Even if Australia’s Covid toll remains low and there’s a quick recovery from the policy-induced economic slump; even if an early vaccine means that Australia does not need to remain closed to the world, this is unlikely to be a time anyone recalls with much pride because so much that’s happened has been out of character with an Australia accustomed “to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield”.
Not only will the Australia that emerges from the pandemic have more debt, higher unemployment and bigger, more-intrusive government; it’s likely to be more lost about what holds us together as a nation and more confused about the things we value.
The pandemic has coincided with a renewed assault on our history as fundamentally racist, and requiring atonement, despite the fact that Australia became a magnet to migrants, eventually from all over the world, even while it was still a penal colony. It can’t have been lost on anyone concerned about political correctness and the cancel culture, that police in Victoria failed to make a single arrest when 10,000 people marched for Black Lives Matter; but made 400 arrests at a much smaller protest against ongoing health restrictions. Yet almost nothing was made of this double standard; partly because the leaders who would normally notice it were preoccupied with the pandemic and trying to make a national cabinet work.
As well as habituating people to accept restrictions on freedom and massive government spending “for our own good”, the pandemic seems to have accelerated the elevation of opinion over fact and how we feel about things over what actually happened. We know that Aboriginal people had inhabited Australia for tens of thousands of years prior to British settlement. Post 1788, their society was disrupted and their population decimated, mostly by disease, occasionally by violence. They weren’t always given a vote. They didn’t always get the same wage. They didn’t always get the same justice.
But we also know that Captain James Cook appreciated the qualities of the Aboriginal people he found; that the British government enjoined Governor Arthur Phillip to “live in amity” with the native people; that Philip refrained from vindictiveness or punitive measures as a matter of policy, even after he had himself been speared at Manly; and that white men were hanged for the murder of blacks as early as the 1830s after the Myall Creek massacre. We also know that massive efforts have been made to give Aboriginal people a better life, first by missionaries and later by government.
It’s true that Aboriginal people are hugely over-represented in our gaols, even now. But that’s because they’re heavily over-represented in our courts and crime statistics; as are all people who don’t finish school, don’t have jobs and live in dysfunctional households. At least as much as some belated measure of recognition in the Constitution, Aboriginal people need to go to school and to take jobs at the same rate as other Australians, for reconciliation to be complete.
In the end, cancel culture is not about correcting a particular injustice or righting a particular historical wrong. It denies moral legitimacy to the whole Australian project, just as it also does in the United States and Britain. You can argue that things could have been done better and that more must be done now; but it’s hard to maintain that British settlement should not have happened; or that, on balance, it wasn’t a golden moment in human history.
On balance, it was a blessing that the British settled Australia. It’s hard to imagine a contemporary Portuguese, Spanish or French governor declaring, as Phillip did, that there could be “no slavery in a free land”. Even in those days, it was the Royal Navy that was doing its best to extirpate the West African slave trade to the Americas.
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