As another Invasion Day approaches, the gap between public support for Indigenous rights and the endurance of racist oppression is striking. Just take the Don Dale youth detention centre in the Northern Territory. In 2016, the ABC’s Four Corners broadcast an exposé of the brutality inflicted upon the overwhelmingly Aboriginal youth locked up there. The public outrage that followed the program pressured the federal government into establishing a royal commission into youth detention in the NT, which concluded in 2017.
Five years later, Four Corners aired a follow-up report in which they grilled Northern Territory Families Minister Kate Worden when she stated that 174 of the royal commission’s recommendations had been “completed”. When it was pointed out that dozens of the recommendations had not been implemented in total or at all, she replied that the word she meant was “closed”, and that a recommendation was considered “closed” even if it was entirely rejected.
This hypocrisy is not confined to the NT. It is deeply embedded in the Albanese government’s approach to Indigenous issues. The central plank of its Indigenous policy is the extremely modest proposal for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament. Advocates of the Voice present it as the first step in a process that will deal with the structural dimensions of Indigenous oppression, end the powerlessness that plagues Indigenous communities and lead to genuine Indigenous self-determination for the first time since colonisation. In reality, the Voice is an almost entirely symbolic gesture. The proposed model of the Voice will be an advisory body only, with no actual power over government policy. Parliament will have to listen to its views—which it can then freely ignore.
This has become even clearer in recent months as supporters of the Voice have responded to right-wing criticisms of the proposal. As Voice advocates never tire of repeating, the Voice will not be a separate chamber of parliament, it will not have veto power over legislation concerning Indigenous issues, and parliament will have full control over its composition, powers and structure. It will be simply a space for a small select group of Indigenous representatives to “voice” their opinions, nothing more.
The Voice is a part of the Labor Party’s broader strategy to cement itself at the heart of government through an alliance with big business, the mainstream media and socially progressive but wealthy Australians. It hopes to achieve this through isolating the Liberals and the Nationals by presenting them as incompetent dinosaurs out of touch with urban middle-class voters and corporate Australia, both of whom have shifted over the last couple of decades to embrace cultural recognition for Indigenous people. This approach is not unique to Indigenous issues; hollow progressive symbolism dominates on everything from climate change to union rights, foreign policy and LGBTI issues.
For well over 150 years, the Australian establishment ridiculed Indigenous people as biologically inferior and subjected them to horrendous cruelties: the frontier massacres, economic exploitation, the removal of children and social segregation. In the second half of the twentieth century, this shifted as the struggles of Indigenous people and non-Indigenous activists overturned discriminatory laws and racist practices, challenging public attitudes, exploitative bosses and government bureaucracies. Ruling-class attitudes towards Indigenous people also shifted—not to sincerely embrace Indigenous people and end their oppression, but rather, cynically to shape anti-racist sentiment in a way that wouldn’t be a challenge to the status quo. The old racist ideology of assimilation was replaced by the idea of multiculturalism, which imagined Australia as a supposedly pluralistic society based on the tolerance of different ethnic groups. Yet this was the era in which former Prime Minister John Howard refused to apologise for the stolen generations and railed against the “black armband” view of history.
In the last decade or so there has been a further shift as significant sections of the public service, the mainstream media and the corporate elite have embraced liberal identity politics. No longer do they seem just to tolerate different cultures; now they celebrate their existence.
As recently as 2014, Australian academic Barry Morris could argue in his book Protest, land rights and riots: postcolonial struggles in Australia in the 1980s:
“Neoliberal politics, in part, rejects a politics of recognition. Addressing historical and cultural injustice through recognition and Indigenous rights is seen as irrelevant and, at its most extreme, as a hindrance to Indigenous advancement. The pervasiveness of this critique is such that self-determination is bundled together with the recognition of land rights and native title and the creation of decision-making Indigenous organisations, all of which are deemed to have failed.”
Today, however, the mainstream of neoliberalism (the government, the media and big business) openly embrace the politics of recognition. They argue for the protection of Indigenous languages, refer to the traditional names of cities and towns, and begin their meetings with an acknowledgement of country. But they also maintain the structures of oppression that dominate the lives of most Indigenous people. So mainstream discussions of historical oppression and its impact today, while prolific, are denuded of any content that could transform the lives of the oppressed for the better. When the history of struggles by the oppressed is included in the conversation, it is flattened out into context for the richness of the lived experiences of individuals, rather than as the main way in which oppression has been challenged in the past.
The ABC can play footage of smiling Indigenous kids singing the classic “I am Australian” in their Indigenous languages just after reporting that 100 percent of children in detention in the Northern Territory are Indigenous. The Albanese government can be hailed for beginning a process of decolonisation with its support for the Voice while leaving in place the key pillars of the racist Northern Territory Intervention. The bosses of the mining industry, the Business Council of Australia and the Murdoch media can shake their heads at the failure to close the income, health and education gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people while overseeing the system of exploitation, privatisation and corporate greed that makes this inevitable.
A conservative critique of the politics of recognition and identity is now the purview of the hard right: this division between the mainstream of neoliberalism and the hard right has been a notable feature during the recent debate over the Voice to Parliament. While significant sections of the Liberal Party, much of the right-wing press, the Business Council of Australia and mining bosses have backed the Voice, a right-wing movement around Indigenous Country Liberal Party Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, the majority of the federal National Party, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, Sky News and maverick figures like mining magnate Gina Rinehart have denounced it as woke symbolism. These conservative figures can gain some hearing for their arguments because of the very real failures of the mainstream liberal approach to Indigenous issues, which has indeed been dominated by showy symbolism and little else.
The fight for Indigenous rights today must include confronting the obvious racism of the hard right and the fake progressivism that the Albanese government has cloaked itself in, and exposing the grubby quid pro quo relationship between the state and capital that lies beneath.
For while Albanese claims to be centring Indigenous voices, this does not extend to the Gomeroi people fighting against Santos’ $3.5 billion Narrabri gas project. It doesn’t mean challenging the economic inequality that continues to devastate Indigenous communities due to years of privatisation, cuts to social services and exploitation by greedy bosses. Support for symbolic recognition for Indigenous people has not stopped the Queensland Labor government from overturning native title to secure the Adani coal mine project, or the Western Australian Labor government from locking up Indigenous kids at an alarming rate.
Indigenous people in Australia, along with their supporters, have managed to overturn a whole series of racially discriminatory laws and practices through decades of activism and defiance. However, behind formal equality before the law, the old mechanisms of oppression—economic, social and political—continue. Deaths in custody continue, poverty endures, and land rights are respected only if some other consideration (usually monetary) doesn’t get in the way.
The ongoing reality of Indigenous inequality and oppression has fed a growing desire for a fundamental transformation in the relationship between Indigenous people and Australian society. Young people in particular have taken a keen interest in opposing the historical and contemporary oppression of Indigenous people, as can be witnessed every year on Invasion Day when tens of thousands hit the streets in protest.
The ALP is attempting to neutralise this healthy anti-racist sentiment by folding it into a tame cat institution unlikely to upset the status quo. We must resist attempts by the establishment to present modest surface-level modifications to the system as having anything to do with Indigenous liberation. This is important because projects like the Voice can become not just inadequate reforms, but an actual barrier to advancing the interests of the majority of Indigenous people. Once institutions like the Voice are in place, it is easy for the government of the day to deflect criticism of the lack of progress on Indigenous issues by referencing the existence of representative bodies.
Only by clearly breaking with Albanese’s project of fake progressivism can we begin to build the kind of resistance we need to end the oppression of Indigenous people.