'Pale death and ruin round our footsteps spring'

Australia's unabashed colonial justice

'Tis thus -- a fatal race -- where-e're we go
Some phase of fitful tragedy appears.
We strew the earth with murder, crime and woe ·
We pave our path with terror, blood and tears ·
Thus with whatever good
Our conquest brings, or seems to bring,
Perpetual evil mingles or conspires.
Pale death and ruin round our footsteps spring,
And desolation dogs our civilized desires.

-- William Forster (1)

REVELATORY in the poem by Forster, a well-known Australian politician and author, is an attitude toward the Aborigines reflected by the fact that this poem was addressed to kangaroos. But then that is unsurprising from a man whose name was eponymously superimposed over the Aboriginal town Minimbah and whose main interests were described as "the disposal and occupation of lands of the State." (2)

A blessed land it is with a tropical climate in the north and a temperate climate in the south. Australia's meager population shares a massive landmass with major cities situated on the coasts. Offshore are many coral reefs, one of which is referred to as the only living organism visible from space: the Great Barrier Reef. Given the importance of the sea for an island continent, it is more than bizarre then that the federal government would consider dumping its nuclear waste at sea. (3) Apparently the natural bioluminescence on the Great Barrier Reef is insufficient.

It is but one of the oddities that darkens Australia's international reputation. Lingering racism, bullying of its smaller neighbours, and its role as a junior partner in imperialism sully the state considered by the UN to have one of the highest qualities of life in the world.

Lingering racism

Some quite progressive and trend-setting legislation helped Australia achieve a high quality-of-life for some Australians. Minimum wage originated in Australia and it become known as a "workingman's paradise" when the eight-hour workday was introduced in 1856. This did not, however, apply to Aboriginals, Chinese, women, or children. It is also important to note that such a regressive law as the Tasmanian Master and Servants Act was passed in the same year of 1856. Under this act a master had the right to arrest his servant on suspicion of a wrongdoing and to keep the servant incarcerated for up to a week without a trial. (4) Women's suffrage was achieved in 1902, but it was by no means universal. Not until 1967 were states prevented from prohibiting Aboriginal women from voting. Like many countries where the British diaspora migrated and settled, Australia became the scene of unmitigated racism and genocide. (5)

The British explorer Captain James Cook saw the original inhabitants of Australia as "wild Beasts." Yet these "wild Beasts" "had had no need to organize for warfare, and territorial battles were unknown." (6)

The peaceful, anarchistic lifestyle of the Aborigines proved to be a bane to them. Their "lack of a social hierarchy and of greed for possessions made them easy victims for the whites, who despised them, thinking them poor and without government, and only just, if at all, above the social level of animals." (7) The Aborigines were not viewed as humans and the land was claimed terra nullius. With such a mindset, the colonizers were spared undue trauma for the subsequent "killing breath of white disease" that wiped out much of the Aboriginal population.

The British set up penal settlements in Australia that were precursors to the gulags at Abu Ghuraib and Guant_namo Bay. These sites were described as dependent on "floggings," "hangings," and the repudiation of every rule known to the Aborigines. (8)

On the southeastern island of Tasmania an exceptionally brutal and wicked persecution of the Aborigines transpired. The settlers killed the Aborigines "for sport," stole their women, lopped off body parts and forced the Aborigines to consume their own flesh, slaughtered the men, "brained" the women and children, rounded the remainder into concentration camps, and eventually extirpated the entire Tasmanian Aboriginal race in an unatonable genocide. (9)

The racist but progressive trend-setting nation seems more like a regressive backslider these days. Despite an extant, unsubtle racism at home and abroad (10), Liberal Party leader John Howard strolled to a fourth consecutive term based partly on a platform of fighting terrorism in a junior role to the US. This was despite his regime's racially-divisive past.

In 1999 the Howard administration drew a rebuke from the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination for a piece of racist legislation. The Wik law was branded discriminatory for legislating the extinguishment of Aboriginal title through various means. Howard dismissed the UN finding: "Australian laws are made by Australian parliaments elected by the Australian people, not by UN committees."

Howard's cavalier response to Aborigines is in line with his co-optation of the neo-fascist One Nation Party in Australia, which considers white Australians to be the most downtrodden segment of society. Howard's anti-refugee stance also appeals to supporters of the party Australians Against Further Immigration.

The societal racism is lethal for the Aborigines. One writer described a "series of incidents in Australia occurring over the past few years of which the rest of the world seems to have no knowledge." A number of Aboriginal men have hung themselves while in custody. The corporate media have maintained a silence on the carnage. (11)

In recent years, Australia has attracted international opprobrium for its reprehensible war on the disadvantaged. Refugees are being intercepted at sea and directed to a third nation or to internment facilities ensconced behind the uninviting embrace of barbed wire. Australian writer John Pilger likened the facilities to "concentration camps," whose nonwhite population demonstrated a "racism [that] is self-evident." (12)

One infamous camp was the remote Woomera Detention Centre in the middle of the scorching South Australian desert. At Woomera, hundreds of asylum seekers, mainly Afghani refugees under long-term lockup, protested by stitching their lips, going on a hunger strike, slashing themselves with razors, and in desperate cases attempting suicide.

Those arriving in Australia without proper documentation, including children, are subject to automatic incarceration, which can last for years. Many camp detainees waste away while the authorities process the refugee requests.

Understandably the de facto prisoners become rebellious. The corporate media has, for the most part, been quiet about these rebellions.

Australia's human rights officials have denounced the camps as being contrary to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. "The convention says governments should use all appropriate measures to protect the child from any form of physical or mental violence," Commissioner Sev Ozdowski said. "From what I have heard in the media, yes, we are breaching it."

Linda Tenebaum depicted the suffering of refugee families:

A lawyer representing one of the women who had sewn her lips said her client had been behind bars with her husband and two children aged 8 and 9 for eight months. "Her children aren't developing... they're locked up behind huge fences, razor wire, in the middle of the desert. Take a look behind you -- this is no environment to raise children in, this is no way to keep people, human beings, families." (13)

Amnesty International has called for Australia to bring its Migration Act into fulfillment of its international obligations "so that individuals, particularly children, cannot be indefinitely and arbitrarily detained." (14)

The Woomera camp was eventually forced to shut down but the Baxter Immigration Detention Facility that replaced it is gaining a notoriety of its own. (15)

The long overdue release of the detainees has not been without its untoward consequences. For some of the detainees finally being granted refugee status came at great cost. The harrowing ordeal had been detrimental to their psychological health. (16)

Habib Fares also targeted the media role in the racism prevalent in Australian society. He wrote, "It is to our shame that Australia is still known internationally -- along with such countries as South Africa, Israel, the USA and the UK-- for being a state of entrenched racism and racist practices against non-white people."

Fares fingered monopoly capitalism as the culprit in a ruse to scapegoat migrants for economic woes and provide a distraction while undermining the working class movement. (17)

The neighbourhood bully

Australia is an island continent that dwarfs most of its neighbours in the southern hemisphere. Australian National University professor David Hegarty described Australia, as seen through the eyes of many island states, as being "assertive in pursuing its own interests" and "over-dominant" in its behavior. While Australia is respectful of the sovereignty of island states, regional hegemonic aspirations were alluded to by its hope "that the island nations would share Australia's perception of regional security." (18)

East Timor, however, was one nation whose sovereignty was not respected by Australia. This disrespect continues as Australia pursues its self-interest driven by the possible abundance of natural resources lying between the two countries.

East Timor President Xanana Gusmao criticized Australian attempts to expropriate oil and gas fields claimed by his country. The reserves are vital to the beleaguered nation. "It makes the difference to our future," Gusmao said. "We would not like to be a failed state. Without all this we will be another Haiti, another Liberia, another Solomon Islands, and we do not want that."

The resources lie in the Timor Sea in a disputed boundary region between Australia and East Timor. Under maritime law such sea boundaries are usually drawn between the countries, leaving all the resources in East Timorese waters. Since Australia left the international court of justice and the international tribunal on the law of the sea two months prior to East Timor's independence in 2002, these bodies are unable to mediate. (19)

Australia has already started exploiting several disputed fields. Australian Green party senator Bob Brown declared, "We have got the richest country in our region robbing the poorest."

Australian foreign policy has been described as being morally oblivious and predicated to achieving its own narrow ends. For example, Australia was quick to bestow recognition to the Indonesian invasion and occupation of East Timor since good relations with its northern neighbour have been key for Canberra. It was consequently unsurprising that Australia refused to push for the prosecution of individuals responsible for the genocide against East Timor. (20)

There is no need to ruffle the feathers of a populous neighbour when the region abounds with tiny states.

Nauru is a tiny island in the South Pacific that has become an incarceration centre for asylum seekers caught trying to enter Australia illegally. Nauru has historically suffered under the imperialist hand of Australia. While under Australian administration, Nauru's phosphate wealth was depleted by its colonial guardian leaving behind much environmental devastation. Australia was subsequently compelled to pay A$107 million in damages to Nauru. Cash-strapped Nauru has reportedly received about A$10 million in assistance from Australia for accommodating the migrants while their asylum applications are adjudicated. (21)

Portent of imperialism

Not only has Australia been accused of ducking its international responsibility toward refugees but it has also been criticized for shirking its moral responsibility for reconstruction in Iraq. Although the pretext for Australia's participation in the, widely acknowledged as illegal, invasion and occupation has absolutely invalidated, Australia is contributing much less than many other countries, and very little considering their egregious role in the invasion. (22)

The Australian Government has also been accused of complicity in a series of dirty tricks such as spying on the United Nations, providing disinformation as intelligence to the government's opposition, and knowingly exaggerating the threat of Saddam Hussein to the Australian public. (23)

Australia's stated purpose for invading Iraq was "to help build a better future for the people of Iraq (http://www.dfat.gov.au/globalissues/)." (24) This has since been exposed as platitudinous disinformation.

In the highly regarded peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet, an international research team's findings were published that put the number of Iraqi civilians, mainly women and children, killed subsequent to the aggression of Iraq at 100,000 -- a number that "may be much higher." (25) When Australian Defense [sic] Minister Robert Hill was pressed on Australia's complicity in this sordid outcome, he was unrepentant. He asseverated that Australians as well as Americans were "committed to minimizing civilian casualties" but that "some civilian casualties" were unavoidable. While casting doubt on The Lancet's civilian fatality figures, Hill trotted out the unsubstantiated claim that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the deaths of "at least 300,000 innocent Iraqis." (26)

Nonetheless, assuming that Hussein did oversee the killing of 300,000 Iraqis, this figure is still dwarfed by the 500,000 to one million Iraqis who perished as a result of US-maintained UN sanctions. Hill's playing the numbers game is a losing proposition. But given the infamous quip by former US Secretary-of-State Madeleine Albright that the sacrifice of a half million Iraqi children's lives was a worthy price, such a response by an imperialist minion is unsurprising. So what are another 100,000 lives?

Howard had made clear that he is "not in any way apologetic" about being involved in the ouster of Saddam Hussein. In the 2004 election campaign Howard vowed to continue the fight against terrorism. His opponent, Labor Party leader Mark Latham, pledged to bring the Australian troops home. The US ambassador in Australia, Tom Schieffer, spoke of "serious consequences" if Latham were to follow through on his pledge.

The "serious consequences" were avoided "[a]fter a cowardly, dishonest and lack-lustre campaign by Australian Labor -- which strenuously avoided the issue of Iraq in craven deference to the US administration, the American-dominated Australian press and an ill-informed, prejudiced and conservative Australian electorate -- the conservative Coalition Government won a decisive victory thanks to bigotry, ignorance, fear and small-minded selfishness." (27)

Australians, who do not even have the option of abstaining at the ballot box available to them, returned the government of Howard to power.

Whither Australia? Pilger remarked in an interview: "The problem for Australian society is a colonial mentality that endures. When Australians are moved to demand that their politicians end their obsequiousness to great power, that will be a day to celebrate." (28)


(1) Quoted in Judith Wright, The Cry of the Dead (Oxford University Press, 1982), p 7-8

(2) "Who was Forster?" Great Lakes Historical Society Ltd., 2000

(3) Xinhua, "Australian govt prefers offshore site for nuclear waste dump," China View, 28 September 2004

(4) Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore (Vintage Books, 1988)

(5) Wright, op. cit.

(6) Ibid

(7) Ibid, p 22

(8) Ibid

(9) Hughes, op. cit.

(10) John Pilger, "George Bush's Other Poodle," Dissident Voice, 17 January 2003

(11) Bernie Pattison, "Deaths In Custody," Information Clearing House, 15 May 2003

(12) Pilger, op.cit.

(13) Linda Tenenbaum, "Afghan refugees stage desperate hunger strike in Australia," World Socialist Web Site, 26 January 2002

(14) What's Happening, "Refugee's Human Rights," Amnesty International Australia, October 2004

(15) Russell Skelton, "Inside Baxter," The Age, 25 September 2004

(16) Elizabeth Colman, "Out of detention into their own hell," The Australian, 27 September 2004

(17) Habib Fares, "Racism," Australian Marxist Review, 27, 1991

(18) David Hegarty, "Australia, Indonesia and Stability in the South Pacific," in Strange Neighbours: The Australia-Indonesia Relationship, eds. Desmond Bull and Helen Wilson (Allen & Unwin, 1991), p 68-94

(19) David Fickling, "Timorese fury at Îimmoral oil grab'," The Guardian, 19 April 2004

(20) Scott Burchill, "Don't Pick Deadly Partners," The Australian, 6 November 2002

(21) Jocelyn Carlin, When Paradise Isn't Enough," Nauru Economic Profile, September 2001

(22) Imran Andrew Price, "Australia's Responsibility in Iraq," ZNet, 11 November 2003

(23) Mark Forbes, "Australia Îparty to bugging of UN,'" The Age, 19 June 2004

(24) Price, op. cit.

(25) Les Roberts, Riyadh Lafta, Richard Garfield, Jamal Khudhairi, Gilbert Burnham, "Mortality before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: cluster sample survey," Lancet, 29 October 2004

(26) Brigid Glanville, "Robert Hill says war is better than Saddam," The World Today, 29 October 2004

(27) Gideon Polya, "Australia endorses deceit, racism, child detention, Iraq invasion and war crimes," Media Monitors, 12 October 2004

(28) Torcuil Crichton and John Pilger, "ÎAmerica will wake up to the deaths of their children in Iraq,'" Information Clearing House, 27 June 2004

*Kim Petersen is a freelance writer and political analysts resident in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He may be reached at kimpete@start.no

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