Australia is not a multicultural country

22 Jul 2018

The First Fleet, and all those white people who came from Europe following the First Fleet, were not immigrants. They were settler-colonials.

Every now and then you see something that is intended to be unifying along the lines of “Everyone except Indigenous people came here as immigrants!”

While it is often intended as a lovely, ‘don’t be racist to immigrants’ type sentiment, it simply isn’t true.

As has become the Australian way in the current political climate, consistent threats loom to undermine Australian commitment to being a multicultural society, we see this line being brought to the fray in response to statements about expectations that immigrants will ‘adopt Australian values’. It usually comes in the form of ‘Oh, like you guys did in 1788?!’

If the First Fleet and all the following ‘free settlers’ were immigrants, then the expectations placed on current immigrants feels particularly hypocritical.

But they weren’t immigrants.

They were settlers, colonials – invaders.


Immigrants who come to a new country are expected to assimilate into the status-quo of that country. It is generally accepted that they may retain something of their original cultural identity through foods, religion, stories, clothes (to some degree), language (to an even lesser degree), etc. but by and large they are expected to ‘follow the law of the land’ and assimilate into the norms of that country.

Settler-colonials on the other hand, bring their culture and institutions with them and aim to disrupt and replace whatever Indigenous populations were there before them, usually through violent means justified through the establishment of legal institutions.

They are not immigrants by any meaningful definition of the word, they are invaders.

As invaders do, settler-colonials create and assert their own sovereignty. This is true even when the legitimacy of that sovereignty is shown to never have existed, as is the case with Australia after terra nullius was proven to have been a myth.

That sovereignty originally exists as an extension of the sovereignty of the ‘mother land’, in Australia’s case, England – but it continues even after formal ties to the mother land have been diminished or severed entirely. This means that even though Australia may someday soon be a republic, we will not be any less a settler-colonial state by the mere act of formally severing ties to England and the Commonwealth.

An important distinction when looking at Australian’s settler-colonial history is understanding that invasion represents an ongoing process, not an event.

This understanding speaks to common refrain in Australia’s dialogue about Indigenous peoples ‘living in the past’ and how we need to ‘get over the past – it was 200 years ago!’.

The First Fleet may have landed over two hundred years ago, but that was merely the start of the establishment of structures and institutions created with a clear agenda to dispossess, exploit, oppress, regulate and control the lives of Indigenous peoples while laying claim to their lands and waters and all of the resources they provide.

Within these structures, efforts to ‘help’ Indigenous peoples are about erasing Indigenous challenges to that sovereignty. They are not about justice, equality, democracy, ‘charity’, or any other of the common catch-cries we hear. They are about power and control and creating a narrative that delegitimises Indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination and sovereignty and justifying the role of settler-colonials as necessary to protect Indigenous peoples from ourselves and from the world around us.

In reality it is more about protecting the state from us than it is from protecting us from the state.

Within this narrative of Indigenous deficit and deviance, men are portrayed as innately dangerous – violent, criminal, unstable, lazy, bad fathers, bad partners, etc; women are portrayed as hyper-sexualised, at risk from men, incapable of raising their own children, and both are in need of constant ‘saving’ from the colonial-state who is perpetually portrayed as ‘doing its best’ despite insurmountable evidence that this is not the case.

This narrative justifies the removal of children from, the mass incarceration and institutionalisation of men, women and children, the control and regulation of housing, education and employment, and endless other control measures that serve to create and reinforce the narrative.

In this context, concepts of self-determination seem not only implausible, but reckless and dangerous – the social policy equivalent of giving a monkey a gun. And since it was not so long ago that Indigenous people in Australia were framed as savages, and as the possible ‘missing link’ in human evolution, that analogy is depressingly apt in acknowledging how we are still portrayed within the settler-colonial narrative.

So, when we talk about immigration into Australia it needs to be done through a lens that understands the crucial distinctions between Indigenous sovereignty, settler-colonialism, immigration, and why Australia likes to refer to itself as a ‘successful multicultural country’ while simultaneously attacking the concept of multiculturalism and pushing for stricter, and more racist, barriers to enter into the settler-colonialist state.

Australia did not develop its multicultural policies and political catchphrases out of a love for other cultures, but to drive economic growth and maintain social order once it was finally accepted that the White Australia Policy was not going to provide the labour force needed for a growing nation state.

In fact, none of Australia’s moves away from racist policy represent an anti-racist enlightenment on the part of settler colonial decision makers, they represent tireless battles from those who suffered under these practices. This is clear to see when we note that every step forward we strive for and achieve is met with derision, animosity, and relentless efforts to wind back our hard won rights.

As Dr Perkins noted decades ago, “We pray eternally that the White authority structure will not turn on us and impede what little progress we have made”.

The rise in civil rights activism and lobbying necessitated the quick death of the White Australia Policy, but the shift away from its core principle of preferring white immigrants, preferably from England or similar settler-colonial states like New Zealand, South Africa, America and Canada, has been far more glacial. Recent calls for preferential intake of white South Africans, and the ongoing demonisation of African communities and links to immigration show that while the White Australia Policy may be dead, its spirit lives on.

So sure, point out the hypocrisy of calls for assimilation and hte double standards of conditional acceptance for immigrants but don’t conflate immigrants with settler-colonials. Remember that settler-colonialism is a structure and not an event. And do not forget that despite Malcolm Turnbull’s love of the phrase:

“Australia is the most successful multicultural society in the world. We are as old as our First Australians, the oldest continuing human culture on earth, who have cared for this country for more than 50,000 years. And we are as young as the baby in the arms of her migrant mother who could have come from any nation, any faith, any race in the world.”

Australia is not a multicultural society – it is a settler-colonial country.

And it will use every system and structure it has created, and every tool in its tool kit, to fight any perceived challenge to its illegitimate sovereignty and ill-gotten goods.

The simultaneous positioning as saviour of all non-white peoples and as the saviour of white people and values from the threat of Indigenous peoples and non-white immigrants is not merely hypocritical, it is essential to the narrative of any settler-colonial society.

It goes well beyond a cheap ploy in an election cycle, or something to talk about in a slow news week.

It is the very essence of ‘Australian values’.

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