Reclaiming (White) Australia? Talk about a redundant exercise

By Senthorun Raj

A couple of weeks ago, I was excitedly exchanging emails with a guy on Manhunt (I know, how retro?!). As we began to discuss weekend plans, he informed me that he had a busy night ahead: making signs to protest fascists from Reclaim Australia. Apart from satisfying my midnight procrastination appetite and restoring my faith in online dating, this brief textual intercourse prompted me to ask: is Reclaim Australia a unique threat from white supremacy?

Quite simply: no.

Let’s start with the slogans that underpin Reclaim Australia. The movement stakes a “claim” over a country has been “lost” to multiculturalism and Muslim immigration. Sure, the sloganeering of “no non-white immigration” and the presence of bodies, tattooed with swastikas, brandishing the Australian flag is frightening. Yet, these hyper visible scenes of xenophobia tend to distract us from the banal racisms that violently cut across the country.

Hate is not the language of those wanting to “reclaim Australia.” Most of the people who rally under the banner use the language of love – of country, of community and of “our way of life” – to galvanise public support.

But such emotional appeals are not unique to Reclaim Australia. Most recently, the government’s rhetorical use of “Team Australia” was used to mobilise antipathy towards Muslims who failed to assimilate and repudiate terrorism when required to do so. This was followed by a suite of law reforms that would strip dual citizens of their Australian citizenship for conduct deemed to be inconsistent with “allegiance to Australia.” This ranges from fighting in declared terrorist zones to vandalising government property.

By expressing concerns about immigration and repudiating non-white migrants, Reclaim Australia forgets something quite significant about our history: the only people with a right to “reclaim” the country are the Traditional Owners, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, who are dispossessed as a consequence of colonialism. Yet, this whitening of national memory is not confined to Reclaim Australia. There is still no formal recognition of Indigenous Peoples in our constitution. Despite compelling advocacy, successive governments have resisted a formal treaty with First Australians. Instead of recognition or treaty, those seeking basic services to live on their Homelands have been castigated for their “lifestyle choices.” Even a conversation about changing the date of Australia Day – a day that marks trauma instead of celebration for many people – is met with glib dismissal.

We hear constantly that asylum seekers or Muslims are threats to our community. But often overlooked are the far more banal institutional and political actors responsible for perpetuating an epidemic of racist violence. Indigenous incarceration rates exceed those of Black Americans. Aboriginal young people are 26 times more likely to be jailed than their non-Aboriginal peers. Recently, the death of Ms Dhu was another painful reminder that, for some people, having unpaid parking tickets can result in a death sentence. Across the seas, asylum seekers who come by boat remain caged indefinitely in places where they are raped, get sick, self-harm and die. More asylum seekers have died on Manus Island than have been properly resettled. Now, instead of closing down such facilities, the government has made it so that people working in detention centres could be prosecuted if they disclose these forms of institutional abuse or neglect.

The destruction of life – in the literal as well as metaphorical sense – should shock us. Yet, as Amy McQuire astutely articulated in a recent article, some lives are deemed more expendable and less grievable than others. This is not because Reclaim Australia has changed public discourse. Rather “border security” rhetoric and “tough on crime” policy as it impacts on Indigenous communities come about from the way whiteness (as a political and cultural system) governs Australia.

We should challenge neo-Nazis who sloganeer about “reclaiming Australia.” But, remember, there’s something far more insidious that we need to reclaim Australia from: institutional racism.

Senthorun Raj is a doctoral researcher at the Sydney Law School and a Right Now columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @senthorun

Feature image: No Room for Racism rally, Sydney. By Joshua Meadows/Flickr

This column has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.