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Unity on the lamb in the ethnocracy of Australia



Aussies enjoy a highly positive reputation overseas. We're known for being friendly, easygoing and rugged — all qualities required to confront the daily incursion of wild animals, poisonous spiders, and stealthy drop-bears.

White barbecuers ignore neglected Aboriginal Australians and asylum seekers. Cartoon by Chris JohnstonWe're known for a uniquely beautiful and diverse natural environment, a rich Indigenous past, and the successful achievement of multiculturalism. We're harmonious, prosperous, and peaceful, in possession of a land and a society that is the envy of the world.

Like all authorised generalisations (postcolonial theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak calls them 'sanctioned ignorances'), this luminous vision of Australia contains plenty of truth, plenty of exaggerations, and plenty of outright lies.

And, like all authorised generalisations, it is an example of a successful story. As well as being a globally known story, it's also the story Australia most likes to tell itself; it sings through ideas like the lucky country, the land of the fair go, the land of the long weekend; and is used to defend imperatives like 'Fuck off we're full' and 'We grew here you flew here'.

Despite rattling the country's white supremacists, this story is at work in 2017's Australia Day lamb ad, which presumes an Australian togetherness that ignores its brutally racist conditions of possibility.

Social research on Australia tells a more complex and less easily unified story. Australia, as Professor Andrew Jacubowicz has identified, is an ethnocracy — a state that is formed in the image and for the benefit of a dominant ethnic group.

The nation was established in 1901 'to ensure nationals of British descent would be able to create a society populated by individuals as much like themselves as possible' and today has 'Federal cabinet and the ruling parties' leadership' made up 'almost totally of long-standing Australian or Western European background'.

This Australian version of ethnocracy works as 'one cloaked in the rhetoric of multiculturalism'. That is, Australia's rulers use a commitment to racial and cultural pluralism to justify this ethnocracy (i.e. all the power is held by white people, but we tolerate other races too).


"As those repressed on either side of the white settlement story, the words of Indigenous people and asylum seekers from many countries of the world must be heard and accounted for."


Jacubowicz's assertion helps to understand two narratives that regularly appear in storytelling about Australia: the narrative of Australia as belligerently isolationist and bullishly proud of a singular 'way of life', and that of Australia as a welcoming place of successful integration of races and cultures.

Take for example two pieces of research released in the same week in November last year. An Essential poll found that many Australians 'think racial equality has gone "too far"' and are worried about overseas influences such as investment from businesses in China and the offshoring of manufacturing jobs; while a Scanlon Foundation showed that 'Australians are less worried about immigration now than they have been at any point in almost a decade'.

These narratives of wounded and defensive nationhood on the one hand and a peacefully composite society on the other are a recurring feature of Australian public conversation about itself (think about some of the previous ads for lamb).

Perhaps this is why the support for migration and multiculturalism evident in respondents to the Scanlon Foundation survey did not extend to people who arrive by boat. Migration is okay, but it has to be entirely on our terms, and we will defend the latter position with the former. In an ethnocracy, membership of the nation can only occur on the terms of those in charge. With the rhetoric of 'queue jumpers' and 'illegals', people who arrive by boat have been deemed 'uninvited'.

So where can we find stories about Australia that break this ethnocratic cycle and help us know the nation in more truthful terms? As those repressed on either side of the white settlement story, the words of Indigenous people and asylum seekers from many countries of the world must be heard and accounted for. Of this years lamb ad, Luke Pearson writes that 'I would give it a bonus point for accuracy if the meat the English gave to the Aboriginal people was poisoned with smallpox or strychnine', and observes the colossal effort it currently takes 'to make Australian history, or contemporary Australian society, appear much more inclusive than it actually is'. 

Carol Roe asks that Australians hear the story of her granddaughter Ms Dhu, the young Aboriginal woman who was jailed for unpaid fines and died in custody after cruel and negligent treatment by police. From the globally condemned Australian-run prison on Manus Island, Rohingya man Imran Mohammad tells us that 'While the torture in my country is transparent, in Australia it is not obvious.'

I've been away from Australia nearly a year now, living mostly in Mexico City. Nearly everybody who asks me where I am from knows the settled story of Australia: rich, friendly, and peaceful (and bursting with kangaroos). They're shocked when I pass on Pearson, Roe and Mohammad's words. How could this be, people ask me, when Australia is so wealthy, so beautiful? Maybe this is a question that can deliver us more truthful stories.


Ann DeslandesAnn Deslandes is a freelance writer and researcher from Sydney. Read her other writing at xterrafirma.net and tweet her @Ann_dLandes.

Topic tags: Ann Deslandes, Australia Day, asylum seekers, Aboriginal Australians



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Existing comments

When telling, or writing about, our history and our view of ourselves, Australians should not let love or hatred obscure the simple truth. For often, the truth is simple. As Australia Day draws near once again, there's much to think about. It's how we treat our most vulnerable and disadvantaged citizens, and those we consider not worthy enough to be citizens, that says what sort of country we are.

Pam | 20 January 2017  

Great article worth a few readings. I love,'sanctioned ignorances', and 'authorised generalisations'. A couple of reflections. Firstly it is strange how we think of ourselves as fiercely independent individualists and yet are so dependent,naive and gregarious. Maybe it is just one of those human paradoxes. Then again we have a severe leadership vacuum at the moment where in lieu of a positive, inspiring, inclusive vision set in Asia and the Pacific the we have a "whom we don't like" fight flight sanctioned ignorance. We also trade on a 'plain blunt bushie' image as worn by Barnaby Joyce who recommends it. He says it's good because the punters don't suspect whence the tackle will come. Sounds like he believes as does Trump that we will not interrogate anything. Sadly the overall picture bespeaks a fairly culpably ignorant mob content with superficiality.

Michael D. Breen | 21 January 2017  

I suspect every nation has what Jung would call its Shadow side. The key issue to me in this regard is how we deal with it. I am not sure that the Shadow of Australia's colonial past is worse than that of other colonised nations such as Mexico. Jung's view was that we needed to integrate our individual and collective Shadows, with both the good and bad in them, to become whole. He never saw the individual or collective Shadow as either 'good' or 'bad' but consisting of various elements of both which needed to be integrated to become whole. Jung saw the process of integration as being a difficult one and dependent on doing the right sort of work: it was not a matter for the sort of brittle intellectual chatter the opinionati of Parkville or Newtown indulge in. As Australia Day approaches I think many of us will be wondering how far down the path to individual and national integration (in the Jungian sense) and wholeness we are.

Edward Fido | 22 January 2017  

Wouldn't "plutocracy" be nearer the mark?

Noel Kapernick | 23 January 2017  

Yes, Australia has a black history that some people want us to ignore eg John Howard who said he doesn't subscribe to the "black armband of history" He was, however been happy to go along with a "white gag of history". I agree that we need to simply acknowledge some of the worst aspects of how this land was taken from the Aboriginal people and work to for land rights, reconciliation and a treaty with them. The hypocrisy about what a great, caring and accepting bunch we are is highlighted by the treatment of asylum seekers by the 2 major political parties in the nation. It is good to see that many caring and humane Australians are taking a stand against this cruel treatment 9including many church leaders). but we still have a long way to go before we reach the self-congratulatory image some of us try to project. The same sort of compassion and understanding should also exist for poorer Australians who are on pensions are who are being bullied to pay non-existing bills to Centre Link. The fact is that in every nation, there are those who fight for social justice and human rights and those who don't.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 23 January 2017  

I love the idea that we can all get on wonderfully and be equal. This advertisement's cultural diversity is great and the fact that it does in some way address the issue is thoughtful. I like this positive advertisement. But it is just that, an advertisement. We all know life in Australia is not always like that, but we are part of a beautiful country and I'm grateful everyday. I want Australia Day changed to another date, not that it will erase the past or fix all our problems. At least we are talking about it and that's a start.

Cate | 23 January 2017  

A thoughtful article and thoughtful comments to date. Thank you all.

Evagrius | 23 January 2017  

Thankyou for this thoughtful and insightful piece. Decoding these easeful stories of the ethnocracy and highlighting 'sanctioned ignorances' in language that is memorable and I think will resonate with many.

Julie Perrin | 23 January 2017  

“This echnocratic cycle”…. There are many amusing stories about the bonding of orphaned farm animals hand-fed by humans. Such bonding has advantages, but also defects. Not much thought is given to Mary’s little lamb when it begins to realise that it does not fit in any more, as one of the family, and has to find its own way. We are alarmed sometimes by the reaction of some children of migrants, when they find that they are discriminated against in some social circles and in employment opportunities, and that the religious beliefs they bonded to from their parents, are rejected by the majority of the members of the ‘established’ religions. One of the greatest barriers to Truth and Harmony is the conviction that ’We’, whoever we happen to be, already have it, and that ’our’ model is the one and only worth considering. ALL of us need , to realise that each limited view-point needs integrating with others, hard though this may seem at first.

Robert Liddy | 23 January 2017  

Thank you Ann for saying so well what has been running around in my mind.

Mary Long | 23 January 2017  

Thanks Ann - 'tis unsettling when realised as Celeste Liddle calls our national day Amnesia day and writes of not supporting to change the date so how to move beyond its superficiality and get real about it. How do we change the nature of the day? I have heard it suggested we have moment's silence to remember what many don't actually know about the founding, wreaths in the sea at botany cast afloat by government and indigenous leaders, getting educated through books such a Alan Tucker's 'Too Many Captain Cooks' or the works of Bangarra such a Patyegarang and others, the signing of treaties on that day as it was missed at the founding, policies which actually make a difference being announced...we need to become creative and not just follow the mob. For years I have simply attended Mass on the day to pray for the changes we need to make as a nation. Write to the ABC asking for something different on their programming, write to politicians about the need to change the nature of the day? We cannot undo that a colonial mindset at play did not recognise the complex lore that existed in this land when they landed nor can we ignore that the Brits landing began bringing this into alignment with the rest of the world.

Gordana Martinovich | 23 January 2017  

On reading this and similar articles, a constant saying of the Lord comes to mind: "and the truth will make you free". So let truth be our guide and not our prejudices!

Ferruccio Romanin SJ | 30 January 2017  

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