LAST Saturday, a majority of Australian voters decided to disallow the descendants of their continent’s original inhabitants constitutional recognition via a ‘voice to parliament’. The result of the referendum was not a surprise.
Opinion polls had predicted the result, though perhaps not the proportions of the defeat of a relatively straightforward proposition. It entailed the recognition of the historical status of indigenous Australians — whose ancestors had dwelt on the land for some 60,000 years before Europeans ‘discovered’ it and the British colonised it — and setting up a representative body to advise parliament and the executive government on matters affecting Aboriginal people.
Their disadvantages in metrics ranging from health and education to housing, life expectancy and juvenile incarceration rates are appalling, and usually recognised. What could be done about this remains controversial. The proposal for indigenous Australians having a say in relevant policymaking came from the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart, based on extended community consultations, and was initially rejected by the broader political class.
When the Labor Party embraced it ahead of last year’s election and then proposed a referendum after gaining power, the majority appeared to back the idea. But the support rapidly went south once the main opposition parties launched a campaign against the notion that embraced the rejectionism of the far right and unleashed a flood of misinformation, disinformation and abuse that reflected the Brexit and Trump phenomena. Inevitably, a lot of latent racist scum surfaced during a lopsided national debate in which much of the media knowingly contributed to the confusion.
Colonialism links Australia’s past to Israel’s present.
Indigenous Australians comprise less than four per cent of the population and their ‘voice’ would hardly have affected anyone else. Even this minor concession proved too hard to swallow, mainly for the older, poorer and less well-educated segments. Small wonder, then, that forces of conservatism everywhere, directly or otherwise, dismiss the concept of adequate mass education, which would deprive them of their constituency.
Given this state of the world, it’s no surprise that Australia’s retrogressive own goal barely registered as a blip on the international radar. But the dispossession that underlies this saga is not completely at variance with the settler-colonialism that relegates Palestinians to the status of a people who are, just about, to be tolerated provided they obediently behave themselves and turn the other cheek to every blow.
Obviously, there are vast differences of time and scale, yet there is a common history of dispossession and extermination campaigns. Raz Segal, an Israeli and an associate professor of Holocaust and genocide studies in the US, has referred to the catastrophe unfolding in Gaza as a textbook case of “intent to commit genocide”, amid “shameful use” of the grotesque history of the Holocaust that includes comparing the victims to Nazis in order to “justify, rationalise, distort [and] disavow mass violence against Palestinians”.
The West’s reaction to the Middle Eastern explosion has unqualified support for the oppressor, amid sporadic attempts — from Europe and the US to Australia — to shut down public expressions of support for the oppressed. It’s not just appropriate but essential to condemn the atrocities that Hamas committed on Oct 7. And it’s thoroughly hypocritical not to apply the same standards when Israel — which purports to be a nation-state rather than a terrorist organisation — perpetrates similar violence by somewhat different means.
The US has been rushing weapons to a nuclear-armed state with one of the biggest arsenals of conventional arms and supposedly the region’s most efficient military force. That wasn’t enough, so a couple of aircraft carriers named after ex-presidents Ford and Eisenhower are muddying the waters nearby to guard their biggest asset in the Middle East. And yet another old (but not ex) president, Joe Biden, will arrive in Israel today as a symbol of US support. He has lately advised Israel against pre-2005-style reoccupation of the Gaza Strip.
It’s hardly a secret, though, that among its dedicated circle of friends, Israel tends to get away with murder. Even mass murder, which will no doubt intensify with the imminent ground invasion of Gaza. The rest of the world paid no attention as the “ethnic cleansing” in the West Bank intensified in the past week. Barring some of Australia’s island neighbours, it will also likely turn a blind eye to the deplorable but much less alarming turn of events in what has (not entirely accurately) been tagged as “the Pacific Israel”.
It must be hoped that Hezbollah and Iran don’t step into the Mideast cauldron, but don’t expect Israel to desist from stirring the pot.
Published in Dawn, October 18th, 2023