The resurgence of white nationalism should be understood as a feature, not a bug, of Australian politics
Since the mid-2010's, the global prominence of white nationalist political activism and representation has increased significantly. In Australia, this has culminated in Pauline Hanson’s return to politics, the short-lived career of Frazer Anning, the birth and death of the Q Society and the United Patriots Front, and the ‘Reclaim Australia Rally’, to name a few of the more well-known occurrences. Mass media often treats personalities, groups, and events such as these with curiosity and disdain, pondering how in a multicultural society like Australia we could have such outspoken white nationalism.
However, this specific ideology has been a fact of Australian politics since the establishment of the colonies. Years of indigenous slavery, exploitation, and attempts at genocide are a good indication of this fact. The question therefore isn’t “where did white nationalism come from?” but more “why did it become so prominent?”
White nationalism in Australia has come to prominence because of how the country has been run. The policy decisions of successive governments across this nation’s history around immigration and defense have reinforced specific prejudices which lend themselves to cultivating white nationalism in the population. From Australia’s origin, this has materialised as a heightened immigration and a border control policy mandate which protects this country from the externalities of imperialism, war, and colonialism. Historically this has been targeted primarily towards people from Asian nations, and framed with a specific disdain towards them.
Australian immigration policy has, since the country’s foundation, associated increased immigration from Asian nations with ‘barbarism’ and societal collapse. The White Australia Policy was specifically designed to curtail an influx of what was considered to be low skill labour, whilst keeping the country ethnically consistent with its colonial occupiers. This was an attempt at keeping out the displaced poor of Asian nations, specifically those of post-Opium War China, which would have the effect of limiting Australia’s exposure to the externalities of colonialism: poverty and mass immigration. Australia would, through this, only see economic benefits from being part of a colonial empire. It can endorse and assist in the exploitation of other nations to bring low cost goods into the country and wealth to the Crown without consequence.
Many years after the end of the White Australia Policy, language is still used as a tool for enabling discrimination against migrants. The current citizenship test, established under the Howard government, has been renowned for its obtuse nature from its inception. The Australian citizenship test, originally announced the year after the Cronulla race riots, was pitched to the Australian population as a means of increasing “cohesion and integration” within communities across the nation. In truth, it mandated an intermediate level of English literacy from all citizenship applicants between the ages of 18 and 60, and required trivia-like knowledge of specific Australian historical and cultural elements.
The conceptualisation of English literacy as a defining part of the Australian identity, despite it being an introduced language, has clearly left its mark at this point. The 18th ANU poll indicated that Australians held language as the utmost factor of Australian identity, with 92% of respondents agreeing that speaking English was incredibly important to being considered ‘Australian’. If you’re like me, and have European migrant grandparents who learned English after coming over here on a massive boat, this all scans as a bit trite.
The specific government which originally introduced the citizenship test, and its leader, are also important things to consider when observing its intended impact. By 1988, John Howard was developing a new approach to immigration control which would go on to inform how the Liberal/National Coalition governed from 1996 to 2007. This approach, given the incredibly original name “One Australia” policy, positioned assimilation into white identity as the ideal position for non-Anglo-Celtic people living in Australia.
Most of Howard’s positioning of this policy while he was in opposition was against Asian immigration, framing it as a concern that Asian people would not assimilate into Australian society. He positioned their immigration and entrance to Australian communities as an “uncertainty” that could compromise Australian communities, and as such was not worth the risk of the multicultural experiment. You can use this kind of positioning to frame the citizenship test in its real context; it's a tool of ‘Anglo-isation’. Its subsequent increases in English comprehension requirements under the Turnbull government should be seen as a continuation of this same trend.
The Howard government utilised the same tactics of creating conservatism through perceived uncertainty for garnering popular support for their increases to immigration detention and the Australian security state.This rhetorical position, which continued well throughout Howard’s 11 years as Prime Minister, was coupled with opportunism and scaremongering around events such as the Tampa crisis and Woomera detention centre breakout, led to the increase in offshore detention. Similar opportunism allowed citizenship revoking powers to be convened to the Immigration Minister, and the power to indefinitely detain a suspect on charges of terrorism to the Australian intelligence agencies, in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
The 11 years of scaremongering which the Howard government embodied could be picked up and rolled with when Tony Abbott became leader of the Federal Liberal Party. Abbott’s government utilised the same fears of being overrun by asylum seekers to win government in 2013 and enact further increases to border security and expansions to offshore detention through the ‘Australian Border Force Act' (2015). This has, in turn, been the trend of every Liberal/National government since, with the Department of Home Affairs being created under Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership in 2017.
2018-19 statistics from the Department of Home Affairs indicate that the majority of visa applications lodged for Australia’s offshore humanitarian program are from Iraq (38.4%), Myanmar (19.9%), and Syria (12.8%) respectively, with a 5000-person gap between Syria and Iran (6.1%), which is the 4th highest country. In the case of Iraq and Syria, Australia has had a direct hand in destabilizing the lives of the civilian population of these nations through military means for imperialist exploitation by the US. In the case of Myanmar, the asylum is sought due to a genocide which finds its origins in British colonial rule and division of territories when the nation was once Burma.
All of the policy positions mentioned have been sold on a platform of either the othering of non-white people, encouraging assimilation to a presumed Anglo-Celtic ethnocultural norm, or both. Rhetoric of subtle white supremacy, or even overt white supremacy, can soften the blows of these kinds of policy positions, and even make them more popular. The 18th ANUpoll by AusCen found that the majority of Australians surveyed supported increased measures to exclude “illegal immigrants” (65%), and that 30% of respondents believed that Australian culture is undermined by immigrants. With the phrasing of “illegal immigrants” being used by the ANUpoll itself, the rhetorical trend can be seen to run deep enough into our attempts at social research to weigh the questions being asked.
The policy decisions of the Australian state create the material realities which the population has to deal with. This constant othering is not simply reflected in racist rhetoric, but in very real terms through the actual mechanics of our nation. If generations grow up under these ideological and material positions, it is easy to see how they can turn out to become more extreme, violent, and vehement when it appears that these established norms are being threatened. This is even more true when considering that most of these obfuscations of Australia’s part in imperial plunder are pitched as safety measures. Tackling the way that Australia handles its borders and immigration, and the way in which we endorse and participate in the imperial efforts of larger states, will lead to tackling the root causes of white nationalism domestically.