I grew up in Darwin, Australia and could see firsthand the undercurrent of racism there and in the rest of the country. I lived in Australia until 2011, and observed the changes in the 15 years between Pauline Hanson’s maiden speech in 1996 and when I left in 2011. I lay the blame at John Howard’s failure to condemn Hanson, and a failure of optimism. I see the same failure of optimism in Trump. I see it in Brexit. I see the beginning of something different in Macron and Trudeau. The last 21 years of Australian history provides some idea of the long-term damage of this lack of optimism.
Before Howard and that speech, Australia was confused. We were starting to wake up to geography (South-east Asia was a lot closer than the UK) and to history (clearly there were people here a long time before Captain Arthur Phillip landed at Botany Bay.) This confusion was causing discomfort, but Paul Keating had attacked that head-on. His Redfern Park Speech is one of the great speeches of the Twentieth Century. He comes straight to the point. We in Australia had not done anywhere near enough to recognise and attempt to right the injustices against Aboriginal Australians committed by Australia and Australians.
But the vast majority of the country was unsettled. Hanson expressed that. Ineloquently, simplistically and as a horrible, horrible racist. Just like Brexit and Trump.
But it was Howard who did the deep and lasting damage. By refusing to immediately, publicly and uniequivocally condemn her message, he changed the direction of society. By exploiting a rising tide of racism for short term political gain. The uncomfortable had kept quiet as they could see the direction that Keating was carving. Suddenly they saw their Prime Minister appear uncomfortable as well. Maybe the changes that made them uncomfortable could be arrested? Maybe there didn’t need to be a final repudiation of the White Australia Policy? Maybe there didn’t need to be recognition of Australia’s first civilisation?
Howard did it because he could see votes in it. And in chasing those votes, turned Australian society back towards the 1960s. It still hasn’t granted marriage equality. It’s now running a shameful ‘postal survey’ to give everyone a chance to decide if human rights are for all. It took until Rudd in 2008 to apologise for the stolen generations. Aboriginal life expectancy in parts of the NT is still 52.2 years.
This is the effect that scares me about Brexit and Trump.
Yes, if a hard Brexit happens it is going to destroy the UK economy. Yes, it will cause food prices to rise. Yes, there will be food shortages and poor children will starve to death. But even if it doesn’t happen it has completely legitimised the xenophobic, close-minded, neo-Imperial views of Farage and the outer wings of the Tory party.
Yes, Trump tapped the fears of white American men. The fear that if Black president could be followed by a female president, maybe they weren’t in charge anymore. And in legitimising that fear he created space in the public sphere for the return of Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.
Forget the economic damage. How long are these societal scars going to take to heal? In Australia, after 21 years, it’s only getting worse.
What is the alternative? Optimism. A special kind of optimism that Keating called on in that run-down park in a run-down inner city neighbourhood back in 1993. The optimism to look at our past, to face the crimes committed in our mind, and to say that we’re better than that now. We don’t need to be afraid of that past, because we can easily surpass it. We can confront our errors and crimes and easily do better.
This optimism tells the story that immigration has changed our countries. We may not have always dealt with it well, but we can do better in the future. It tells the story that income inequality has started rising but this is not inevitable. That changing work can’t be ignored, it must be tackled.