Australia, like every nation, has enmeshed itself in an intricate web of self-deceits, half-truths and outright lies. And that is no surprise given that modern ‘European’ society in Australia was founded on one gigantic lie – that the Australian landmass was empty of human settlement when the first European invaders arrived. The very contrary was in fact true. Australia was, prior to the European invasion, the home to some one hundred Aboriginal nations, each with their own language, culture and administrative systems. In fact, taken collectively, the indigenous peoples of Australia represented humanity’s longest continuous civilisation, dating back thirty thousand years or more.
Furthermore, the sophistication of this civilisation in terms of cooperation and collective land management was a philosophical concept so advanced that Europeans today are still struggling to grasp its implications. So radical was their concept of collective ownership that Karl Marx was moved to describe it as ‘primitive communism’, the primitive aspect referring only too their low level of technological advancement rather than the communal philosophy itself.
Like all colonial invasions, the first task of the invader is to dismiss the indigenous population as savages – something less than human. It was the same pattern on every continent; The Americas, Asia, Africa and of course in Australasia. Once this colonial slight-of-hand had been affected, the genocidal destruction of those early civilisations could begin in earnest. All this rich and intriguing history has, not surprisingly, been whitewashed, both metaphorically and literally, from the White Australian psyche. The trouble with a lie, once it has been perpetrated, one has to keep embellishing it for fear that the whole rotten edifice will come crashing down. And so it is with Australia, a country that maintained its ‘White Australia’ immigration policy religiously until well into the 1970’s.
So, what did Australia’s new European administrators use to fill the vacuum created by the deliberate whitewashing of its indigenous past? An even bigger lie about Australian ‘mateship’ and a ‘fair go for all’. Of course, to have a hope of qualifying for this new construct you needed to be white and preferably Anglo-Saxon in origin. Over time, Catholics, Jews and Southern Europeans were begrudgingly accepted into the club, but only because there were new tiers of outsiders who could be demonised as ‘the other’. And all the time that this falsehood was been constructed and modified, the descendants of the original civilisations remained marginalised, demonised and generally despised.
One might be tempted to argue that the one positive feature of Australia’s new narrative was the centrality of all things sporting. If Australia has a national religion, it must surely be that of ‘sport’. All sport, from camel racing to dingo shooting. So ubiquitous was this new secular religion, that even a few high performing Aboriginal athletes were invited along. To the outsider and to the self-deluded, middle class white Australian, it seemed Australia had truly become a meritocracy where everyone, irrespective of class, colour, religion or origin could take part and travel as far as their talents could take them. But it was another carefully constructed lie.
I spent seventeen years of my young life growing up in Australia and quickly developed a magnetic fascination with the Australian Outback, and its Northern Territory. It was something of a love-hate relationship given the freedoms that it offered but the glaring injustices that were hiding just behind every carefully constructed façade of European normality. On the margins of every Outback town one could find heart-breaking evidence of a once proud civilisation reduced to pauperization, addiction, domestic violence and, the worst of all, a spirit-sapping hopelessness. Over recent years, administrations with both good intent and malign, have sought to improve the lot of the aboriginal communities but to no avail. And every time I visit the Northern Territory hoping desperately that things might have improved, I come away deflated and dispirited.
These days I have stopped hoping. I just brace myself for more misery, more deprivation and more hopelessness. For now, I realise that nothing can really change until white Australia has the courage to admit to what the European invasion did to a magnificent, highly evolved human civilisation. For thirty thousand years the Aboriginal nations managed the fragile eco-systems of the Australasian landmass, but in a mere two hundred years European society has removed two thirds of the all-important natural vegetation and polluted the air, the land, the rivers and the oceans close to the point of irreversible destruction. History will surely ask the question: who are the real savages?
All this airbrushed history; of state sponsored violence, of ecological destruction and of cultural genocide cannot but help make one feel angry and ashamed. Ashamed at what has been done in the past and angry at what is still being done to Australia’s indigenous peoples. Angry and ashamed of Australia’s punitive asylum policies. Angry at Australia’s growing economic inequalities. And angry at Australia’s destructive and short-sighted environmental record. But what I feel ashamed of most of, is that we Europeans still cannot grasp the Aboriginal concept of collective ownership. In fact, the word ownership is not the correct word at all. It is really a philosophy of collective ‘stewardship’. This is surely a model for the future of all of humanity, one that is staring us in the face. But we seem to be too ignorant, or perhaps just too preoccupied to comprehend its significance.
When Australia’s Cricket captain broke down in tears on national TV whilst confessing to his sporting crimes I couldn’t help but wonder whether this was a subliminal metaphor for a much bigger crime. And the haunting words of the Aussie folk band Redgum came readily to mind.
“It’s probably too painful for us to understand
That two hundred years ago we over-ran their land.
Dreamtime’s just a nightmare now, an alcoholic sleep
Australia land of things to do, have you get time to weep.”