The Great Australian Silence

In Australia, there are two independent movements to reclaim Australia. Both are making themsleves known at rallies in public areas, and both are attracting supporters that are established in the public sphere. Each of them are presenting a conception of Australia which has either been lost or is at risk of being lost. However, only one of them is drawing the attention of the mainstream media.

The first movement is that of Indigenous Australians. Late last year, the Abbott government, in response to the budget emergency (which, though worse is now fine according to Joe Hockey) turned the funding of remote Indigenous communities in Western Australia over to the Barnett State Government. This prompted Barnett to state that these communities were unsustainable, and has declared to cut services to 150 of them. This, to my eye, is a type of decision that has become increasingly common in recent years, and analogues of this mode of decision making can be found in multiple fora. It is by appeal to efficiency that an actor can say ‘This can’t be helped’.

At my work, there are employees with terrific bills to pay, who ask for more hours to work. The bosses will often say that they cant, that they’re sorry, that its just the time of year, or that its just business or that their hands are tied. There is an asymmetry here; should an employee be asked to work some overtime to cover a shift or some such thing, they do not have recourse to the ‘just business’ trope. And if they say something like ‘This is not in my best interests’, then they are no longer a team player. Their answer will be an ‘i don’t want to’ or an ‘i have plans’ – personal, rather than business reasons. Often these responses see employees fall out of favour. They cant refuse with the absolution of guilt that ‘its just business’ carries. They do not have appeal to the efficiency that can tie someone’s hands.

Similarly, Barnett’s decision to coerce people from their land is framed in economic terms. They are unsustainable. Or Tony Abbott’s “lifestyle choices”. The moral landscape is undergirded by an economic landscape; that these lives can be considered an unnecessary burden permits these decisions to be made. However, individuals do not have recourse to legitimise their lifestyles, without conforming to efficiency.

The reclaim movement is a movement that is a conservative, nationalist movement with a dubious understanding of the political reality in which they dwell. They fear Sharia law being implemented in Australia, and don’t like halal certified foods for its potential connection to terrorist groups. They are taking form in the United Patriots Front, Australian Liberty Alliance and several other groups. I recently found out my favourite uncle is sympathetic to their views, a highly disturbing dinner.

What is interesting here is that two groups are making similar claims to the same country, but only one is receiving attention. A solidarity rally took place in Brisbane at the end of March, and saw around 800 people listen to speakers, watch dancers and listen to music, and later took to the street to show their opposition to the closing of Indigenous communities. A Reclaim Australia rally, in the same square the following week, saw several hundred fewer attendees and, according to various publications, was only noteworthy for the clashes between protesters and counter-protesters. However, there has been enormous coverage of these rallies. The Indigenous movements have been covered only briefly, with no great detail or analysis.

The anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner wrote of the ‘Great Australia Silence’ toward Indigenous Australians. Here we see, as well as silence, a drowning out of attention. Those that write about the nationalist and racist Reclaim Australia movements are sure to be sympathetic to Indigenous movements, just perhaps not committed to it. But why? There is an openness to, say, refugees, but it’s quite unsettling to have to apply this same openness to oneself; to force oneself to be intellectually and morally tolerant of their own presence in a country is a deeply unsettling thing. But, in practice, this sees the amplification of other causes – the expression of support for multiculturalism and its values – at the expense of discussion of Indigenous issues, firstly, because it’s easier for progressive people to write about, and, secondly, it’s a less unsettling topic for progressive people to read about.

The people writing about the Reclaim movements are drawing attention to serious issues in Australian society, but they are only reviewing that which is conspicuously bad, the articulation of negative theses in our political landscape. However, there is the second issue here that these views are articulated over the top of claims to land and country that are more legitimate or justified, and, at the very least, where there exists genuine oppression.

However, this is unsettling. It is unpleasant to be forced to accommodate oneself. Moreover, Indigeneity in Australia requires a certain degree of deferral – as Wittgenstein said, ‘Whereof one cannot speak, one must remain silent’. But the silence here is not brought about an inability to speak, but an unwillingness to be unsettled. So journalists don’t write, progressives don’t read; the Great Australian Silence – it’s just business.



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