Advance Australia Fair: Authoritarianism By Another Name
- Tinashe Jakwa
What does democracy mean? For most of us, it is a sacred term. Depending on the country you are situated in, democracy is either something to aspire to or something that has already been achieved and is in need of maintenance. Or so we are told. But beyond a general tendency to attribute the term with positive meanings, what is democracy? What does it look like? Does it have one face or multiple? Must it always be accompanied by an identical set of political institutions across the world? Who determines the meaning of our beloved term democracy? You have an image of what a democratic country looks like and an understanding of what democratic values entail. Is that image fluid or rigid? Can others contest it so that one day we may pay homage to varieties of democratic political institutions informed by the peculiarities of each context? I am interested in your thoughts…
To 'advance Australia fair' is a familiar saying in this country of ours. To build an inclusive multicultural society, an immigration success story, and to ensure harmony in our communities. To ensure that the dignity of each person is upheld, with widespread access to opportunities – the Aussie ‘fair go’; freedom of speech, religion, association, you name it. Outwardly, ‘inclusion’ of each and every individual at every level of Australian society, including the country’s political processes, is the foundation of Australian democracy. Outwardly, it is an appealing exterior, but a scratch beneath the surface reveals the contradictions inherent to liberal democracy. A controversial claim: liberal democracy is fundamentally exclusionary and authoritarian.
Before expanding on this claim, it is important to make a disclaimer. I am not a demagogue. This critique of liberal democracy and Australian multiculturalism is meant to highlight that this model of democratisation has - thus far - failed to realise an inclusive society and inclusive political processes. It is meant to galvanise readers to re-imagine democracy in terms that are genuinely inclusive and respectful of differences amongst people, be they individual, cultural or group-based, and as they relate to different historical experiences and understandings of the founding or establishment of the country we call Australia. This critique, far from being an exercise in demagoguery, is a recognition of the contested nature of the term democracy and democratic practices. It is hopeful about the realisation of democratic practices and institutions that are not upheld and maintained at the expense of others’ well-being.
As a Zimbabwean-born Australian, I am often expected to be critical of the state of post-independence Zimbabwe in a narrow sense. That is, people are quick to label Zimbabwe 'dictatorial' and 'authoritarian', painting it in sharp contrast to Australia. Indeed, most people believe Zimbabweans’ aspirations should be for our country to resemble Australia. Australia is presumed to be an ideal role model, the reason for this being high levels of government accountability and transparency, reduced levels of corruption, a lack of violence being visited upon citizens by the government, credible electoral processes and a government that is truly representative of the will of the people and capable of delivering various services. But the challenges facing Zimbabwe are not unique to that country nor are they unique to the African continent. Australia is not exempt from these challenges, and indeed, insofar as Zimbabwean politics have been exclusionary and attending to narrow sets of interests, so too have Australian politics.
From the first fleet in 1788 until today, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples - the First People of this country - have endured, survived and resisted the violence of British colonisation. The uncomfortable truth is that Australia is a colonial settler state. Australia became independent from Britain on 1 January 1901. In that same year, the Immigration Restriction Act, colloquially known as the White Australia policy, was passed. It begs the question: independence for whom? Whilst we would not claim that Zimbabwe reached a 'post-colonial' moment and genuinely became independent in 1965 when the white minority government unilaterally declared independence, we are quick to believe that in 1901, Australia became an independent, post-colonial state. And yet…
Apartheid is also a part of this country’s history. The continued marginalisation of Aboriginal and Torres Islander people’s voices in this conversation about 'post-coloniality' is telling. This is particularly so when we speak of and celebrate Australian multiculturalism, parading Australia’s 'inclusive' democratic credentials. One wonders if the reason for our collective and wilful ignorance is that First Nations’ perspectives would unsettle the myth and force us to engage the contradictions inherent to liberal democratic institutions and our multicultural Australia.
The African Diaspora constitutes an 'emerging' migrant community here in Australia. As Africans we have faced struggles similar to those daily encountered by the First People of this country, but we often fail to recognise these similarities and to foster relations of mutual understanding and support. Yet we should. In late May, about 300 Aboriginal and Torres Islander people gathered at Uluru to hold a First Nations Convention. It ran over four days and was the result of 12 country-wide regional dialogues addressing the issue of the constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians. The aim of the Convention was to determine the form constitutional recognition should take or if indeed it is desirable.
For us non-Indigenous Australians, the First Nations Convention encourages us to ask ourselves: why are we uncomfortable with a future wherein Indigenous Australians’ steer the course of this country and are not merely 'consulted' in tokenistic ways? Indeed, over the next few months, the Convention will reveal the course of Australia’s failed democratic project and fragile multicultural society. With an increasingly restrictive immigration policy in an unstable global environment, the future looks bleak. But bleak as it is, it promises the re-imagining of Australian democracy in ways that are truly inclusive.
So what does democracy mean? Depending on the answer, Zimbabwe may or may not have something positive to aspire to in Australia. Indeed, without acknowledging the contradictions inherent to liberal democracy, our multicultural society will continue to stand on fragile ground.
Photo credit: Tinashe Jakwa