers. This, in turn, weakens First World workers in their struggles against their capitalist exploiters. Refugees, the most vulnerable among migrants, are also often the easiest to demonise.
This takes on particular importance for the capitalist rulers in times of economic crisis, when they have the additional need to deflect blame for the crisis onto convenient scapegoats. Fears of immigrants taking First World workers’ jobs are used by capitalist politicians and the corporate media to divert attention from the fact that rising unemployment in the First World is caused by the “boom and bust” cycle of the capitalist profit system. The economic crises, wars and environmental destruction caused by this system will likely lead to greater numbers of refugees in the future. Legal measures by imperialist countries like Australia — such as prosecution of “people smugglers” or creation of new, more restrictive visa categories — will do nothing to counter the reasons why people in poor countries seek asylum, but will only exacerbate the injustices faced by these refugees.
Australia’s imperialist rulers have sent troops to assist the US with its wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, yet its politicians have refused the responsibility to grant asylum to people fleeing those wars and the economic devastation of the capitalist crisis. Demonising Third World asylum seekers seeks to destroy solidarity between working people in Australia and Third World countries whose resources imperialism plunder.
While Labor, the Liberals and the corporate media have been focused on an alleged “flood” of “unauthorised” arrival by boat of asylum seekers, 10 times as many “unauthorised” asylum seekers arrive by plane. While those arriving by boat are detained on Christmas Island while their claims are being processed, those arriving by plane are usually allowed to live in the general community while their claims are being processed.
Most of those arriving by boat are from war-wracked Afghanistan and Iraq, and increasingly this past year, Tamils from Sri Lanka. Tens of thousands of people were killed during the 25 year-long war between the imperialist-backed Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE). An estimated 6500 people were reportedly killed and 14,000 wounded during the last few months of the war earlier this year. Since the defeat of the LTTE, more than 300,000 Tamils have been herded into military camps.
The Labor government’s earlier post-election reforms to immigration policy dealt with less central issues: removing temporary protection visas, waiving refugee detention debts, closing Pacific offshore detention centres and requiring the immigration department to supply proof that a refugee was not genuine. It also recently presented complementary protection legislation for asylum claims that fall outside the scope of the Refugee Convention, but has been criticised by the Refugee Council of Australia for tightening the definition of what constitutes harm under the new legislation. In keeping the basis of the previous Coalition government’s policies intact, Labor has continued to move away from international human rights obligations in relation to refugees since the Keating Labor government brought in mandatory detention in 1992.
Rudd may have a more sophisticated explanation of why people would risk their lives in leaking boats to come to Australia, but he used moral outrage against “people smugglers” to divert attention away from why there is an increase in “illegal” asylum seekers and to justify support for xenophobic “border protection policies”. The inequality, poverty, and violence caused by the division of the world between the rich, developed capitalist nations and poor, underdeveloped Third World nations naturally leads some people from the latter to seek a better life in the former. The existence of this persistent inequality among nations also risks outraging and radicalising working people in the First World, encouraging solidarity against their common exploiters, the super-rich families of the First World that own the big corporations that dominate the industry, agriculture and trade of rich and poor nations alike.
The political to and fro between the major Australian capitalist parties about “border protection” from “boat people” is a predictable diatribe about which of them can best ensure that Australian working people’s natural sympathy for those worse off than themselves does not translate into active political solidarity with those seeking asylum from repressive imperialist-backed Third World regimes. Despite 3.5 million migrants settling in Australia since 1976, the political vote-catching hysteria over a mere 19,500 “illegal” arrivals since that time has ensured that a large section of Australia’s population is hostile to small boatloads of refugees.
At the cost of considerable international embarrassment, the post-war government of Ben Chifley organised the deportation of the small number of Asian refugees who had been sheltered during the war and who then refused to go home. Neither Chifley, nor his immigration minister, Arthur Calwell, could understand why Asian countries were outraged when Australia deported people who had been resident for up to eight years, some of whom had Australian spouses and children.
Racial discrimination towards indigenous Aborigines can still be seen today. British military officers saw the potential for becoming rich and powerful landholders, and did not want this jeopardised by any treaty that the British government might seek to make with Aboriginal tribes if they knew there was strong resistance to the colony. As these officers and other fortune seekers established their power and became part of the tiny ruling class of Australia, they set the stage for the distortions of history and racist characterisations of Aboriginal people that persist to this very day. Only through racism can the capitalist ruling class continue to take what it wants from Aboriginal land.
In the 60s and 70s, the racist policies of segregation and forced assimilation, including the kidnapping of the Stolen Generations, were presented by governments as in the best interests of Aboriginal people. Far too many non-Aboriginal people took those governments at their word. Today there is no excuse for doing so. Regardless of how the policy is justified, the real intent has been and remains the theft of Aboriginal land for exploitation by the same class of wealthy people who enrich themselves through exploiting the labour of all working people.
As mining companies and pastoralists in Australia look forward to getting more Aboriginal land, something very different is happening in Venezuela. There, the government of President Hugo Chavez, which is leading the effort to build “21st century socialism”, is working with indigenous communities to eliminate the injustices they face.
In 2002 the Chavez government changed the name of Columbus Day to Day of Indigenous Resistance. The Venezuelan government has set up a government-funded program that seeks to restore communal land titles to indigenous communities and to protect their cultural rights. The mission is run by the indigenous communities themselves, in partnership with the government. Venezuela is a living example of equality towards indigenous citizens – something unimaginable under the past and current Australian governments.
RSP role/DA coverage on the area
RSP is continuing DSP’s tradition of leading in the area of anti-racist work, not only with anti-racist campaigns but also in propaganda work, covering this issue from time-to-time in our paper Direct Action and also holding public forums and seminars relating to the issue.
Also, various types of campaigning work we do – like solidarity with Asia-Pacific democratic campaigns and refugee rights, etc. – are also very important as that encourages people to break away from nationalistic sentiments and build real solidarity with workers around the world, and to see where their interests are truly aligned.