I carry with me the fuzzy cognitive dissonance of a white man educated in a settler colony, an old land with new rulers, an Imperial outpost trying to be better, more inclusive and kinder but refusing to go to therapy, refusing to listen, refusing to admit there might indeed be some unreconciled structural hurt surrounding a certain genocide-and-dispossession situation – Australia’s “wHaT rAcIsM?!” brigade only ever a dog-whistle away from the Culture War’s frontlines.
“I was booing Adam Goodes because he plays for Sydney”. “Stan Grant was being disrespectful to the monarchy [that sought to conquer and wipe out his people]”. “Yasmin can say what she wants about refugees, but not on Anzac Day, it’s disrespectful,” [passes out in the gutter after drinking since 5am]. “The fact you want race recognised in the Constitution means it’s YOU that is the racist.”
At school I was taught a mishmash of contradictory “truths” that I’ve spent my adult life slowly becoming aware of, questioning, and now seeking to unlearn. None of us love recognising when we have been deceived, when malicious half-truths have been planted and harvested in our souls over unexamined decades. But it happens to every single one of us. I was taught Captain Cook “discovered” Australia after a very long, very impressive boat ride; as a child I saw him as a man of adventure, a dashing explorer with an iconic vessel my pliable young mind routinely confused with the USS Enterprise. At the same time, I was told Aboriginal people were here before Cook’s “discovery”, possibly for tens of thousands of years even, a feat my formal education considered a lesser achievement than a very long boat ride.
I held both these histories together at the birth of my settler brain; a mind at odds with itself, wanting racism to vanish from the country but also falling into the supremacist trap of not seeing it when it’s smack, bang the fuck in front of my face.
Like how on a cold afternoon at the MCG when I, a pre-teen at this point, a guest in the toffy MCC stand, sat behind four well dressed and obnoxious young men, clearly private school boys destined for the Liberal Party or the riveting world of investment banking, as they calmly offered casually racist commentary of the footy match unfolding, and how hundreds of people within earshot didn’t say a fucking thing about it over the course of many hours. It’s easier, more comfortable, not to notice, to cling onto the privilege of pretending, and denial is a force powerful enough to bend reality, ya know?
Of course you know, you live here.
Whatever lesson I learnt that day it was embedded deeper when football commentator and television fish fondler Rex Hunt described Collingwood’s Leon Davis as being “as black as a dog…”, and again further when Eddie McGuire said Adam Goodes should play the role of King Kong in a theatre production on Collins St, presumably for a packed guffawing audience of white people. Hunt’s explanation at the time was a pure mask off moment. “Oh, I stuffed it up, I’ll have a rest, I knew it was going to happen.” Dafuq??? He “knew it was going to happen” because, in much of Australia, during much of my existence, it has been extremely normal for successful mainstream Australian people to talk like this, more often than not, without serious consequence, and with mesmerised complicity and silence from witnesses.
The fuzziest portion of my map of Australia’s past is what happened at the end of these very long, very impressive boat rides, after the landing in what is now Sydney chapter, but before the Hills Hoists, pavlovas and Phar Lap portions of the story. I was taught that the English brought civilisation and law, and alcohol and diseases with them, and that the locals just couldn’t handle their booze or smallpox. I was not taught that the First Fleet arrived with bayonets and rifles, not just to use on the convicts, and that the entire continent is – from the grasslands of Victoria to the Blue Mountains of NSW to the Dead Heart red centre to the jungles along our jagged Northern coast – stained with massacre after massacre of Indigenous peoples.
And because of the half-truths I learnt while growing up, despite now unequivocally knowing better, the formally educated portion of my settler brain still clings to the foggiest of notions of a relatively violence-free “discovery”. As good as colonisation can get, the fair dinkum Australian version of dispossession, mateship and stuff. Two cultures meeting on a beach one fateful day, having a bit of a chat, “So these are ‘Kangaroos’ are they? Fucken grouse,” maybe inventing beach cricket in the afternoon over a BBQ, and then mysteriously, for reasons still unclear, one of those two cultures just starts vanishing from the place. SpOoKy.
This fuzzy version of the past is the one that John Howard, former Prime Minister and Patron Saint of the Boomers, viciously fought for while in office. Howard, for all his faults, keenly understood the power of history. Who controls the past controls the future. A cudgel to decency, Howard, the Rat King, attacked the emerging “black armband” version of history that was becoming popular in Australian universities at the time. In it he saw a threat, and the defensive part of his whiteness that needed to take it personally ensured that the bullshit version of the story persists today.
The Australia Howard wanted to craft exists on the bedrock of the “comfortable” (read: inadequate) history he was taught at school. We know this because Howard has publicly praised his favourite history teacher at Canterbury Boys High, Frank Driscoll, who just so happens to have written a key textbook for NSW history students. It fucking sucks. Here are three excerpts that cut to the core of what was realllllly being taught to Australians.
‘In this old land of ours, the plants and animals and people were peculiar.’
‘Scientists have rated the aboriginal low on the intelligence scale because he made little or no attempt to build himself a useful dwelling or to devise the furnishings and the pots and pans that go with such dwellings. But the aboriginal had no use for refined dwelling. He lacked the urge to create for the sake of creation.’
‘Australia was a white man’s land and they wished to remain white. It was not class distinction, but simply a big family of white British people saying in effect: ‘This is our home and surely we are entitled to say what friends we shall ask under our roof.’
Fuck me dead, it’s a wonder any of us can see straight down here.
Artists, academics and a very good public school librarian filled in the blanks of my Eurocentric education. I learnt of the Rabbit Proof Fence, of the Stolen Generations, that our beds were burning. Older school texts still implied that all of this was for “their” own good, of course, the paternalism of a caring state in the face of Indigenous wretchedness the takeaway theme of the outdated, inadequate and brutally racist historiography that covertly burrowed its way into the semi-dormant parts of millions of Australian minds. Generations educated more recently had it better than I did, a foundation myth more truthfully and collaboratively taught; generations preceding me, far worse.
And this is the Australia that is now expected to engage in an informed, respectful discussion about the Indigenous Voice to Parliament. I wish us luck, we will need it.
It has not begun spectacularly well, either. Two of the loudest mouths in Australia’s public conversation, the ABC and News Corporation, have demonstrated their commitment to fucking up the discussion monumentally before we’ve even warmed up.
Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation led a lynch mob against Stan Grant, long-time and award-winning journalist, Wiradjuri man, and host of ABC’s infuriating flagship show, QandA. Grant has now stepped away from the media, citing both the racial abuse hurled his way from audiences that ensued and the eternal systemic failure of large Australian publishers to do anything other than propagate and profit off the hate. “Too often, we are the poison in the bloodstream of our society,” Grant wrote.
News Corporation launched this tirade against Grant, literally hundreds of articles, because he spoke the truth about what the monarchy represents to Indigenous Australians during the coronation of King Charles III, an elaborate costume party thrown for the Chosen One, apparently our head of state, He who will bring balance to the Force, or somesuch. This is perpetually NewsCorp’s killer modus operandi: channelling and funnelling grievance and hatred into the world, often with the result of bullying yet another uppity successful non-white person out of something they love. All of their arguments against the Voice should be viewed in this context. We all know who they are and what they represent.
And the ABC, Grant’s employer, cowardly and meekly facilitates all of this by giving the bully a staggering chunk of its airtime, perpetually, so it can grab the ABC’s fist and ram it into the ABC’s face while asking the ABC why it’s hitting itself over and over. Perhaps there’s a submission kink going on, who the fuck knows?! What is clear is that the ABC failed spectacularly to support Grant publically during this “not racist!” tirade waged against one of its own journalists for speaking the truth about Australia.
It’s understandable that NewsCorp couldn’t recognise a tirade against a journalist telling the truth, because speaking the truth is a secondary concern over at Waystar Royco. But the ABC should know better. “I am writing this because no one at the ABC — whose producers invited me onto their coronation coverage as a guest — has uttered one word of public support. Not one ABC executive has publicly refuted the lies written or spoken about me. I don’t hold any individual responsible; this is an institutional failure.”
“I need a break from the media. I feel like I’m part of the problem and I need to ask myself how, or if, we can do it better.” Absolutely every single journalist, editor, producer, anyone involved in producing the brain-soul-pain pill we call the news should ask themselves this question constantly. This should be part of the responsibility that comes with the territory, especially during this crucial moment for the shape of Australia to come. Will we finally listen to our Indigenous brothers and sisters on matters that concern them? This is a very important question, and no more complicated than that.
When clearly disingenuous arguments against the Voice to Parliament are presented to Australia by routinely disingenuous and racist people, they should be treated as such. I do not understand every single specific mechanic of The Indigenous Voice to Parliament. I have purchased a small purple booklet with funny cartoons that will, ADHD willing, explain it all to me. But I do understand the principle clearly. And since when has principle not been enough to weigh a vote on? We do it literally all the fucking time. We vote for broad concepts every single election, like less/more tax, fewer/more refugees in gulags, less/more restrictions on GloboEvilMegaCorp. Fucking none of us are ever across the minutia, but it doesn’t matter in those instances, and should not be enough to matter in this one.
And the ‘No’ campaign argument that The Voice is inherently undemocratic, because an Indigenous lobby would gain access to Parliament, is likewise pure dreck, deflection and pointless nonsense. We know this because the people peddling this line are genuinely enamoured with undemocratic lobbying from all sorts of fucks and fuck-adjacent types – from fossil fuel oligarchs to American Defence contractors, from unions to bankers, consultancies and mega corporations. If we’re debating who gets a direct line to parliament, can we have a referendum on PwC, please and thank you?
From a ‘does this damage democracy?’ perspective, something journalists of all stripes should be absolutely obsessed with at this troubling moment in time, having an Indigenous advisory group rings absolutely no alarm bells, and that should be made crystal fucking clear at every turn. Disingenuous bullshit like Peter Dutton’s classic LNP reframing, “the Canberra Voice”, shouldn’t even be repeated, because on its merit this is not that: this is a voice for the largely voiceless.
A nation asking itself whether it wants to start listening to its First Nations Peoples on matters that concern them is not at risk of losing its non-existent egalitarian nature, the purity of its constitution, of its democracy – it is simply at risk of understanding itself for the first time, and when you exist in denial nothing is more terrifying.