Book Report: Australia, Part 2

Oh my goodness, an actual post about travel! What’s more, it’s a post about the A Country a Month challenge, which at this point should be named the Country Maybe Every Six Months, Seriously It’s Been Years Since College and I’m Out of Practice on All This Nonfiction Reading challenge.

But now — Australia! Last time, I mentioned the national narrative. Now, most of my historical information is coming from Macintyre’s Concise History, so whatever basic narrative arc he’s giving the country is going to influence how I see it. Also I’m thinking of the various ideas, stereotypes, jokes, random facts, and anecdotes about Australia I’ve heard and read over the years. And maybe I’m not reading enough or thinking critically enough, but my original understanding of the Australian story remains much the same: the white narrative is one of hardships overcome, an unforgiving land tamed, and a hardy people always down for a drink or a trek or both. To be clear, this is not how all Australians actually are, but it is the carefully cultivated national story and image.

There’s a lot to admire in that story — pursuing your dreams, making your own way, and doing it with a cheerfulness and willingness that makes the whole endeavor worthwhile. There’s also a whole lot that needs reexamining or outright condemnation. The narrative doesn’t just forget women and non-whites, it forcibly keeps them out of the history of their own country. The fragile ecosystem of this huge, dry continent has been almost entirely destroyed, and obtaining water is a real concern in an increasing number of communities. Not only did whites steal the land of the people who lived here for 40,000 years before Cook showed up, but they also stole thousands of children in an attempt to steal and destroy Aboriginal culture entirely — The Stolen Generations (for which the federal government has expressed regret, but not apologized). Those same friendly blokes willing to share a pint or five with you at the bar are also pretty likely to go home and hurt their partners — an IVAWS survey in 2003 found that 57% of women surveyed had been physically and/or sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, and 34% of those incidents were in the home (this survey also underreported the experiences of indigenous and non-English speaking women, who statistically experience a higher percentage of assaults than white women).

One of the things I was most surprised to learn about was the White Australia movement. Almost all of the early colonizers were whites, both the convicts and shortly thereafter, the gentry and entrepreneurs who bought up huge tracts of land for sheep grazing and mining (including gold). Clearly, the Aborigines were not white, and many of them did fight for their land or take a small plot to work when shut off into reservations, but from the beginning, they were not granted the rights of citizenship that Britain extended to whites. Other workers were also shut out of not just the national story, but the practical benefits of equal rights and freedom as well, especially the Chinese miners. When times got hard, as they always do, the whites blamed the non-whites, as  they always do (the world over).  Main publications like the Bulletin and eventually official government policy touted the importance of keeping Australia white and safe from foreign invaders. This was devastating on so many fronts — white women were explicitly referred to as breeders of the correct race, non-white women were forcibly sterilized to keep from reproducing, non-white men were denied jobs, and it’s not like this policy actually created more jobs for white men or made it easier to live on the Australian frontier. The White Australia policy had a huge impact on immigration, severely limiting or even outright denying the attempts of non-whites to enter the country. You can imagine how well this played with the Asian Pacific nations that surround the island country. It wasn’t until after World War II that restrictions were eased so the labor pool could be increased, and it wasn’t until freaking 1966 that the policy was mostly dismantled, and 1973 when immigration laws were changed in a meaningful way. No Statue of Liberty here; this was a country founded as a prison, and the bars keep people out as well as in.*

White Australia still holds sway in Australian politics, although of course it goes by different names — the One Nation party, mandatory detention, and an English language and “Australian values” citizenship test. As Kristin mentioned in a comment several months ago, a lot of people want to move to a rich, industrialized nation like Australia, but when they get there, they find seriously racist policies and everyday behaviors. It looks like the conservative Liberal/National parties held power for 11 damaging years, until the 2007 elections. Now the Labor party is in power, although I’m not sure what effect this has had on legislation relating to progressive issues concerning race, gender, class, etc.

White Australia policy today comic

White Australia policy today

One last thing that surprised me about Australia’s history — and pleasantly, too. The labor unions fought bitter, violent battles for years with the business owners, pastoral companies, and mining firms. According to Macintyre, the latter half of the 19th century was really rough, and the unions made some advances only to lose them a short time later. However, in 1907 the Australian Settlement was reached, which established a living wage for working men. It was specifically designed for men supporting families, which of course left out women, who weren’t guaranteed such a decent amount. I’m not sure if it left out non-white men as well, although it wouldn’t surprise me. The basic wage was guaranteed to every working man in the country, and was raised as necessary to keep up with inflation. At first, I was surprised at the long history of wage guarantees in Australia (the earliest minimum wage was introduced in 1824 in Victoria), since it’s a country so proud of hard work and individualism. But this law, combined with the efforts by the Labor Party pre-WWII to create jobs for every man in the country, fits in that picture of hard work and individualism. If you could be pretty sure of getting a job, and certain of a decent wage once you got it, you could work hard at it and really earn that wage. It wasn’t hand-outs, it was earned, was the thinking. Again, things have changed in the last 50 years, but there’s still a decent minimum wage in Australia and an expectation of available jobs. (I don’t know how this expectation squares with immigration, more women in the workplace, etc.)

There’s so much more to learn about Australia, of course, but the point of the A Country a Month challenge is to get a general idea of the country itself, both its history and its current events. I’ve tried to do that in this post, and there may be future posts on Australia. I’m especially interested in learning more about dreamwalking and how Australia’s past intersects with the current trend of Australians abroad.

Finally, please don’t think that all I want to do is find the flaws in a country. Far from it! I learned a lot about Australia that makes me even more excited to go there — the countryside, the cultural aspects, etc. But as I’ve mentioned before, I don’t believe neutralized/neutered travel writing does anyone any favors. I don’t intend this post as pointing fingers and laying blame, or an un-self-aware criticism, but please advise me if it reads like that. I’m still figuring out how to write about other cultures, places, and people without Otherizing them to oblivion or choking on my own sanctimony, but I hope this is a start.

Apologies for the imperfect coherence of this long post, but thanks for reading, and as always, please leave comments and help me keep the conversation going.

*I am perfectly aware that US immigration policies have generally been much more severely restrictive than Lady Liberty would have us remember, and of course we currently have some fucked-up approaches to the whole issue, with Arizona leading the way.

3 thoughts on “Book Report: Australia, Part 2

  1. Nice work, Lisa! Collapse by Jared Diamond (the Guns, Germs, and Steel guy) has a whole chapter on Australia and how its resource “management” is severely affecting the environment. I still liked the Viking chapters the best (if you’re traveling to Greenland, it might be interesting for you…), but your post reminded me of it.

    Crocodile Dundee…aren’t you watching movies as a part of this, too? There’s got to be a good game we could do with this one. Let me know! 🙂

  2. Pingback: An Australian Tradition: Welcome to Country « Stowaway

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