Small ‘l’ liberals, White Australia & Citizenship

Last Thursday Leigh Sales “grilled” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over proposed changes to Australia’s citizenship laws. Changes include a more stringent English language test, proof of integration into Australian society, and a four-year waiting period for permanent residents to apply for citizenship.

Sales considered these proposed changes to be an aberration of Australian liberalism and out of step with Turnbull’s own political philosophy.

Towards the end of the interview she asked:

LEIGH SALES: Before you became Prime Minister, your image was that your values put you in the small ‘l’ liberal tradition of Alfred Deakin and Malcolm Fraser.

Can you today name one policy position that you hold that aligns with that tradition rather than with the conservative wing of your party?

Ironically, the policy that Turnbull could name is the very policy under discussion. The tightening of citizenship laws, especially using racialised notions of cultural values, English-proficiency, and religious belief is deeply entwined with the legacy of Deakin.

Historian Joanna Cruickshank, quoted Alfred Deakin in an article on the enduring power of white supremacy in Australia. Speaking in 1903, Deakin said:

“A white Australia is not a surface, but it is a reasoned policy which goes down to the roots of national life, and by which the whole of our social, industrial, and political organisations is governed.”

Another Australian historian, Stuart Macintyre, quotes Deakin during a debate on the Immigration Restriction Act (1901) saying:

The unity of Australia is nothing, if that does not imply a united race. A united race means not only that its members can intermix, intermarry and associate without degradation on either side, but implies one inspired by the same ideas, an aspiration towards the same ideals, of a people possessing the same general cast of character, tone of thought…

Turnbull is careful to avoid explicit appeals to race in the ethno-biological sense. However, his emphasis on the “unique” Australian values – “freedom, equality of men and women, mutual respect, the rule of law, democracy, a fair go” – serve as markers, shibboleths and “tone of thought” for indicating who is “in” and who is “out”.

The subtly of these dynamics was demonstrated when asked about who can integrate into Australian society. Turnbull gives a quick – “of course they are” – in response to Sales’ question “Are Jews who celebrate Hanukkah integrated into Australian cultures and values?” In contrast, he gives a bumbling non-response to the question about whether a woman who wears a headscarf is also integrated.

MALCOLM TURNBULL: Well, people are free to wear whatever item of clothing they like. I mean, bear in mind, I say again and again, whenever I talk about Australian citizenship and Australian values, I say that the foundation of our success, our extraordinary success, is mutual respect.

And that means… It’s a two-way thing. You respect others in their diversity and they respect you. It’s also about respecting the equal rights of men and women. And that is vitally important.

This and other tortured debates about the right and wrong way of applying Australia values of a “fair go” and “mutual respect” reveals the implicit way some forms of life are accepted and others are rejected.

Turnbull’s proposed changes to the citizenship laws do not stray far from those who went before him. From Deakin to Abbott, Australian liberalism (spelled with a small or large ‘l’) has tied itself in knots to restrict the entry and freedom of racialised others. Despite his progressive shtick and love of public transport, Turnbull is no different.

Australia Claimed: White Possession & the Redundancy of Reclaim Australia

Despite the rallies and Channel 7’s broadcast of an “in-depth” interview with the founders of Reclaim Australia, the disintegration of the far-right populist movement appears imminent. Unlike their American cousins, The Tea Party, they do not have significant financial backing and the poor showing of “patriots” at the Parramatta rally last month suggests that this grass-roots movement lacks organisation and/or a critical mass of people willing to get out on the streets to call for “non-patriots” to get out of the country. However, the devolution of this movement is not a victory of Australian multi-culturalism or common-sense.

Reclaim Australia gets small numbers to their rallies because they are unnecessary. Why spend a Sunday afternoon shouting in the streets when the political and economic system is silently re-asserting the normal order of things?

The normal order of things is maintained through symbolic and systemic modes of violence. Unlike physical violence directed at specific subjects, the symbolic and systemic violence operates in the background. For example, the violence inherent in the production cheap consumer goods that benefit the lives of some while exposing factory workers to physical harm when making our flat-screen TVs in Mexcio or iPhone’s in China.

Most of us do not see this violence because it isn’t directed at us. We only see the subjective violence of shootings or physical aggression. The subjective form of violence overshadows the systemic and symbolic forms of violence that allow the normal order of things to continue smoothly (for some). This is the violence inherent in fierce border protection policies or laws that target racial and religious minorities. It is the violence embodied in language that strips subjects of their humanness (e.g. illegal maritime arrivals) and makes the violence that they suffer either excusable or somehow deserving.

SystDuck-Rabbit_illusionemic and symbolic violence tends to be invisible to those who benefit from the normal order of things that those modes of violence sustain. It is like a trompe l’oeil or the duck-rabbit illusion. For those who benefit these policies and arrangements look like caring necessity – “we need to protect ourselves” or “It is prudent to monitor Muslim boys because they are prone to radicalization”. However, to those on the other side, these policies and arrangements are experienced as exclusion and brutality.

In this context, Reclaim Australia will wither away, not because there is insufficient support for their message, but because Australia is already well and truly claimed. This claim is sustained by the long history of violent colonisation and occupation, the effects of which persist today. However, it is a claim that needs to be continually reasserted on the bodies and lives of non-white migrants.

In her recent book The White Possessive, Aileen Moreton-Robinson describes this “claim” as a white possession. White Australia’s existence as sovereign possessor is derived from the dispossession of Indigenous lands. As Moreton-Robinson notes, there is a deep anxiety that ‘racial others’ will in turn dispossess white Australia. The main utility of Reclaim Australia is as a warning that the normal order of things is being challenged. It is like a “flare-up” of the appendix in the body of white Australia, or to use another metaphor, a canary in a mine. Reclaim Australia is an expression of the anxiety that white Australia’s sovereignty is challenged.

The fear associated with a challenge to white sovereignty is seen in Native Title disputes. There is a deep fear that Indigenous claims will dispossess white Australian sovereignty over cities, suburbs, parks, beaches, arable lands, and natural resources (see Kerr and Cox’s ‘Setting Up the Nyoongar Tent Embassy‘). Yet, the reality does not lend credence to the anxieties and fears of white Australia – ‘the majority of Indigenous people in Australia do not have land rights, nor do they have legal ownership of their sacred sites.’

In the case of Islam, the fear of dispossession is also unfounded. According to the 2011 census, 2.2 % of the Australian population indicated they were affiliated with Islam. Of course the debates over Australia, radicalization, extremism, Islam, citizenship, borders and all the other nodes connected to this assemblage are not about evidence or facts. But control over who is admitted into white Australia, and the form that admittance takes. Some are wholly absorbed, while others remain in permanent parenthesis (asylum seekers).

While those attending Reclaim Australia rallies (and those sympathetic to their narrative) may feel that Islam is an existential threat to the white claim to Australia, the terms and conditions of political and social reality are established by and for a white Australia. The challenge is not to reclaim Australia, but to place the current claim in the context of historical and contemporary forms of violence that privilege those who possess whiteness and its associated symbols and markers.

In the words of Stan Grant, we need to challenge that violence and our own attachment and benefit from it.

Australians who so laudably challenge the bigots among them need also challenge themselves. What are they prepared to give up? Land, history, flag, anthem, myth or identity – all of it is on the table if we are truly serious. Other countries fight wars over these things: we can do it in peace.