When the outside world thinks about Australia,
it generally turns to venerable clichés of innocence – cricket, leaping
marsupials, endless sunshine, no worries. Australian governments actively encourage
this. Witness the recent "G'Day USA" campaign, in which Kylie Minogue
and Nicole Kidman sought to persuade Americans that, unlike the empire's problematic
outposts, a gormless greeting awaited them Down Under. After all, George W Bush
had ordained the previous Australian prime minister, John Howard, "sheriff
That Australia runs its own empire is unmentionable; yet it stretches from
the Aboriginal slums of Sydney to the ancient hinterlands of the continent and
across the Arafura Sea and the South Pacific. When the new prime minister, Kevin
Rudd, apologized to the Aboriginal people on 13 February, he was acknowledging
this. As for the apology itself, the Sydney Morning Herald accurately
described it as a "piece of political wreckage" that "the Rudd
government has moved quickly to clear away... in a way that responds to some
of its own supporters' emotional needs, yet changes nothing. It is a shrewd
Like the conquest of the Native Americans, the decimation of Aboriginal Australia
laid the foundation of Australia's empire. The land was taken and many of its
people were removed and impoverished or wiped out. For their descendants, untouched
by the tsunami of sentimentality that accompanied Rudd's apology, little has
changed. In the Northern Territory's great expanse known as Utopia, people live
without sanitation, running water, rubbish collection, decent housing and decent
health. This is typical. In the community of Mulga Bore, the water fountains
in the Aboriginal school have run dry and the only water left is contaminated.
Throughout Aboriginal Australia, epidemics of gastroenteritis and rheumatic
fever are as common as they were in the slums of 19th-century England. Aboriginal
health, says the World Health Organization, lags almost a hundred years behind
that of white Australia. This is the only developed nation on a United Nations
"shame list" of countries that have not eradicated trachoma, an entirely
preventable disease that blinds Aboriginal children. Sri Lanka has beaten the
disease, but not rich Australia. On 25 February, a coroner's inquiry into the
deaths in outback towns of 22 Aboriginal people, some of whom had hanged themselves,
found they were trying to escape their "appalling lives."
Most white Australians rarely see this third world in their own country. What
they call here "public intellectuals" prefer to argue over whether
the past happened, and to blame its horrors on the present-day victims. Their
mantra that Aboriginal infrastructure and welfare spending provide "a black
hole for public money" is racist, false and craven. Hundreds of millions
of dollars that Australian governments claim they spend are never spent, or
end up in projects for white people. It is estimated that the legal action mounted
by white interests, including federal and state governments, contesting Aboriginal
native title claims alone covers several billion dollars. Smear is commonly
deployed as a distraction. In 2006, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's
leading current affairs program, Lateline, broadcast lurid allegations
of "sex slavery" among the Mutitjulu Aboriginal people. The source,
described as an "anonymous youth worker," was exposed as a federal
government official, whose "evidence" was discredited by the Northern
Territory chief minister and police. Lateline never retracted its allegations.
Within a year, Prime Minister John Howard had declared a "national emergency"
and sent the army, police and "business managers" into Aboriginal
communities in the Northern Territory. A commissioned study on Aboriginal children
was cited; and "protecting the children" became the media cry – just
as it had more than half a century ago when children were kidnapped by white
welfare authorities. One of the authors of the study, Pat Anderson, complained:
"There is no relationship between the emergency powers and what's in our
report." His research had concentrated on the effects of slum housing on
children. Few now listened to him. Kevin Rudd, as opposition leader, supported
the "intervention" and has maintained it as prime minister. Welfare
payments are "quarantined" and people controlled and patronized in
the colonial way. To justify this, the mostly Murdoch-owned capital-city press
has published a relentlessly one-dimensional picture of Aboriginal degradation.
No one denies that alcoholism and child abuse exist, as they do in white Australia,
but no quarantine operates there.
The Northern Territory is where Aboriginal people have had comprehensive land
rights longer than anywhere else, granted almost by accident 30 years ago. The
Howard government set about clawing them back. The territory contains extraordinary
mineral wealth, including huge deposits of uranium on Aboriginal land. The number
of companies licensed to explore for uranium has doubled to 80. Kellogg Brown
& Root, a subsidiary of the American giant Halliburton, built the railway
from Adelaide to Darwin, which runs adjacent to Olympic Dam, the world's largest
low-grade uranium mine. Last year, the Howard government appropriated Aboriginal
land near Tennant Creek, where it intends to store the radioactive waste. "The
land-grab of Aboriginal tribal land has nothing to do with child sexual abuse,"
says the internationally acclaimed Australian scientist and activist Helen Caldicott,
"but all to do with open slather uranium mining and converting the Northern
Territory to a global nuclear dump." This "top end" of Australia
borders the Arafura and Timor Seas, across from the Indonesian archipelago.
One of the world's great submarine oil and gas deposits lies off East Timor.
In 1975, Australia's then ambassador in Jakarta, Richard Woolcott, who had been
tipped off about the coming Indonesian invasion of then Portuguese East Timor,
secretly recommended to Canberra that Australia turn a blind eye to it, noting
that the seabed riches "could be much more readily negotiated with Indonesia
. . . than with [an independent] Timor." Gareth Evans, later foreign minister,
described a prize worth "zillions of dollars." He ensured that Australia
distinguish itself as one of the few countries to recognize General Suharto's
bloody occupation, in which 200,000 East Timorese lost their lives.
When eventually, in 1999, East Timor won its independence, the Howard government
set out to maneuver the East Timorese out of their proper share of the oil and
gas revenue by unilaterally changing the maritime boundary and withdrawing from
World Court jurisdiction in maritime disputes. This would have denied desperately
needed revenue to the new country, stricken from its years of brutal occupation.
However, East Timor's then prime minister, Mari Alkatiri, leader of the majority
Fretilin party, proved more than a match for Canberra and especially its bullying
foreign minister, Alexander Downer.
Alkatiri demonstrated that he was a nationalist who believed East Timor's resource
wealth should be the property of the state, so that the nation did not fall
into debt to the World Bank. He also believed that women should have equal opportunity,
and that health care and education should be universal. "I am against rich
men feasting behind closed doors," he said. For this, he was caricatured
as a communist by his opponents, notably the president, Xanana Gusmão,
and the then foreign minister, José Ramos-Horta, both close to the Australian
political Establishment. When a group of disgruntled soldiers rebelled against
Alkatiri's government in 2006, Australia readily accepted an "invitation"
to send troops to East Timor. "Australia," wrote Paul Kelly in Murdoch's
Australian, "is operating as a regional power or a potential hegemon
that shapes security and political outcomes. This language is unpalatable to
many. Yet it is the reality. It is new, experimental territory for Australia."
A mendacious campaign against the "corrupt" Alkatiri was mounted
in the Australian media, reminiscent of the coup by media that briefly toppled
Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. Like the US soldiers who ignored looters on
the streets of Baghdad, Australian soldiers stood by while armed rioters terrorized
people, burned their homes and attacked churches. The rebel leader Alfredo Reinado,
a murderous thug trained in Australia, was elevated to folk hero. Under this
pressure, the democratically elected Alkatiri was forced from office and East
Timor was declared a "failed state" by Australia's legion of security
academics and journalistic parrots concerned with the "arc of instability"
to the north, an instability they supported as long as the genocidal Suharto
was in charge.
Paradoxically, on 11 February, Ramos-Horta and Gusmão came to grief
as they tried to do a deal with Reinado in order to subdue him. His rebels turned
on them both, leaving Ramos-Horta critically wounded and Reinado himself dead.
From Canberra, Prime Minister Rudd announced the dispatch of more Australian
"peacemakers." In the same week, the World Food Program disclosed
that the children of resource-rich East Timor were slowly starving, with more
than 42 percent of under-fives seriously underweight – a statistic which corresponds
to that of Aboriginal children in "failed" communities that also occupy
an abundant natural resource.
Australia is engaged in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, where its
troops and federal police have dealt with "breakdowns in law and order"
that are "depriving Australia of business and investment opportunities."
A former senior Australian intelligence officer calls these "wild societies
for which intervention represents a blunt, but necessary instrument." Australia
is also entrenched in Afghanistan and Iraq. Rudd's electoral promise to withdraw
from the "coalition of the willing" does not include almost half of
Australia's troops in Iraq.
At last year's conference of the American-Australian Leadership Dialogue –
an annual event designed to unite the foreign policies of the two countries,
but in reality an opportunity for the Australian elite to express its historic
servility to great power – Rudd was in unusually oratorical style. "It
is time we sang from the world's rooftops," he said, "[that] despite
Iraq, America is an overwhelming force for good in the world... I look forward
to more than working with the great American democracy, the arsenal of freedom,
in bringing about long-term changes to the planet." The new sheriff for
Asia had spoken.