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Black lives don't matter Down Under

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

The results of the Voice Referendum have highlighted ongoing issues of racism from which Australia is struggling to move on, writes Dr Michael Galvin.

IF YOU WERE BORN in Australia in 1950, these things were likely true about your world:

  • you were in your 20s before the White Australia policy was finally done away with;
  • you were 17 before First Nations people became citizens of the country they had lived in for 65,000 years;
  • if your parents were religious, you went to a school or Sunday school that was both Christian and sectarian — barely tolerant of, if not hostile towards, all the other Christian churches in your neighbourhood;
  • you were ruled by an Anglo-philiac conservative government until you were 22;
  • Indonesia was ruled by the Dutch until a few weeks before you were born, Singapore and Malaya were still British colonies, the French still thought they owned most of Indo-China. And the Japanese had been recently vanquished. It really seemed like a White man’s world, especially in this part of the world;
  • you were 25 before the first Vietnamese restaurant opened its doors on Glebe Point Road, Sydney;
  • your grandparents were mostly of the view that the Indigenous race was dying out and the best that could be done for them was, in Alfred Deakin’s words, “…to mitigate as much as possible the trials of their closing years”;
  • you most likely didn’t finish high school, let alone go on to university;
  • your main knowledge of Indigenous society, insofar as you had any knowledge, was of a primitive people, worthy of anthropological study in much the same way as other Australian fauna and flora might be studied;
  • you could name more English rivers than Indigenous languages;
  • you grew up watching countless “cowboys and Indians” Saturday movie matinees in which the Indians might have sometimes been “noble savages” but were savages nonetheless; and
  • you and, just as importantly, your parents were fed a constant diet of European pioneer boosterism and progress, blissfully unaware of any facts of Australian history (like the sundry massacres of the original inhabitants) that contradicted such a happy, proud story of White settlement.

Now also consider this fact: More than 5.5 million Australians are over the age of 60. This means that more than 30% of the 17.6 million enrolled voters for the Voice Referendum were seniors, of which those born in Australia had an upbringing more or less along the lines sketched above.

Given all the above, what chance did the Voice Referendum ever have among such a people? The answer is obvious. Even when it wasn’t overt racism, it didn’t have to be. A lamentable “know nothing” view of the world was enough.

Of course, not all seniors voted “No”, but the chances increased if you were older, or less educated, as the results clearly showed. The “Yes” side was up against a stagnant lake of ignorance that was as deep as it was wide.

It gets worse.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, every electorate in the country where at least 80% of the population were born in Australia voted “No”, with one exception (Newcastle, NSW).

Writing in The Conversation, Paul Strangio notes that, after the failed Republic Referendum in 1999, there was talk of two Australias — one cosmopolitan, confident and progressive, the other provincial, apprehensive and conservative.

He adds:

‘A quarter of a century on, this divide has not healed: arguably, it has become more pronounced.’

Indeed, the numbers would suggest so. While four electorates had a “Yes” vote greater than 70%, six electorates had a “Yes” vote lower than 20%.

This was not a partisan political decision in any normal sense, despite Opposition Leader Peter Dutton’s best efforts to make it so. Labor electorates were as likely to vote “No” as conservative ones, which adds weight to Strangio’s idea of two separate Australias, divided not by normal politics, but by their separate existential realities — one of the reasons why so many “Yes” supporters are so stunned by the magnitude of support for the “No” side.

Unfortunately, economic trends will only exacerbate a regional Australia that is provincial, apprehensive and conservative. A generation ago, a hairdresser or a bartender moving from the country to the city could easily afford to do so. Now, the high cost of housing in the major cities makes such a move far less possible. The likely result? Many towns in regional Australia will atrophy even faster: a network of redoubts of frustrated people stuck in them by economic necessity, and blaming city “elites” for all the problems of their world.

While it is true that 13 polling booths in regional Australia (excluding the predominantly First Nations booths in remote areas) recorded a “Yes” vote (out of hundreds of such booths), nearly all of them were in major cities like Newcastle, Wollongong, Bendigo, Ballarat, Geelong and Launceston. Clearly, some micro version of the two Australias divide is also playing out in some parts of regional Australia, not just in the city suburbs that so decisively voted “No”.

It gets worse still.

A careful look at the electorates with the highest “No” votes points to another depressing conclusion: the closer White people get to living with or near Black people, the less they respect them. We can see this by looking at the vote in the Black booths of the most anti-Voice electorates, as carefully analysed by Shane Wright in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Some examples of such splits:

  • Palm Island in Herbert (QLD), “Yes” vote 75.1%. Overall “Yes” vote in Herbert 24%.
  • Hope Vale in Leichhardt (QLD), “Yes” vote 75%. Overall “Yes” vote in Leichhardt 33%.

As Wright shows, the pattern is the same in the Northern Territory, West Australia and also Parkes in NSW, which has several centres of significant Indigenous population but where the “Yes” vote only managed 20.6%.

It is worth taking a closer look at the actual town of Parkes, which is close to the centre of Wiradjuri country. The town has five polling booths.

These are the vote tallies for those five booths (as of October 19):

  • Parkes Uniting Church: “Yes” 18.8% (124 votes);
  • Parkes Public School: “Yes” 21.1% (104 votes);
  • Middleton Public School: “Yes” 20.1% (134 votes);
  • Assemblies of God Hall: “Yes” 75.3% (380 votes); and
  • Parkes East Primary School: “Yes” 78.7% (848 votes).

Of course, the Assemblies of God and East Parkes precincts might be full of enlightened astronomers on the one hand and liberal-minded Elvis impersonators on the other – the Dish and the Elvis Festival being Parkes’ main claims to fame these days – but probably not.

You don’t need to be a genius to work out the racial divisions in this town. Who needs apartheid when you have de facto segregation like this?

Rabbits and rabbit holes

It also seems to this writer that any serious analysis of this Referendum must also come to grips with what role the conspiracy theory/social media complex played in amplifying the “No” case while poisoning rational debate about facts. While most sane people steer clear of the sewer that is alt-Right social media, there is evidence that a plethora of such groups were pushing very hard against the Voice, including well-organised and secretive groups with plenty of money, as reported in Independent Australia already.

A minor instance both telling and disgusting occurred on Referendum night. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Indigenous Minister Linda Burney, Dutton and Senator Jacinta Price all spoke. None of them gave a speech remotely adequate to the occasion, but Price’s comments were particularly revealing.

First, she stated a bald-faced lie, to the effect that Indigenous voters around the country also voted “No”. (The figures above speak for themselves.) Then, when a journalist fact-checked her on this false assertion, she backtracked not by admitting that she was wrong, but by implying that the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) played some role in rigging the vote at remote polling stations. The ease with which Price segued shamelessly from misinformation to deep state conspiracy was impressive in its impudence.

Yes, we have arrived in Trumpland, where news is fake, facts don’t matter, grievances abound, your health is at risk if you are even in the same room as a vaccinated person and the deep state is out to get you. In this world, of course, the AEC cannot be trusted to run a fair vote.

And Price is no outlier in the Australian Senate. Senators like Gerard Rennick, Alex Antic, Malcolm Roberts and others are already well down the conspiracy rabbit hole. Leading up to 14 October, “freedom rallies” were regular occurrences in cities and towns and the “Vote No” position was pushed at every turn. Given that most alt-Right conspiracy theories lead back to some form of anti-Semitism and/or White supremacy, anything pushing back against Indigenous advancement would be fair game, of course.

We know from Brexit and the 2016 American elections that those results boiled down to just a few thousand votes in a few key places and that misinformation on social media played a deliberate and strategic role (not just a few cranky old men and women sounding off at random) in determining the result.

As Naomi Klein makes clear in her new book, Doppelgänger, where she analyses COVID and conspiracy theories, a proposition can be ridiculous yet serious at the same time. Klein also shows how easily any progressive proposition can be twisted into its evil mirror image by people motivated to do so.

A clever instance of this is the following 22 September post on the Facebook page of the Australia Freedom Rally:

‘When the Voice to Parliament get the “Yes” vote as it will the UN will take ALL ownership of land crown or otherwise and will tell us all what we can and cannot do; there’ll be no “freehold” ownership, and Native Title will be abolished.’

The punctuation and grammar may be dodgy, but the message is masterful. The usual scare campaign about White people losing their houses, but not only that. It’s a direct appeal to First Nations people to vote “No” to protect their Native Title rights. As if these “No” folks could give a damn about preserving Native Title.

The message is both ridiculous and serious. But also taps into the familiar alt-Right, anti-UN meme, given more oxygen by former Prime Minister Scott Morrison in a speech last year.

Clearly, campaigns like this were occurring during the Voice Referendum and need urgent investigation. Yet PM Albanese has stated that there will be no such review. Does he not see that the threat that organised conspiracy theories pose for democratic societies is real? That only a few thousand people have to go down the rabbit hole in a few Labor electorates and he will be a one-term PM?

Eighty years ago, AD Hope wrote his poem, Australia, which includes the lines:

...a vast parasite robber-state

Where second-hand Europeans pullulate

Timidly on the edge of alien shores.

These words seem so much more current now than they did a month ago.

Dr Michael Galvin is an adjunct fellow at Victoria University and a former media and communications academic at the University of South Australia.

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