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tolerant nation? Arrow vol 3 no 2 contents
About borderlands Volume 3 Number 2, 2004


‘A remarkably tolerant nation’?: Constructions of benign whiteness
in Australian political discourse

Rachel Standfield
The University of Otago


Much analysis of race in Australia focuses on ‘racist’ ideas and individuals. This group is often understood to be disconnected from the rest of the Australian population who are identified as being anti-racist or neutral and ‘benign’ on issues of race. While commentators and academics are happy to analyse the ‘racist’ Australians, they seem far less willing to look at the group that they themselves generally identify with. Whiteness studies, working from the premise that all whites benefit from their racial identity, creates a space to scrutinise these ideas of benign whiteness. The construction of benign whiteness is apparent in arguments about land rights in the 1970s, multiculturalism in the 1980s, the political success of Pauline Hanson in the 1990s, and reconciliation and the history wars in the present decade. This paper attempts to provide historical contextualisation to these constructions of benign whiteness and analyses the power relations inherent in anti-racist practice. It proposes that the idea of a benign white nation with elements of aberrant racism helps to ensure the perpetuation of white race dominance.

1. White privilege is consistently denied and disavowed in Australian political discourse. Political discourse instead promotes white Australians as ‘benign’, as people of goodwill, and as tolerant of racial others. Constructions of benign whiteness result in the continued deflection of Aboriginal claims to land and sovereignty and allow whites to ignore the persistence of structural inequality based on race. At the same time this construction allows whites to identify as being ‘anti-racist’ in the face of this continuing inequality, by participating, or remembering their participation in, largely symbolic acts of anti-racist practice.

2. In this paper I will analyse a number of historical events covering a broad timeframe. I will look at the 1967 Referendum and how it is remembered, ideas about nation and history as presented in the Bicentenary celebrations, and reactions to Pauline Hanson, in order to trace the workings of benign whiteness within discourses of race. I follow three themes – the interactions between discourses of race about Aboriginal people and immigrants, the depiction of a divide between ‘racist’ and ‘anti-racist’ Australians, and contestation over Australian history, to show the tenacity of ideas about benign whiteness in the face of continuing Aboriginal disadvantage, and the way that concepts of white goodwill are reworked in specific historical contexts.

3. The operation of an idea of benign whiteness is generally uncontested within Australian political discourse. Between 1991 and 2001 the Reconciliation process, a government-sponsored project to heal relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, came to embody the status of a national ‘anti-racist’ project, and the ‘people’s movement’ reflected an outpouring of goodwill towards Aboriginal people.

4. Yet the focus of the Reconciliation movement was largely symbolic, a point discussed by Senator Aden Ridgeway in 2001 in a speech to the United Nations Human Rights Commission on the theme of ‘tolerance and respect’. Ridgeway acknowledged that Reconciliation was characterised by goodwill amongst the Australian population, with the 'majority' of the population willing to 'start afresh in their relationship with Indigenous Australians' . An important part of this was the quest to 're-examine the history of our shared country since colonisation' (Ridgeway 2001). Yet, while acknowledging this ‘goodwill’ he drew attention to a fundamental issue in Australian race-relations: that goodwill and good intentions do not require concessions from white Australians. A positive attitude does not guarantee social justice. Ridgeway concluded:

Non-Indigenous Australians are keen to embrace the rhetoric of reconciliation, so long as it does not require them to take effective action to share the country’s abundant resources and political power. Most are not prepared to make any significant adjustments to how they live their lives, or how they see their future (ibid).

5. Ridgeway’s comments are significant not only because of his position as Australia’s then only Indigenous member of Federal Parliament (and only the second Indigenous member ever), but also because criticism of the Reconciliation process, envisaged as a national ‘anti-racist’ project, of a particular type, focusing on attitude and representation, rather than outcomes, was rare. Criticism instead tended to focus on those people who were seen as outside of the reconciliation movement, for example, in the widespread criticism of John Howard’s refusal to apologise to the Stolen Generations. The people's movement for reconciliation – epitomised by the ‘sea of hands’ project, the signing of ‘sorry books’ or reconciliation marches in cities across the country – was generally held to be beyond criticism. Despite the symbolism and goodwill, however, the end of the reconciliation process led to no tangible outcomes for Aboriginal people.

6. Senator Ridgeway called the lack of action to share the country a "terra nullius of the mind" (ibid). Despite the landmark Mabo decision in the High Court which had overturned the legal fiction that Australia was colonised as an ‘empty land’, this idea continued to have power within the Australian psyche: "Few are really prepared to look within themselves to challenge their beliefs and values, for fear of what they might find and for fear of what they think they might lose" (ibid).

7. Aileen Moreton-Robinson has similarly described how proving Indigenous ownership of land through the native title process renders Aboriginal people homeless via a process established and controlled by the white state. A sense of white belonging is bolstered through the legal system as Aboriginal people have to prove their attachment to land. Moreton-Robinson concludes that the white legal system "continues the legal fiction of Terra Nullius through positioning us as trespassers. Who belongs, and the degree of that belonging, is inextricably tied to white possession" (Moreton-Robinson, 37).

8. I will argue that this continuing concept of a ‘terra nullius of the mind’ is reproduced within Australian political discourse as a belief that whiteness in Australia is fundamentally benign. This discourse of benign whiteness in contemporary Australia mirrors the myth of benevolent colonisation which Pat Grimshaw asserts as the basis of the ‘Windschuttle view’ of Australian frontier history (Grimshaw 2004).

9. When Senator Ridgeway spoke to the United Nations of Australia’s ‘terra nullius of the mind’ he received strong criticism. The Prime Minister, John Howard, had cautioned Ridgeway before his speech not to be critical of Australia in overseas forums. After Ridgeway’s speech he stated that "overwhelmingly Australian’s are quite open and tolerant and we have absorbed races in this country, more successfully than any country in the world" (Saunders, The Australian 27 March 2001, 7). The Opposition spokesperson for Aboriginal Affairs, Bob McMullen, said that Senator Ridgeway had misread the community, and the level of support for reconciliation (Madigan, Herald Sun 27 March 2001, 10). Significantly, Commissioner Ray Robinson from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, the peak Indigenous organisation in Australia, defended the white Australian population for their involvement in Aboriginal affairs, concluding that whites were the "backbone" of protests for Aboriginal advancement and rights (ibid).

10. Some criticism of Senator Ridgeway could be expected as his speech came at a time when the Government was bristling over perceived UN ‘interference’ in Australian domestic policies towards Indigenous people and asylum seekers. The criticism of Ridgeway’s speech goes further, however, and shores up the position of whites as a group, placing white Australians at the centre of the imagined nation, having ‘absorbed’ other races, and provided the ‘backbone’ of protest. It positioned white Australians as moderate, tolerant, open and supportive, both towards Aboriginal people and immigrants.

11. Despite their divergent politics and support bases, Howard, McMullin and Robertson put forward a version of Australian whiteness as essentially ‘benign’. They grounded their arguments against Ridgeway in a moderate discourse on race which takes for granted the natural fact of white hegemony while embracing a vision of a modern and tolerant nation. This discourse replicates a wider cultural mood, where politicians, commentators and academics are happy to analyse ‘racist’ Australians, yet seem far less willing to look at the group that they themselves generally identify with (see also paper by Nicoll in this issue). Whiteness studies, which works from the premise that all whites benefit from their racial identity, and as such foregrounds the structural dynamics of race, creates a space within which to scrutinise these assumptions of ‘benign’ whiteness. Analyses of whiteness thus start from the position that

white people are systematically privileged in Western society, enjoy ‘unearned advantage and conferred dominance’. It is this privilege and dominance which is at stake in analysing white racial identity (Dyer 1997, 9).

12. Here, I wish to explore some of the ideas of benign whiteness that shaped responses to Ridgeway’s speech and which are at the heart of Australian cultural life. In focusing on ‘benign whiteness’ rather than episodes of explicit racism, I take my lead from Ruth Frankenberg, who writes that

essentialist racism – particularly intentional, explicit racial discrimination – remains, for most white people ... paradigmatic of racism. This, as I have argued, renders structural and institutional dimensions of racism less easily conceptualised and apparently less noteworthy... Finally although essentialist racism is not the dominant discursive repertoire on racial difference in the United States, its corollary, racially structured political and economic inequality, continues to shape material reality (Frankenberg 1993, 139).

13. In Australia, discussions of ‘race’ often see the difference between ‘racism’ and ‘anti-racism’ as one of attitude, rather than outcome. Thus, Reconciliation may be depicted within public discourse as a successful peoples’ movement, because non-Indigenous Australians displayed their ‘goodwill’ towards Aboriginal people. What goes unacknowledged is that at the end of the decade-long process there were no concrete outcomes for Indigenous peoples in terms of recognition of land rights and sovereignty, or improvements in measures of economic and social disadvantage.

The 1967 Referendum

14. The idea of benign whiteness rests on the construction of a ‘discursive break’ centred on the removal of institutional and state-based racist policies. This discursive break signals a shift in the representation of the relationship between white and Aboriginal Australians from that of ‘racism’ to one characterised by ‘goodwill’. Such discursive breaks have appeared within both white Australian political and academic discourses. In the case of legalised discrimination towards Aboriginal people, the 1967 Referendum on Aboriginal affairs purported to symbolise the ‘end of racism’ in Australia. Like depictions of Reconciliation as a successful peoples’ movement, the 1967 Referendum is remembered as a time of white Australian goodwill towards Aboriginal people, and thus bolsters notions of benign whiteness in the face of continuing structural inequalities based on race.

15. On 27 May 1967, the Australian public went to the polls to vote in the "Aborigines Referendum". This referendum changed two parts of the Australian Constitution, Section 51 and 127, with the changes allowing Aboriginal people to be counted in the census, and giving the Commonwealth Government power to make laws in relation to Aboriginal affairs. This had previously been the sole domain of the States, except for Commonwealth jurisdiction in the Northern Territory. The lead-up to the referendum had seen a vigorous "Yes" campaign which was supported by all political parties. On the day the vote was carried by an overwhelming majority - more than 90 per cent of the population. At the time the result was seen as a strong statement of support for Aboriginal people, much like the support shown through the Reconciliation marches around the country.

16. The outcomes that would result from the Referendum were not clear, however, as Scott Bennett points out: "The passage of the 1967 Referendum was relatively easy, for it was not only seen as fair, but it was almost policy-free" (Bennett 1999, 44). The Referendum brought the possibility of legislative change and did count Aboriginal people as part of the national population, but the vote itself was more a symbolic statement of support rather than one which led to immediate outcomes. Moreover, after the vote, white Australians could step back, leaving it up to Aboriginal people to ‘take’ their rights. Secure in the knowledge that Australia had moved on from a period of ‘essentialist racism’, the continuation of ‘racially structured political and economic inequality’ could be ignored. From this rather simplistic perspective, the Prime Minister of the time, Harold Holt, made comment a few months after the Referendum that:

In the legal and formal sense, none of the opportunities open to Australians generally, are closed to Aborigines. What is needed in many cases is help which will equip the Aborigines, by education and in every possible way, and in their outlook, to avail themselves of these opportunities. ("Assimilation Aim for Aborigines ‘Needs Patience’, Sydney Morning Herald 8 September 1967, 8)

17. Despite the lack of policy and the vague outcomes directly attributable to the vote, the 1967 Referendum is understood as an important event in the history of race relations in Australia. The referendum has taken on a special status in Australian historical knowledge and national identity. One example that demonstrates the importance that the referendum continues to hold for contemporary academic discourse is Stuart Macintyre’s Concise History of Australia, published in 1999. Macintyre outlines a series of significant moments in Government policies for Aboriginal people, culminating in the referendum. Macintyre describes the referendum as a 'watershed' (Macintyre 1999, 229-230), thus perpetuating the notion that the Referendum was a major event in the history of relations between white and Indigenous peoples in Australia, even though - as he notes - the power of the Commonwealth was not actually used until the period when Gough Whitlam was Prime Minister from 1972. Although Macintyre also depicts the referendum as a break from the past, he notes earlier legislation which had produced concrete outcomes for Aboriginal people, such as the 1965 decision in the Arbitration Court to award equal pay for Aboriginal pastoral workers.

18. Bain Attwood and Andrew Markus conclude that this may be

due to the tendency of many writers, including academic historians, to represent the past in terms of ‘events’; and to seek ‘watersheds’, instead of seeing change as a complex process without obvious beginnings or ends. (Attwood and Markus 1997, 66-67)

I would go further and suggest that the construction of a discursive break is a fundamental aspect not merely of (white) academic writing but also of whiteness. The referendum marks an important point in the construction of white Australia, as Attwood and Markus themselves point out in discussing the political aspects of the referendum: 'It allows conservatives to acknowledge the unfortunate events of the past at the same time as they proclaim that these are no longer present in contemporary Australia and are instead "just history"' (ibid, 66). The discursive break centred on the referendum allows a distinction between contemporary Australia and a ‘racist’ past, a past characterised by overt State-based racism which denied Aboriginal people citizenship rights. The referendum is thus constructed as the time when whites overturned this racist past, displaying their goodwill and humanitarian tendencies, and those supposedly ‘essential features’ of white Australian self-identification – egalitarianism, tolerance and a ‘fair go’. A policy change was brought about by popular vote, allowing white Australian ownership of this anti-racist moment. This policy change in the popular imagination is also critically important, for the referendum is often taken to signify the end of the policy of assimilation as it applied to Aboriginal people.

19. If we accept the conclusions of Rowley, however, who, when writing closer to the event, saw the referendum as a signifier only of a ‘changing public opinion’, with white Australians displaying a ‘growing concern over the situation of the Aboriginals, and a … widespread unease – a general feeling that something was wrong’ (quoted in ibid, 59), then other political implications of the vote become apparent. This construction of a discursive break centred on the Referendum manifests itself as an example of what Alistair Bonnet has termed ‘white confessional anti-racism’, and proves important, not only to ‘conservatives’, but also to the dominant white academic version of Australian history. Commenting on the power relations inherent in anti-racist practice, he describes how confessing to a past history of racism allows white society to assume the high moral ground in contemporary race relations (see also papers in this issue by Ahmed and Riggs & Hill). This discourse of anti-racism generates its own understandings of whiteness which also need to be investigated:

It is my contention that reifying myths of whiteness subvert the anti-racist struggle ... They also lead towards the positioning (or self-positioning) of white people as fundamentally outside and untouched by, the contemporary controversies of "racial" identity politics ... This process enables white people to occupy a privileged location in anti-racist debate; they are allowed the luxury of being passive observers, of being altruistically motivated, of knowing that "their" "racial" identity might be reviled and lambasted but never actually made slippery, torn open, or, indeed, abolished. (Bonnett 1999, 204)

20. In this way, we as white people can claim to comment on issues of racial identity from the ‘outside’, hence the proliferation of commentary about ‘others’ and how they fit into ‘our’ community, rather than any reflection on the nature of the community itself. Aden Ridgeway’s ‘terra nullius of the mind’ encapsulates the luxury that whites enjoy in observing others struggle to gain the human rights that we take for granted.

21. Ien Ang has documented a similar process, describing how the documentation of the ‘removal’ of the White Australia Policy functions as a break in Australian history:

The symbolic importance of this break for the redefinition of the nation’s imagined past cannot be underestimated. It was accompanied by the production of a new national racist past and embraced a non-racist and non-racial identity ... it signifies a tendency to disavow rather than confront and come to terms with the nation’s past. Instead this past is reduced symbolically to a childhood sin, as it were, which doesn’t have anything to do with the mature Australia. (Ang 2000, 121)

22. Together with the 1967 Referendum, the removal of the White Australian Policy in 1973 and subsequent arrival of Vietnamese refugees later in the 1970s may be depicted by both historians and politicians as marking the end of ‘racism’ in Australian history, and heralds the beginning of a benign whiteness, accommodating of Aboriginal interests and welcoming immigrants and refugees.

23. Such a ‘discursive break’ relies on the assumption that the removal of the policy (for example) represents a moment where white Australians showed their goodwill towards racial others and ‘removed the last of state-based discrimination’. The dominant modes of remembrance of these events bolster notions of benign whiteness in the face of continuing structural inequality based on race.

24. This discursive break continues to place white Australians at the centre of the Australian nation when we exercised our right to decide who could have citizenship and who could enter the country. Ridgeway’s concept of the ‘terra nullius of the mind’ describes how whiteness erases the dispossession of Aboriginal people and ongoing structural inequality, and simultaneously allows whites to derive an identity from displays of ‘goodwill’. Aileen Moreton-Robinson writes that white Australians, when they ‘established’ the nation out of Aboriginal dispossession, constructed the idea that they ‘brought us ‘civilization’; they ‘gave’ us democracy and the market economy.’ (Moreton-Robinson, 25). In the same way, the Referendum of 1967 is remembered as the time when white Australians ‘gave’ Aboriginal people citizenship.

Celebrating the Bicentennial in 1988

25. In 1988 white Australia celebrated what the then Prime Minister Bob Hawke described as ‘our most momentous anniversary – 200 years of European settlement’ ("Momentous Day to Celebrate – Hawke", The Australian 26 January 1988, 3). The Bicentenary, as a national celebration, provided an opportunity for white Australians to create and remake understandings of popular history in the wake of the removal of the White Australia Policy and the 1967 Referendum. The Bicentennial events thus provide a further example of the interaction between different discourses of race in Australia in the construction of an idea of benign whiteness, while providing a site of contestation over the interpretation of Australian history since colonisation. The Bicentennial also saw the construction of a powerful idea of ‘divided’ whiteness, where some Australians are characterised as ‘racist’ and seen as differing from the majority benign white population.

26. The rhetoric of the Bicentenary was heavily based in the language of multiculturalism, the official population policy, which stressed Australian ethnic diversity. Multiculturalism operated, however, not only as a way of explaining, but also of controlling, internal diversity, once methods of exclusion at the borders had been removed. As is apparent in the treatment of Aboriginal people though, white power and domination can be maintained without exclusion from society.

27. One theme prominent in the Bicentenary which can be seen to explain, as well as control, diversity, was the idea that Australians are ‘all immigrants’. Bob Hawke articulated this theme during his Australia Day speech:

Australia Day is a focus of our Bicentennial year when, as well as celebrating our present achievements, we can remember the past and what we owe to the people who have been before us - the Aboriginals who have lived on this continent for some 40,000 years, those who settled Australia in 1788, and those who have made Australia the home of their choice since then (ibid).

28. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture was promoted within this rhetoric as a ‘unique feature’ of the Australian nation, but such rhetoric also worked to negate Aboriginal claims to sovereignty as the original owners of land. The deliberate strategy to link Indigenous, immigrant and white Australians was reductive, shrinking time and power relations to place all on an equal footing which did not accurately reflect Australian society. It reduced the complex story of Australian history to a simple narrative of ‘waves of immigration’. Barry Morris has noted that 'such cultural equivalence threatens to subsume the historical particularities of Aboriginal existence' (Morris 1988, 73)

29. The effect of this claim to ‘equalising cultures’ on the dominant white population, however, generally goes unnoticed. Morris’s conclusions about Aboriginal experience can also be extended to the historical particularities of white Australians' cultural experiences. Peter Cochcrane and David Goodman discuss this idea of society as a ‘collection of ethnic minorities’, concluding that it is a

trivialising strategy - multiculturalism is not a programme for social reform but something that already exists, something pleasant, something colourful and interesting. Thus multiculturalism becomes a celebration of what is; its focus is personal, highlighting ‘lifestyles’, family and religious beliefs (Cochran and Goodman 1988, 27).

30. The Bicentennial celebrations formed the perfect showcase for the idea of benign whiteness embodied in multiculturalism, providing a chance to display Australian society as a mix of cultures brought together by the goodwill of whites. Although this was the dominant representation in Bicentennial events, it became apparent that not all of Australian society was comfortable with this dominant construction. Aboriginal protest on Australia Day, and the reaction by some white Australian to these protests, complicated the construction of benign whiteness.

31. Aboriginal protests were organised to focus upon the structural aspects of race which continued to shape Australian society. The protests highlighted the disadvantage and discrimination that Aboriginal peoples had endured in the face of all the celebration. While media reports in the days leading up to the protests built an expectation of violence, the protests that did eventuate on Australia Day were peaceful. They were, however, seen not as an example of Aboriginal agency, undermining the legitimacy of the nation, but as a metaphor for what was best about white Australia:

There is probably no better illustration of the high degree of freedom Australians enjoy than the fact that today’s official celebrations are there to be enjoyed, ignored or the subject of protest. It is an individual choice... Like all Australians, the Aborigines have the right of free speech and peaceful demonstration, and fair-minded whites hope that the protests will focus the nation’s attention on its past sins against the Aborigines and engender a spirit of white and black cooperation... Australia can celebrate that fact that it has opened its doors to the victims of war and persecution and has accepted many people looking for a better lifestyle and a future for their children. Mass migration has turned Australia into a multi-racial society that displays a high degree of tolerance to newcomers and those who want to preserve the customs of their homelands. It is shameful, however, that the original inhabitants of this land are the most neglected ("Editorial: Celebrating Freedom", The Canberra Times 26 January 1988, 9).

32. Once again, we see that the presence of immigrants in Australia is used to deflect the arguments of Aboriginal people. The removal of the White Australia Policy and the arrival of Vietnamese refugees becomes an example of benign whiteness. It is white Australians who ‘opened the doors’ and it is seen to be by white goodwill that refugees have been accepted. Thus multiculturalism, by equalising cultural experience while whites took credit for immigration and deflected the claims of Indigenous peoples, perpetuated a notion of benign whiteness.

33. White Australians were said to be ‘tolerant’ because they allowed migrants and refugees into ‘their’ country. This tolerance extended to allowing Aboriginal people to protest about sovereignty and rights, but the validity of Aboriginal claims was not considered in this dominant discourse. White Australians were constructed as benign by their benevolent actions towards both Aboriginal people and immigrants. The presence of immigrants was used to deflect the claims of Aboriginal people, while attitudes towards both groups bolstered ideas of the agency of white Australians at the centre of the imagined nation.

34. The editorial quoted above outlined the degree of control that white Australians felt about two issues: whether Indigenous people were allowed to protest, that is, the idea that ‘our’ system of freedom allows ‘you’ the choice to protest, and also that immigrants were tolerated to enter the country and then to continue practicing their culture. These were things that Australians could feel cause to celebrate on Australia Day. In fact, these were things that only white Australians could celebrate, as it was (and still is) only white Australians who ‘naturally’ and automatically embody these values of freedom and tolerance. As Ghassan Hage states in his book White Nation, ‘while many people issue calls for tolerance in Australia, those who actually make direct statements concerning how tolerant they are always and inevitably white Australians ...’ (Hage 1998, 88).

35. A crucial theme of the editorial, and the articulation of benign whiteness in general, was the idea of white Australian shame at the treatment of Aboriginal people. While benign whites felt shame at the treatment of Aboriginal people, the editor, by describing 'past sins', removes the need for whites to take any action to ameliorate this shame. I would argue that the discursive break, centred on the 1967 Referendum and the removal of the White Australia Policy, which severs the present from the past, is a crucial aspect of this white confessional anti-racism.

36. The Canberra Times editor’s characterisation of ‘past sins’ stands in direct contrast to the links drawn between the past and present by Aboriginal protestors, who spoke of 200 years of ‘genocide and denial of rights’: ‘Those racists who talk about what happened 200 years ago not being relevant today don’t know what we are talking about when we protest’ (Hewitt, "Aborigines Hoist Their Own Flag", Sydney Morning Herald, 19 January 1988, 2). The editorial’s focus on ‘past sins’ served to distance white Australians from Aboriginal protest and the disadvantage which continues for Aboriginal people. Admission of past sins served as an example of ‘white confessional anti-racism’, positioning whites as outside racial issues, as able to engage with an anti-racist project in a time and a manner of their own choosing. The editorial also called for white and black cooperation to fix the problems of Indigenous communities. It was thus obvious that Indigenous Australians would need to continue to compromise, as they were the ones facing problems in their communities. White Australians could choose whether or not to cooperate as the disadvantage and discrimination was not faced by them.

37. There were, however, some who denied the need to feel shame at all. On the same page of the Canberra Times as the editor expressed shame, albeit without any need for action on the part of whites, another article disputed the need to feel shame over the treatment of Aboriginal people:

if shame is ever appropriate, it can be appropriate only in respect of something that we have done ourselves. It does not make sense to feel shame in respect of what somebody else has done, even if it was one’s father or mother - and certainly not if it was a relative further back. One cannot help what they did. Why should one feel ashamed about it? (Fairbanks Kerr, "Today’s Whites Not Guilty; Today’s Blacks Not Harmed - ‘Frightful Drivel’ Spoken and Written About Aborigines", Canberra Times, 26 January 1988, 9).

38. The article concluded that contemporary white Australians bore no responsibility for the problems faced by Indigenous people. Any harm to Aboriginal people ‘in our time’ by the government was because of ‘misguided efforts to help them’:

In general terms, it may be said that Aborigines, as a race, have not been subject to any worse treatment in modern times by governments (or private employers) than have white people. So how can they claim entitlement to the huge sums of money that are paid out to them every year? (ibid)

39. Thus it is said that governments did not intend any harm that was inflicted on Indigenous peoples, as they believed they were acting in Aboriginal peoples’ best interests. This takes for granted ideas about the good intentions behind assimilation. However, while policy-makers and bureaucrats may have claimed to be helping Indigenous people, they also clearly stated their aim was to take Indigenous people away from their communities and culture and assimilate them into white society. While for some white Australians this may have seemed acceptable, from an Indigenous perspective this was a deliberate attempt at genocide.

40. The author also co-opted multicultural discourse to deny the need for Australian shame:

And let us not overlook the fact that, in view of the great influx of immigrants since World War II, millions of present day Australians would not have any ancestors who mistreated the Aborigines. Why should they be ashamed? And why should they pay taxes to provide compensation for people to whom they have done nothing? (ibid)

The arrival of immigrants was thus said to lessen the nation’s responsibility to Indigenous people. Once the author refused to acknowledge any national responsibility for injustices against Indigenous people, it was just a small step to seeing spending on programs to address Indigenous disadvantage as ‘compensation’. The logic goes that if ‘we’ - that is non-Indigenous people - were not responsible for Indigenous poverty, then ‘we’ should not have to pay to compensate ‘them’ through our taxes. In this racially-based scenario there was no mention that ‘we’ also provide financial and other assistance to many other people who are disadvantaged. What this article expressed was a ‘white victim’ mentality, claiming that white people had been treated just as poorly as Aboriginal people, and yet did not receive any special assistance from the government.

41. The editorial and article from the Canberra Times on Australia Day 1988 illustrate the importance of historical interpretation to contemporary race-relations and white identity. One view confesses to the ‘past sins’ of whites, while the other downplays any mistreatment, and if harm is admitted, it is justified through recourse to the notion of ‘misguided efforts to help’. These different versions of history impact upon the sense of responsibility felt by white Australians during Bicentennial celebrations, and demonstrate the ways in which contestations over history emerged within public discourse at this time. Contestations over history and the role of historians would become a feature of debates about the nation during the 1990s, and up to the present day.

42. Similar debates over ‘white guilt’ (or the denial of it) were evident in the opinions of former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, who singled out noted historian Manning Clark for attention: ‘I don’t enjoy those Australians who want to go around feeling guilty as, I perceive from his writings, Manning Clarke does’ (Neale Prior, "No need for guilt over past sins, says Fraser", Sydney Morning Herald 23 January 1988, 3).

Fraser repeated the idea that past treatment of Indigenous people had no contemporary significance:

We should not be guilty for our sins of 200 years ago. If that were so there would no be a nation on this Earth that would not be guilty... If Australia has a problem it is not with immigrants or going to war, it is with our old inhabitants, Aborigines, and again it is a question of attitude (ibid).

43. The debate about ethnic diversity and national identity resurfaced later in the year with the publication of the report, Immigration: A Commitment to the Nation, when the Committee to Advise on Australian Immigration Policies, chaired by Stephen Fitzgerald, reported to the Government. This report stated that ‘immigration policy must be unashamedly Australian and for all those who, in the Prime Minister’s Australia Day definition, have a "commitment to Australia and its future’’:

There are voices in the immigration debate which would seek to prescribe an Australia based on other cultures, as though there were no Australian dimension at all. But if there is no priority of commitment to Australia and to its future, if the attachment to Australia is not greater than the attachment to the countries of origin, those voices deserve little weight or validity in the determination of immigration policy (quoted in Turner 1994, 109).

44. The Fitzgerald report was a response to the idea of Australian culture as ‘no culture’, but shows the power inherent in whiteness, to demand commitment to the nation from groups of others, and proof of that commitment.

45. The leader of the Federal Opposition at the time, John Howard, responded to the Fitzgerald report by pledging to cut levels of Asian immigration if elected, in an effort to support ‘community cohesion’. The Liberal Party’s new policy was launched under the slogan "One Australia". Howard’s policies owed much to the perspective of historian Geoffrey Blainey who in 1984 had expressed his views that Asians were becoming a ‘favoured majority’, that there was a ‘slow Asian takeover’ of Australia and that the pace of Asian immigration was ‘now well ahead of public opinion’ (Markus 2001, 63-64).

46. Howard said that he supported immigration and denied claims that he was a racist

They could call it racist if I were saying we should never ever take people from a particular part of the world. I have some feeling about this because I was rather proudly part of the government that took Vietnamese refugees. I think they have made wonderful settlers and I like them immensely as people (David Barnett interviewing John Howard, "Why I Am Right", The Bulletin 6 September 1988, 156-160).

47. He did, however, claim that multiculturalism was ‘something about people who were born overseas’ and it denied ‘common Australian values’ (ibid). He rejected both multiculturalism and Indigenous rights on the grounds that they were ‘divisive’. He linked Aboriginal issues and immigration policies as undermining the centrality and importance of the national interest. Radhika Mongia has argued that connections between race and nation are central to the ‘modern economy of migration’, and that a ‘blurring of vocabularies of nationality and race is a founding strategy of the modern (nation) state…’ (Mongia 2003, 196). I would argue that Howard’s use of racial discourse to reassert whiteness as central to the nation is not fundamentally dissimilar, though more explicitly articulated, than the appropriation of Aboriginal and immigrant culture to bolster a benign white identity through the dominant language of the Bicentenary.

48. The response to Howard was swift – commentators were confident that Howard would be judged ‘unfit to be Prime Minister’ (Kelly, "Howard and the political game of Asian roulette", The Australian 6-7 August 1988, 2). Paul Kelly concluded that Howard had ‘injected the race issue directly into politics ... this is a political milestone’ (ibid). In fact, it could only be judged a political milestone if one refused to acknowledge links between the politics and discourse of Australia’s ‘immature and racist’ past, and the benign whiteness formally articulated in the Bicentennial celebrations. Similarly, Gerard Henderson was concerned about the ‘disturbing increase in bigotry and violence’, and felt that this threatened Australia’s ‘long-standing reputation as a remarkably tolerant nation’ (Henderson, "Immigration and the Far Right Trap for Howard", The Australian 26-27 August 1988, 27).

49. The Bicentennial celebrations were thus an opportunity to articulate new visions of the nation for the white Australian population. The 1967 Referendum and the removal of the White Australia Policy thus provided the discursive break required to consign issues of ‘race’ to the nation’s past by foregrounding ideas of the ‘multicultural nation’ in the Bicentennial celebrations, and through highlighting the migrant experience as central to the quest to ‘belong’ in Australia. The presence of immigrants and refugees was depicted as due to the benevolence of whites. These representations of benign whiteness were used to undermine the claims of Aboriginal people for sovereignty and recognition of rights. When debates emerged about immigration, and particular individuals were accused of being ‘racist’, this racism was constructed as an aberration. The presence of racism, when constructed in this way as aberrant behavior, did not undermine dominant representations of the benevolence of white Australians.

Reactions to Pauline Hanson

50. In the latter half of the 1990s, ideas of race, encapsulated in discussions of Aboriginal people and immigrants converged in a discourse which explicitly reasserted whiteness. As Andrew Markus has suggested, these themes moved from the ‘margins’ of Australian political circles to the centre, becoming a frequent point of debate in politics. Racism, however, continued to be constructed as an aberration. Many politicians and commentators, assuming a benign whiteness at the centre of Australian society, were thus shocked at the emergence and popularity of Pauline Hanson.

51. Pauline Hanson epitomised this reassertion of whiteness – elected as an Independent member of Federal Parliament for the seat of Oxley in Queensland in March 1996, she came to popularity espousing explicit views on race, and she pledged to remove funding for Aboriginal programs and cut levels of Asian immigration. Hanson identified a ‘racism problem’, by which she meant so-called racism against the white population, driven by the funding of Indigenous and multiculturalism bodies, and by those who ‘promote political correctness’ (Markus 2001, 151-52, 156), positioning whites as perpetual victims in the face of Aboriginal and immigrant advantage.

52. Pauline Hanson’s views were the subject of prolific analysis by social commentators attempting to understand her rise to political prominence. The ‘Hanson phenomenon’ was also the subject of intense scrutiny in the daily press. In 1998 the book Two Nations: The Causes and Effects of the Rise of the One Nation Party in Australia was published. This book positioned itself as an extension of the analysis offered by the press: ‘Whilst daily media coverage is set to continue, this collection of considered essays by some of Australia's most influential commentators provides a more profound understanding of the Pauline Hanson phenomenon.’ (Manne et al 1998: back cover) Many of the 18 authors who contributed to this anthology were indeed prominent in the daily media and included journalists, academics, and retired and current political figures. While no one claimed to support Hanson, authors such as Ron Brunton (Brunton 1998) and Padraic McGuinness (McGuinness 1998) had been sympathetic to some of her ideas and shared many of her concerns about the rise of 'political correctness'.

53. As the name implies, a variety of authors in Two Nations saw Australia as being seriously divided by Pauline Hanson. The contribution by the Federal Minister for Health, Dr Michael Wooldridge, claimed that Australia was divided into two separate cultures, the ‘policy culture’ and the ‘community culture’ (Wooldridge 1998, 178-92). This construction of a divided nation continued the theme espoused by John Howard in 1988, claiming that Indigenous rights and Asian immigration were divisive. It also extends, however, the reactions to Howard which attempted to set him apart from the majority of Australians who were part of a ‘remarkably tolerant nation’. The paper by Nicholas Rothwell, senior writer for The Australian newspaper, also offered this assessment:

Don't shy away from the most pressing conclusion to be drawn from Hanson's success: the most important divide in Australia now is not that between bush and city, but the one between the intelligenstia and the mainstream. (Rothwell in Manne et al 1998, 166)

54. Rothwell asserted this difference between the intelligentsia and the mainstream, and then went on to draw his authority as a person able to mediate between the two groups. He suggested that he could span this divide by offering

some pointers gleaned from long months spent not in newspaper offices or parliamentary corridors, not amidst the theorists or manipulators of cultural symbols, but 'out-there' in the bright eyed kaleidscopic crowds of 'everyday Australia' (ibid, 161-162).

Rothwell stated that the ‘proper role of the media is neither to create nor to destroy but to describe as best it can’ (ibid: 164). As such he viewed the media as having helped to bolster Hanson’s influence by trying to force their version of Australian national identity, with its ideas of multiculturalism and Aboriginal self-determination on the Australian community. This perspective, however, also allowed Rothwell to create a neutral stance for himself, putting himself forward as merely an observer and reporter rather than an interested party, compared to other journalists and academics who were attempting to shape public opinion. In this sense, Rothwell saw himself in a similar manner to both Howard and Hanson, who claimed to be 'following' public opinion rather than creating it by merely giving voice to the views of the mainstream.

55. At the same time, Rothwell also made some important points about the nature of responses to Hanson which had not worked. Rothwell described the tendency to depict Hanson as extremist, allowing commentators to judge her supporters from ‘the satisfying heights of moral superiority’ (ibid, 163). Those commentators who saw themselves as anti-racist and tolerant were shocked by the virulence of Hanson’s racism and the level of support for her ideas.

56. Ghassan Hage has noted the tendency of anti-racist sociologists to concentrate on how the explanations of racists are ‘wrong’, by attempting to overlay their political ethic on their sociological work:

As Bourdieu suggests, this leads to a friend/enemy logic which fosters strategies of insult, dismissal and reductionism, rather than a true/false one which fosters argumentation, painstaking reasoning and the primacy of the desire to understand (Hage 1995, 71).

Thus, in reaction to Pauline Hanson, commentators could maintain a divide between themselves and the 'racists' by claiming that she was ‘wrong’, but without analysing both the reasons why her views were so popular, and also their own complicity with this state of affairs. This also constructed Hanson’s position as extreme, rather than acknowledging that she employed a language with a long history, as well as ignoring the role that racially structured inequality plays in Australian society, whether or not people like Hanson explicitly assert their whiteness.

57. In the contributions to Two Nations there was no explicit recognition of the power deployed through whiteness to control the lives of racial 'others'. In fact, the contributors talked very little about the 'others' that were identified by Hanson. Instead, the book is dominated by arguments for and by white Australians about which white Australian groups and theories were correct and how white Australian versions of national identity were being shaped.

58. Contributions to Two Nations, apart from the article by historian Henry Reynolds (Reynolds 1998), showed little regard for the historical forces that shape Australian attitudes to race. Dr Michael Wooldridge, the Federal Minister for Health at the time, gave his version of Australian history, and claimed that Hanson undermined the ‘great achievements of our nation’ in the postwar period:

we fought off external threats through two world wars and several regional wars, as well as the White Australia policy and McEwan's tariff wall; and built a workers' paradise through universal suffrage, arbitration and one of the most generous welfare systems in the world. In the process we forged an international identity and character, which we celebrate and commemorate each ANZAC day ... (Wooldridge in Manne et al 1998, 179).

59. This simplistic depiction of Australian history masks the important and long-standing role that race had played in shaping Australian national identity, and hence works to hide the familiarity of the discourse Hanson utilised to describe Aboriginal and Asian people.

60. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser continued this ahistorical understanding of Hanson’s political views, describing opposition to racism as one of the ‘fundamentals’ of politics:

Since 1945, there has been a consensus between the major political parties that they would not seek political advantage by playing 'racist' politics. That consensus is seriously at risk, if it has not already been broken... Racist policies are evil ... There is only one honourable option: absolute rejection, refusal to co-operate, refusal to lend credibility to those promoting the evil of racism... (Fraser in Manne et al 1998, 48-50)

61. Fraser depicted ‘racism’ as explicit and direct, rather than a structural perpetuation of advantage and power relations based on ‘race’. It would appear that Fraser’s contribution reflected the trend within political and policy circles to establish ‘impeccable anti-racist credentials’ rather than to ‘try to understand and explain the phenomenon’ (Hage 1995, 73) This clear-cut distinction between explicit ‘racism’ and the prominence of 'race' within post-war Australian society had portrayed a benign whiteness and reiterated Hanson’s depiction as an extreme figure, an aberration with no real link to Australian history since 1945, when it is assumed that issues of race disappear from Australian history and national identity. This reductionist version of history offered by Wooldridge and Fraser sees post-war Australian society as a series of achievements for which white Australians can take credit, while the disputes and contestation of race relations, as well as the agency of Indigenous people and immigrants, are written out of history.

62. The reductionist history combined with a ‘morally superior’ attitude, to borrow Rothwell's term, masked the continuation of attitudes which marginalised Aboriginal people and immigrants. Such an attitude allowed politicians to claim that simply because they did not endorse explicitly racist positions they were somehow fundamentally different from Hanson, thus suggesting that her politics do not undermine the dominant construction of whiteness as benign.

63. Thus, Hanson’s politics not only did not undermine constructions of benign whiteness in Australian society, but her presence on the political stage also helped other politicians to construct themselves as non-racist by comparison to her ‘extreme’ position. The disavowal of white privilege both within Australian history and contemporary Australian society allows the construction of whiteness as benign and the denial of continuing structural disadvantage in Australia.


64. Throughout this paper I have attempted to show how the persistence of structural inequality based on race in the present is bolstered by white Australian attitudes of benign whiteness. White Australians continue to see racism as a matter of attitude, and despite the lack of progress in outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples the dominant representation in political discourse is that whites need do no more than show their goodwill towards Indigenous people and immigrants.

65. The 1967 Referendum on Aboriginal Affairs, remembered as the end of ‘racism’ against Aboriginal people and signifying white Australian goodwill, marks a discursive break which represents white Australians as benign. The Bicentennial provided an opportunity for white Australian to celebrate their ‘tolerance’ of Aboriginal protest and the presence of immigrants in Australia. Despite the increasing prominence of an explicit discourse of race in mainstream Australian politics in the 1990s, racism was constructed as an aberration, allowing white Australians to distance themselves from the ‘extreme’ politics of Hanson, and continue to construct white Australian society as fundamentally benign.

66. Thus white Australians continue to congratulate themselves on their tolerance and goodwill towards racial others while structural inequality based on race persists. As a country we seem oblivious to the fact that opportunities and outcomes are achieved differently elsewhere, and see inequality as a natural part of Australian society. In this light, Aden Ridgeway’s speech to the United Nations where he described the Australian ‘terra nullius of the mind’ can be seen as an attempt to reconfigure the language of race away from the assumption that whiteness is benign. His speech demonstrates a call to white Australians to account for the continuing disadvantage experienced by Indigenous people. The fact that he could be so easily undermined and his ideas dismissed show how entrenched the language of benign whiteness is within Australian political discourse, as it is within wider Australian society.


Rachel Standfield is a PhD student in History at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, where she is researching early colonial relations with Indigenous people in Australia and New Zealand. In 2002 she completed a Masters degree at ANU on white representation of Indigenous peoples and immigrants in post-war Australia. Email:


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