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The truth about Harmony Day

Harmony Day goes back to 1999, almost as long as Australia Day, but, if we are going to discuss the truth about the origins of Harmony Day, we need to go several decades further back in time to understand where, and who, it comes from.

We need to go back to 1960, to Sharpesville, South Africa and understand what was happening here and abroad at that time.

Australia and South Africa in 1960, and for a long time before and after, were close friends and allies. 

We shared economic ties, social ties, cultural ties, and of course, sporting ties. We were also both ‘Commonwealth’ nations and as such, were two of the more aggressively racist, openly white supremacist colonies. 

We even shared a Queen (she was Queen over South Africa from 1952 when she began her reign until 1961 when South Africa withdrew from the Commonwealth and became a republic). 

Australia had long been a supporter of a ‘white South Africa’ (and white things in general) and while anti-apartheid rhetoric was not uncommon in Australia, nor were anti-apartheid protests, Australian governments largely supported apartheid (or at the very least turned a blind eye to its atrocities under the banner of non-interference).

In 1960 Australia, the father of the modern day Liberal Party, Sir Robert Menzies, was in power for a second time (1949-1966), having first served as Australian PM from 1939-1941. Across Australia, Indigenous people had protested for their rights throughout both of his Prime Ministerships, with little progress of which to boast during his reign. The now famous 1967 referendum was introduced a year after Menzies retired, by the Holt coalition – not entirely dissimilar to how we had to wait for Howard to go before we got the Apology to the Stolen Generations.  

One of the few stories I know concerning Menzies relates to a Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (FCAA) delegation meeting with the Prime Minister in 1963. Among the delegation was Oodgeroo Noonuccal who, upon being offered a drink from the Prime Minister, pointed out to him that his seeming courteous gesture, offering his guests an alcoholic beverage, was in fact a crime in every state and territory in Australia.

That did not seem to fundamentally shift Menzies’ attitudes to racism and white supremacy though as even his staunchest defenders rarely try to defend his views on race. Not even a 2019 article on the australian’s website titled ‘The making of a colossus’ could bring themselves to say more than: “His views on race, whether in relation to Aborigines, the White Australia policy, or racial segregation in South Africa, remain jarring. Yet such views, however misguided, were common among many born 125 years ago”.

Jarring perhaps, but common for the time. 

At the same time in 1960 in South Africa, protests were arising in response to the pass laws system – a kind of internal passport designed to enforce segregation, control Black labour and restrict movement. The Pass Laws Act 1952 required Black South Africans over the age of 16 to carry a passbook known as a ‘dompas’ everywhere at all times. Forgetting to carry the dompas made the individual liable for arrest and imprisonment. 

The Pass Law worked in conjunction with other apartheid legislation, including the Population Registration Act which required racial categorisation at birth; the Immorality Act which prohibited mixed race relationships and lead to night raids, arrests and imprisonment; the Group Areas Act which set out the tonal segregation of what areas people could go based on their racial categorisation; the Bantu Education Act which segregated education and urban areas where the best was provided to whites; the Separate Amenities Act which required separate facilities for Blacks and whites; and finally the Criminal Law Amendment which allowed for increased scope of powers to be used against Black South Africans including fines, imprisonment and whippings. All of these culminated in systemic race based oppression that was being resisted by Black South Africans through peaceful protests, however, those peaceful protests were being suppressed by white authorities in South Africa.

One such suppression happened in Sharpesville, while nationwide protests were underway. The nature of this particular protest was that protestors turned up to the police stations without their dompas in large numbers knowing that the system could not arrest and imprison them all, thereby docketing the system to either overload itself or to ignore these breaches of the law.  In Sharpesville, the peaceful planned protest turned to tragedy when police opened fire on the 7000 strong crowd, killing 69 people and wounding 180 others.

It was reported internationally that a local police commander said “I don’t know how many we shot. It all started when hordes of natives surrounded the police station. My car was struck with a stone. If they do these things they must learn their lesson the hard way.”

Despite national and international pressure, Menzies refused to condemn this atrocity, instead referring to it as an internal matter for South Africa.

Hendrik Verwoerd, Prime Minister of South Africa at the time, described Menzies “as perhaps the best friend South Africa has.”

Protests were held in Australia, with ACTU members arrested for protesting the massacre. It is not difficult to imagine our current Prime Minister claiming it a great success of democracy that Australian protesters were not shot by police while protesting the police shooting South African protesters, while similarly failing to condemn the act that caused the protest. 

Keep in mind that Menzies first became PM in 1939, little more than a decade after Australia’s last sanctioned massacre of Aboriginal people (the Coniston Massacres in 1928), and that in the short few months before he became PM (April 1939) and WWII was declared (September 1939), Menzies went on record to say that “History will label Hitler as one of the really great men of the century” (July 15, 1939). 

John Howard was born 11 days later, on July 26, 1939.

At 18, John Howard joined the Liberal Party, 3 years before the Sharpesville massacre. He was undoubtedly aware of it taking place at the time, and of the significance of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination some 40 years later when he tried to sweep the day, and any suggestion of racism existing in Australia, under the rug.

We are told that it is difficult to judge these men by today’s standards as their views were consistent with the views of the day. 

In Australia, we have done a remarkably good job at pretending everything was always so long ago, and therefore must sit outside of the realm of judgement. Invasion, Colonisation, Australian respect for and sympathy towards Hitler, Australian support for Apartheid, the White Australia Policy… we are told it all might as well be a million years ago, and even though John Howard may seem like a dinosaur, he isn’t. Menzies was born in 1894, so all of this story, and much more can be told within the lifetimes of two men, one of whom is still alive today (at the time of writing).  

Howard was 21 when the Sharpesville massacre took place. He was already heavily involved in politics.

And while Menzies may not have responded to the massacre, the UN did respond, albeit 5 years later in 1965, with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

It’s hard to imagine this convention being written in 1965 when we are failing so miserably to live up to its standard in 2021. 

If there was one man you were to credit with actively orchestrating Australia’s failure to address racism, it would be hard to identify any individual more worthy of this dishonour than John Howard. 

John Howard fought to move away from multiculturalism, fought to dismantle native title, to destroy treaty aspirations, to ensure the racial discrimination act never grew teeth, and to sweep the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination under the rug, fully with the knowledge of the atrocity that the day symbolised and aspired to enough was never repeated. There are few issues that Howard can be seen to be so consistent on over the course of his long political career than his open and aggressive resistance to anything resembling anti-racism. 

But if John Howard is to blame, which I believe he is, we must also give consideration to the country itself which by and large was so supportive of Howard’s agenda that he remains the second longest serving Prime Minister in Australia’s history, second only to the man who had applauded Hitler’s greatness just shy of 2 weeks before Howard was born, Sir Robert Menzies, our longest serving Prime Minister. 

The statements made in 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination would undoubtedly fail if someone was to try and pass it as a motion in the Australian parliament today. 

The Liberal Party recently refused to support a motion condemning the rise in violent far right extremism replacing those words with a pat on the back to Australia for being ‘one of the most successful multicultural countries in the world’, so it is difficult to imagine them endorsing any of these lines: 

  • Each State Party undertakes not to sponsor, defend or support racial discrimination by any persons or organizations.
  • Each State Party shall take effective measures to review governmental, national and local policies, and to amend, rescind or nullify any laws and regulations which have the effect of creating or perpetuating racial discrimination wherever it exists.

Australia ratified the Convention in 1975, leading to the creation of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, which John Howard and every Liberal government since has sought to undermine, water down, or outright dismantle (along with the Australian Human Rights Commission). 

Despite ratifying though, Australia falls well short of the targets set, and even the Racial Discrimination Act itself, while being a significant legal document, has several times been suspended to allow the passing of explicitly racist legislation, each time against Indigenous peoples. 

Each time the RDA was suspended was while John Howard was Prime Minister, although he did enjoy bi-partisan support the final time, to pass the NT Emergency Response Legislation, more commonly known as the NT Intervention. 

Amazingly, Liberal Party Prime Ministers since Howard have only gotten worse on issues of race and racism. The only possible exception might have been Malcolm Turnbull if only he had the intestinal fortitude to confront his own party – but he didn’t so he is not an exception, even if he has rediscovered his voice and his backbone since leaving office.

So that is the sad story of Harmony Day – John Howard honouring the legacy of Robert Menzies by continuing his refusal to acknowledge or condemn the Sharpesville massacre, refusing to acknowledge or condemn racism in Australia, pretending that we have racial ‘harmony’ by ignoring the voices of the oppressed and Australia’s long history of oppression, where our own racist laws paved the way for apartheid.  

That is what schools and workplaces around Australia will be honouring while the rest of the world recognises the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. 

[Click on the tweet to read Maxine’s poem in full]

The theme for this year is: “Youth standing up against racism”

Instead of honouring this theme Australia will continue to gaslight our youth by telling them that racism in Australia doesn’t exist.

So why does it matter if John Howard chose to not confront or acknowledge the realities of racism and celebrate the idea of racial harmony instead? Because now we have a government who are refusing to acknowledge the very real rise in the increase of right wing extremism. A government who erased the line “significant increase in far-right extremism” and replaced it with “Australia is one of the most successful multicultural countries in the world” and who are believed to have forced ASIO to remove references to right wing extremism.

The mindset instilled by Howard has now led us to a point where Nazis can go on camping trips and terrorise small towns without police interference, and where the growing threat of violent rightwing extremism will be swept under the rug for fear that as rabid dogs start biting more people, the rest of us might not take so kindly to those carrying the dog whistles.

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