Matilda Fay looks at where racism in Australia comes from and what we can do about it
For many, the results of the Voice referendum were a source of anguish, painting a dire picture of public opinion on the rights of Aboriginal people. For many Indigenous people hopeful that a Voice to Parliament could deliver change, it felt like ordinary people had rejected them.
While there were many factors behind the failure of the Yes campaign, it’s clear that racism played a major part. The responsibility for this racism, however, lies at the top of society, not amongst ordinary people.
Racist ideas are crucial for the ruling class in Australia, who propagate racism through the media and all major institutions in order to justify and maintain their power and sow the seeds of division amongst working people.
The No campaign was backed by one of the two major parties and had the support of a raft of right-wing opinion writers, shock jocks and mainstream media outlets.
They pushed openly racist narratives relentlessly. Coalition leaders Peter Dutton and Jacinta Price promoted myths about child abuse perpetrated by Aboriginal men in Indigenous communities, harking back to the disgraceful, disproven claims about “paedophile rings” peddled by the Howard government to justify the Northern Territory intervention.
Prominent No campaigner and former Labor MP Gary Johns made disgraceful comments about Indigenous people in remote communities living in a “stupor”.
At the centre of the No campaign was the conservative campaign organisation Advance, with billionaire backers and the likes of Tony Abbott on its advisory board. Significant resources were plunged into this campaign by ruling class conservatives with an interest in stoking racism.
For its part, the mainstream Yes campaign, backed by the Albanese government, did nothing to seriously challenge the foul racism coming from the hard right.
Albanese was happy to support the “Voice to Parliament” proposal precisely because it was tokenistic, offering no real power to Indigenous people or challenge to the government’s racist agenda in Aboriginal Affairs. He consistently denied it would lead to more Indigenous rights to land or to compensation for dispossession, emphasising the continuation of “parliamentary supremacy” even with the Voice.
Throughout the campaign, Albanese continued on with a policy platform that includes explicitly racist controls over Aboriginal lives, such as the Income Management system in northern Australia that quarantines welfare payments and race-based alcohol bans in Aboriginal communities.
State Labor governments also continued to fan a panic about Indigenous “youth crime” while expanding police powers and prisons, reinforcing the stereotype of Indigenous people as criminals.
In Queensland the Labor government has built new youth prisons and overridden the Human Rights Act to allow children as young as ten to be kept in police watch-houses.
There was prominent support for the Yes campaign from mining giants such as BHP and Rio Tinto. But they only supported this tokenistic reform because it would not have interfered with their ability to profit from exploiting stolen Aboriginal lands. While the Yes campaign rolled on, the Albanese government was backing resource giants to continue dispossessing Aboriginal people across the country to facilitate the expansion of fossil fuels.
This included Labor government support for decision by the Native Title Tribunal, who in late 2022 ruled in favour of Santos to extinguish a Gomeroi native title claim preventing gas mining in the Pilliga. This institutionalised racism, enacted through the courts and the police and based on a fundamental denial of Indigenous rights and humanity, has been baked into Australia’s foundations since the initial British invasion of 1788.
By the time of the colonisation of Australia, racism had been honed into a fully developed ideology.
The idea that non-white people were less that human was a product of the rise of capitalism in Europe in the 17th century and the sprawling European empires which fed the capitalist system, relying on extreme violence against Indigenous peoples and the brutal system of chattel slavery.
This was also a time of popular revolution in Europe, with events like the French revolution proclaiming supposedly universal, Enlightenment principles like democracy and the “rights of Man” against old feudal hierarchies. These ideas stood in stark contrast to the reality of hundreds of thousands of Black people subjected to inhuman bondage during the slave trade.
Overcoming this contradiction saw the emergence of an ideology with scientific pretensions that argued Black people were less than human.
In 1771, the English philosopher David Hume wrote, “I am apt to suspect the Negroes to be naturally inferior to the Whites… There never was a civilised nation of any other complexion than white. No ingenious manufacturers among them, no arts, no sciences.”
Soon theories developed which categorised peoples as “white”, “black”, “brown”, “red” or “yellow”, with whites at the top.
As the Black historian Eric Williams wrote, “Slavery was not born of racism—rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.”
From the earliest days of colonisation, the idea that Aboriginal people were less than human allowed the British authorities to justify control of land on the basis of “terra nullius”—that the land belonged to no one.
The early administrators of Australia were steeped in the racism that underpinned the British Empire. The Governor of the New South Wales colony from 1810 to 1821, Lachlan Macquarie, often portrayed as an enlightened administrator, had inherited wealth from the slave trade and was a veteran of British Army conquests in India. Macquarie declared martial law in 1816 that led to massacres of Aboriginal people as he pushed for expansion of the colony.
As the colony expanded with squatters seeking more Aboriginal land to expand their profits, the NSW Mounted Police, whose institutional successor still inflicts violence upon anti-racist demonstrators today, was established in 1825 with an explicit goal of quashing Aboriginal resistance.
The White Australia Policy was a founding pillar of Federation in 1901. For the Australian ruling class this was driven by their concern to justify their rule and to maintain an imperialist outpost in Asia. But it was also a powerful tool to tie white workers to nationalist ideas to persuade them they had a common interest with the white bosses who exploited them.
Despite Australian capitalism sowing racist ideas, time and time again working class resistance has demonstrated that it is possible to challenge these ideas and resist efforts to divide and rule.
In the 1934 canecutters’ strike in Queensland, militant workers challenged racism against Italian migrant workers to ensure a united fight for safety on the job to prevent the outbreak of Weil’s disease.
The Colonial Sugar Refinery (now CSR) had a “gentleman’s agreement” with the Australian Workers Union to preference non-migrant workers. As disease broke out, the union and the sugar bosses blamed migrant workers.
Communist Party members among the canecutters resisted this, calling meetings that united migrant and non-migrant workers and leading strikes. Union meetings were co-chaired by an Italian and an English speaker. By uniting across racial lines, they broke the deliberate tactics of the sugar bosses to use racism to quash union resistance and strengthened their collective conditions in the long run.
Similarly, strikes by Aboriginal workers have seen landmark victories for Aboriginal rights and increased anti-racist consciousness among non-Aboriginal people.
The Pilbara strike of 1946 won freedoms for Marrngu people from bondage on stations, where wealthy pastoralists exploited their labour for the wool industry and police kept them in line through brute force.
Marrngu people organised, went on strike and formed links with non-Aboriginal working class militants in cities around the country who supported their actions. They won the right to move freely between stations and challenged police brutality, even halting forced removals of children in the Pilbara during the strike.
Twenty years later, the Gurindji strike in 1966 built upon this, launching the movement for land rights, demanding self-determination and deepening links between Aboriginal workers and unions around the country.
Workers have a direct interest in fighting racism, which is used to divide ordinary people and distract attention from our real enemies in the ruling class. Workers, Indigenous people, Muslims and all the oppressed have a common enemy in the rich and powerful who benefit from our exploitation.
The anti-racist tradition in the trade unions and the working class remains crucial to building organisation that can wield industrial power to challenge systemic racism today.
Much of the mainstream commentary since the Voice proposal was defeated has focused on “conversations” as the key to shifting racist ideas.
This is the same strategy that was sold to us by the Voice campaign: educating people to gradually learn that Aboriginal people deserve recognition, and relying on an assimilationist rhetoric that claims “we’re all the same”.
This strategy brought us the TV ad to the tune of John Farnham’s You’re the Voice, in which an elderly white man slowly realises racism is bad after decades of watching Aboriginal players in his favourite AFL team. Conversations are needed, but it is the systemic racism that must be confronted.
Ideas can change rapidly in moments of collective resistance. In these moments, masses of non-Aboriginal people can realise that racism does nothing for them, and in fact that this racism works to undermine their working conditions and their safety from war and climate devastation.
To present a serious challenge to the powers that maintain anti-Aboriginal racism—the police, the courts, the media and the wealthy corporations that profit from Aboriginal land—will take a united anti-racist fight from the vast majority of people on this continent.
That fight is well and truly alive in the thousands of people who rally each year on Invasion Day, the people now rallying for Palestine, and indeed in the thousands of people who rallied for the Voice.
Through these actions people realise what anti-racism looks like: standing side by side against the brutality of capitalism and imperialism. And as our leaders support prisons, child removals and the genocide in Palestine, it’s clearer than ever that this fight is up to us.