An opinion piece by Van Rudd and Federal Treasurer Wayne Swan, 26th January, 2013
I have put my contribution in italics to Wayne’s original piece that was the featured in Fairfax media on the 25th Jan 2013.
FORGED IN STOLEN LAND
As we celebrate this Invasion Day, it is worth reflecting on the origins and nature of Australia’s national chauvinism.
IT HAS been another eventful Australian summer, marked by conflicts that have once again cultivated some of our nation’s most racist values: our incapacity to stick together in a crisis; keep out those who need help; and display indifference, incompetence and fear under pressure.
In a time of a global economic crisis, with the country on the cusp of the so-called ‘Asian Century’, our labour value is the most valuable commodity we possess, that which will always place a tidy profit into the hands of the rich. So as we critically evaluate this Invasion Day, it is worth reflecting on the origins and nature of Australia’s racist values.
There’s no one source of our national bigotry. It comes from our denial of indigenous history, a denial of the Aborigines’ brave struggles against wealthy landowners, the Federation period resulting from conflicts between the rich and poor, and, of course, how the rich sent working people to the battlefields of the first major imperialist war.
And perhaps for the Australian government as much as the Sri Lankan government, so much of their racism is manufactured through sport. It just so happens this summer marks what could be another of the most significant anti-racism campaign events in Australia’s sporting history: the Boycott Sri Lanka Cricket campaign. Countless journalists and human rights activists all over the world have been devoted to retelling the torrid saga of the Sri Lankan government’s genocidal campaigns against Tamils, but it is worth recounting because of the role the Australian government has played in supporting the Sri Lankan government’s blatantly racist activities.
At its core, the Australian government is calculated, when, by use of the Australian cricketing establishment whitewashes any criticism of the Sri Lankan government’s brutal, intimidatory, even life-threatening tactics.
So, that while there were two teams on the field, none are playing cricket. They are playing politics. One Australian Board of Control for Cricket’s cable went as far to say that: ”Unless stopped at once it [Boycott] is likely to upset the friendly relations existing between Australia and Sri Lanka.”
That may not sound as fearsome as what continues to happen in Sri Lanka, but in the world of diplomacy, words rarely come as truth. The enduring impact of the Boycott Sri Lanka series will be deeply rooted in Australian sporting folklore, but it is about an awful lot more than just cricket or sport. As esteemed cricket historian and former Age writer,Trevor Grant concluded in his chronicle Sri Lankan protesters find the cricket world gets spooky, cricket is principally about laundering “the blood-stained image of the Rajapaksa regime in Sri Lanka.”
As we reflect on this sustained campaign, an obvious question is how the Boycott series defines the way the Australian government views its place in the world, and its relationship with Sri Lanka, as a result. And, perhaps even more importantly, what mark it may have left on us as a people in the decades that follow. I think the answer to that throws up some unsurprising insights into the Australian national character – unsurprising because it explains some of the cliched myths that surround Australian sporting behaviour, and by extension, Australian national chauvinism more generally.
The most disturbing fact about this episode is that it was we are told through means such as the mainstream media that we are defenders of the supposedly English and “gentlemanly” ideal of ”fair play” upon which the spirit of the game of cricket is supposedly based.
Yes, we unleashed foreign affairs minister Bob Carr. And yes, the Sri Lankan government is still breaking hands and bruising rib cages today. They play hard. But at Australia’s worst, Carr plays within both the letter and the spirit of their rules. What the Boycott shows is that while the Australian Government refuses to openly accept Tamil refugees escaping persecution, we the people are not inherently a ruthless, racist ”whatever it takes” people. Rather, we have the potential to fight injustice when we see it and expect no less from others. Racism is a product of and developed through social relations and not an inherent, biological characteristic of humans.
By any measure, Bob Carr had no interest in honouring any such code in Australia this summer. By allowing the Sri Lankan Military to consistently target the chest and head of Tamils, and not placing his fieldsmen to defend the Tamil body, life and limb was not only threatened, the spirit of a whole Tamil population was deeply contravened. The fact that the rules were not changed shortly after the 2009 massacre is the unarguable proof of that.
Now, obviously, both the Sri Lankan Government and Australian Government say all that is at stake is a sporting trophy. But this is war. It isn’t a matter of national sovereignty, but life and death – certain death and/or persecution for those who are forcibly sent back to face the Sri Lankan Government and co without anything resembling today’s claims of democracy and diplomacy.
But Boycott Sri Lanka Cricket leaves a mark on our consciousness nonetheless. This is because it symbolises wider and important social and political issues.
To understand that we have to put ourselves back in that summer of 1932-33. Australia was in the middle of the Great Depression, with the mass unemployment, homelessness, deprivation and betrayal of hope that it brought. Working people didn’t cause that depression and to a very great extent we were powerless to tackle it: because we lacked economic sovereignty. The 1 percent’s adherence to the forces of the market made it impossible to increase the living standards of the working majority. Even worse, austerity was forced upon us from on high and from overseas – largely by English capitalists, whose idiotic rules had little interest in the welfare of ordinary people. The result? Catastrophic unemployment, hardship and loss.
Working people all over the world were mad as hell about it. So when the English ruling class bent the system to win at all costs, people joined the dots. It was typical. And it symbolised the need for a new assertion that contravenes national sovereignty – one underpinned by the democratic rather than the divisive values of protectionism – to play hard, but to look after each other, no matter what country you come from.
Put simply, we believe that the Boycott campaign causes many people to wake up to the urgent need to make Australia’s national chauvinism never our No. 1 priority.
The events of 1788, in Australia played a big role in embedding a sense of racism in the general population and a desire for the denial of Aboriginal sovereignty since. These ideas have surfaced at various points in Australia’s past, such as the Federation of 1901, and more recently the Northern Territory Intervention– the latter has amplified institutionalised racism and taken it in new and unexpected directions.
Wartime Labor prime ministers John Curtin and Ben Chifley were heavily influenced by the racist rhetoric of national sentiment that followed the Great Depression, and it informed their determination to support the country’s imperialist interests in 1942.
Today, Australia stands almost alone among the developed nations in having stayed aggressive towards refugees during the most significant global economic downturn since that same Great Depression. This in no small part speaks to an unfortunate determination of this country to again be at the whim of those in power who claim an inherent right to make the rules and break them at our expense. The events on the cricket field during this summer, coinciding as they do with the events of the current global economic crisis, won’t awaken a democratic and egalitarian assertion of action against racist injustice until people know that so-called ‘Australian national sovereignty’ is an outright fabrication.
We believe that reflecting on those events will eventually have another legacy, too, in hastening the approach of a truly equal society in Australia, even if it has fallen from the agenda over the past four decades.
While the English can be a respected cricketing foe, and among our very closest friends when it comes to a comprehensive history of ordinary people fighting a corrupt system, we think racism in Australia has much to do with a history of successive Australian governments’ support of English imperialism.
So let’s use Australia Day to ridicule, and critically examine, the abhorrent things Australia stands for: denying Aboriginal history, imprisoning refugees, propping up mining industry billionaires over an increasingly overworked and underpaid population, and for supporting the United States in the war in Afghanistan. Nationalism in rich countries like Australia is an ugly and divisive burden, not a source of liberation and democracy.
Wayne Swan is federal Treasurer. Van Rudd is an artist and social justice activist.
Both Van and Wayne went to the same high school in Nambour, Qld.