Why is Australian nationalism so racist?

Published: 25/04/2007

Written by: Tom Bramble
Originally listed under: Edition 99 - February 2006

Whenever I see the Australian flag, I want to puke.

But, it has to be said, this is not a common reaction. Of course we can expect John Howard to try to milk "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie" for everything that he can. But many people who hate Howard's guts on every other issue still line up with him in saluting the Australian flag.

Activists campaigning against the detention of refugees, the new anti-worker laws or the "anti-terror" laws claim that these are "UnAustralian" and "tarnish the good name of Australia around the world". They want to "reclaim the flag", to wash it clean of the stains of the Howard regime, and to "restore its honour".

The notion that we can "reclaim" Australian nationalism is profoundly wrong. Australian nationalism has always been deeply reactionary, racist and imperialist, and there is nothing about it that we should seek to defend.


The rise of the nation state

National boundaries are the product of the rise of capitalism, with its need to develop national markets and industry.

Each nation was unified with a capital city, a central government authority, a single currency, a single border, and a single army.

Alongside these innovations went a sustained effort to create a sense of nationalism, involving the imposition of a national language, a national flag and a national anthem. The attempt to create a new nation involved the rewriting of history, complete with national myths. These new myths usually involved the idea that there was some historic destiny that drew the people of the new-born nation together and which made them special.

This process has been repeated wherever new nations have been created. Australian nationalism shares much in common with the nationalism of other advanced capitalist states - but with one important difference.


The colonial settler state

The colonial settler states such as South Africa, Algeria, Australia and Israel differed from the more common form of colonisation that we saw in India. It involved not just direct rule but the "clearing" of the indigenous population.

In these outposts the white settlers saw the indigenous population and usually the peoples of the surrounding region as a threat to their domination, and were always highly suspicious of rival imperial powers who might have designs on the region. In Australia, this translated into state-sponsored racism towards the Aborigines, militarist paranoia towards the French, Russians, and later the Japanese, and the White Australia policy. So there was an economic imperative for Australian racism.

The settler authorities' great fear was that the colonial power would simply abandon them and leave them to their fate. They therefore went out of their way to prove their loyalty and utility to the British crown and to entangle Britain in the affairs of its colony and neighbouring region.

The new colonial governments signed up for every British military venture elsewhere in the world. Expeditionary forces were sent to Sudan in 1885 and then to the Boer War in 1900. These contingents were a form of insurance premium in the event that the colonies needed to call on British military force to protect their interests at home.

Successive colonial governments demanded that Britain expand its interests and its military commitment to South-East Asia and the South Pacific. Thus the Queensland government urged Britain to annex New Guinea in 1883. Constant pleas were made for London to dispatch more naval power to the region, to ensure that British military forces were on hand to deal with any threat to the emerging Australian nation.

The colonial authorities had to foster a burning sense of nationalism and loyalty to Empire in order to bind the disparate classes into a cohesive bloc that could fend off threats from within and without. To this end, the national anthem, royal tours and the flag were promoted with gusto.

In fact, the settler authorities were more imperialist and more racist than the authorities of the "mother country".

As Australian capitalism began to stand on its own two feet in the late nineteenth century, it increasingly became an imperialist power in its own right. Companies such as Burns Philp quickly converted the South Pacific and New Guinea into a hunting ground for Australian business. And where they went, the flag, the soldiers and the administrators soon followed.

Racism, militarism and imperialism are therefore not "blots" on the Australian nation, but have been core components of Australian nationalism since its inception. Hysterical campaigns against "the yellow hordes of Asia" or against new immigrants who were not white have been a recurring feature of this nationalism. The Cronulla racist attacks in December were not therefore "UnAustralian" but the very epitome of Australian nationalism. This is why John Howard will not disown them.

Far from being simply hangovers from the original invasion, all the nastiness of Australian nationalism recurred throughout the twentieth century.

In the aftermath of World War I, the British government, in an attempt to forge closer relations with the Japanese government, toyed with the idea of abolishing the White Australia policy. The Australian Prime Minister, former Labor leader Billy Hughes, intervened and successfully quashed the idea at birth.

With the decline of British imperialism after World War II, the Australian ruling class turned to the United States as its new "great and powerful friend". The protector had changed, but the pro-imperialist dynamic had not. The post-war Labor government began a new tradition which fanatically championed both British and American imperialism all over the world.

In the decades following World War II, Australian governments consistently opposed the withdrawal of colonial or white minority rule, not just in the Asian region, but in every corner of the globe. Until the 1970s, for example, Australian governments opposed any attempt to isolate the white minority governments of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) or South Africa.

In 1955 PM Robert Menzies sent Australian troops to put down the left-wing uprising in Malaya. In the 1960s, Menzies begged the US to "invite" Australian forces and to escalate the military campaign to crush the liberation movement in Vietnam.

Nor were Menzies and the Liberals alone. In the 1960s future Labor PM, Gough Whitlam, was a keen supporter of the war in Vietnam. A decade later, now Prime Minister, Whitlam rushed to endorse the 1975 Indonesian takeover of East Timor.

Australian political leaders back imperialism, not because they are pawns of the British or Americans, as is often thought, but because they represent an imperialist power in their own right, because Australian imperialism benefits from the victories of the US alliance more generally, and because they are keen to demonstrate their value to the leaders of the Western alliance. The same logic applies in more recent times, with loyal support by the Labor government for the US attack on Iraq in 1991 and by the Coalition for the US war on Iraq in 2003.


Multiculturalism: old wine in new bottles

Those who wish to "reclaim" the Australian flag of course denounce White Australia as a disgrace. Multiculturalism demonstrates that Australia has got something to teach the world, they claim. Isn't that something to be proud of? But multiculturalism does not break the link between Australian nationalism and racism, it only refashions it for a new era.

White Australia was jettisoned by the Australian ruling class in the late 1960s, in response to two factors. One was pressure from neighbouring Asian governments with whom Australian capitalism wanted to do more trade. When dollars were at stake, our rulers were happy to dump the more flagrantly anti-Asian form of nationalism which had served them well for more than a century.

The other factor was the changing composition of the Australian working class. Australian employers were increasingly turning for factory labour to non-traditional sources, initially Southern Europe and then the Middle East. In some cases these workers were industrially very militant. White Australia was not viable as an ideological device to cement these workers to the Australian state. What was now needed was a re-definition of what it meant to be "Australian", the better to incorporate "non-white" workers into the "national interest".

Multiculturalism meant that workers from all backgrounds could be loyal Australians. But this has done nothing to undermine racism because it has not put an end to the competition between national states for military supremacy, or between companies for domination of international markets. And it is these that are the real foundation of racism in Australia and why it continues to this day.


The anti-racist alternative

Nationalism is a poison in the working class. It is impossible to fight consistently for refugee rights and also to support the right of "our" government to pick and choose who should move to this country "for the national interest". Our fight against the government's anti-worker laws will be crippled if we accept the underlying logic that "we" have to put the interests of Australian companies first. We cannot stop Howard's "war on terror" if we at the same time agree that the problem is "outsiders who want to wreck our way of life". And we cannot combat the kind of racist lynch mob mentality that we saw at Cronulla if all we can counterpose is multiculturalism - Australian nationalism in a different guise.

These arguments are confirmed by the record of the ALP and the Greens. They cannot fight racism consistently because they are committed to running the Australian state. The ALP supports mandatory detention of refugees, while Bob Brown complained that the victims of the racist attacks in Cronulla were not the innocent people who were bashed but "Australia's reputation" and "our pride and dignity" as a nation.

If you want to consistently stand against racism, you have to break with Australian nationalism and be for international working class solidarity. We cannot wash the flag clean, the nationalism it stands for has to be destroyed. Rather than promoting "Australia's reputation", we need to stand with the victims of Australian nationalism, militarism and racism, whether they be the workers of Australia or any other country. Our fight must be with our own rulers; and to the extent that we wrap ourselves in the same flag as them, we can never be free.