The occasion was a rowdy Christmas party in December last year at an inner-city hotel in Sydney. No mention was made of Aborigines but a senior policeman referred to the “TOU nation” and its role as protectors (not custodians) of Australia in place of the traditional words.
It was an insensitive and untimely moment. But it took place well before the impact of the Black Lives Matter protests in the US and their take-up in Australia.
Nevertheless, NSW Police Force assistant commissioner Mark Walton has said that the TOU will undergo reassessment and training. For its part, the ABC interviewed indigenous leaders Yvonne Weldon and Larissa Behrendt, who criticised the police involved and the culture that made such behaviour possible.
Clearly the times are a-changing, as Bob Dylan wrote a half-century ago.
In November 2009, leftist comedian Julian Morrow delivered the 2009 Andrew Olle Media Lecture. This annual event is sponsored by ABC Radio 702 in Sydney. Morrow began his lecture as follows: “In this most esteemed forum of the Australian media, I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners: the Murdoch people of the Delaware incorporation.”
Laugh? The audience — comprising, among others, the ABC’s best and brightest — burst into spontaneous laughter. Moreover Morrow, who was a constant presence on the ABC at the time, was not forced by the public sector broadcaster’s management to re-education as to sensitivity.
Primarily, but not exclusively, it’s the members of the left who are now campaigning for the remaking of history. But the call is fraught with double standards.
Take the left-wing Guardian, for example. This week conservative British writer Tony Parsons initiated a lighthearted petition for the closure of what was originally called the Manchester Guardian.
The paper was established in the early 19th century by John Edward Taylor, who made his fortune from cotton production that profited from slavery. Taylor supported the south in the American civil war and depicted US Republican president Abraham Lincoln as “abhorrent”.
Asked about this by The Daily Telegraph’s Clarissa Bye, Guardian Australia’s editor Lenore Taylor went into no comment mode. She directed attention to an article written by Katharine Viner, the paper’s global editor, in November 2017. Viner however, merely referred to The Guardian’s pro-slavery past as “this period of complacency”. Yes, just complacency. But, to Taylor apparently, Viner’s rationalisation is good enough.
The evasion of Viner and Taylor serves as a reminder that in the US it was the Democratic Party that was the supporter of slavery and it was the Democrats who were involved in the creation of the racist and murderous Ku Klux Klan. Racism is not the preserve of conservative movements.
At times of widespread anger, rationality invariably exits the debate. Take the issue of the statues of founding fathers of what became Australia — the likes of James Cook, Lachlan Macquarie and Arthur Phillip. By the standard of their time, none of this trio was a racist who deserves to have his statue destroyed.
The point is, without those who created European settlement in Australia, most of us would not be here. And this includes many who identify as indigenous. In this sense, many of the invaded were also invaders.
Any indigenous Australian who has even one European ancestor would not be around today were it not for 1788 and all that. That’s why it makes sense for contemporary Australians — while acknowledging the, at times, brutal past — to also recognise what we have in common today and not dwell on past injustices.
Take the contemporary issue about slavery in Australia, for example. In the common sense of the term, slavery means the effective kidnap of people from a foreign land to make them live and work for no pay in a new land. Viewed in this light, Australia’s only involvement with slavery turned on what was termed indentured labour in the final decades of the 19th century.
Many Pacific Island labourers — mainly from Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands — were forced or tricked into working on the Queensland sugar and cotton fields. It was a wicked practice that was condemned at the time by, among others, the leaders of the Christian churches and the trade union movement.
Blackbirding, as it was called, occurred before the formation of the Commonwealth of Australia. It was outlawed by the first act of the new Australian parliament and coincided with the introduction of the White Australia policy.
Put simply, the leaders of the trade union movement did not want the pay and conditions of Australian workers undercut by cheap labour from southern Asia or the South Pacific. The Pacific Island labourers were repatriated.
So the ending of the evils of indentured labour was made possible by the injustices of the White Australia policy (which prevailed until the mid-1960s). Life is complicated since human nature and utopia are incompatible.
Soon, no doubt, there will be an attempt to tear down the statues of those who supported the White Australia policy. This would include every politician, including Labor heroes such as John Curtin and Ben Chifley, up until but not including the Liberal Party’s Harold Holt.
And then there’s the problem with what to do with memorials to members of the left-intelligentsia who supported the communist regimes led by Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union, Mao Zedong in China, Cambodia’s Pol Pot and so on. All were mass murderers and Stalin was a racist with respect to minorities.
Take for example, the plaque in memory of Jessie Street (1889-1970) in Sydney. Street did some good work for the poor. But she also supported Stalin’s totalitarian regime when it was at its most repressive. I would not dismantle this memorial. But, then, I’m not into double standards.
Postscript: Last week’s column should have said Rupert Murdoch controls (not owns) Fox News.