Any shame white Australians might have felt about the country’s origins as a penal colony has long since disappeared.
For many decades those with convict ancestors have tended to proudly claim them. By the time of my primary education in the 1980s, the crimes of those transported tended to be minimised by teachers. Almost all, the comforting story ran, had stolen loaves of bread.
By then the condition of our ancestors had folded into a self-congratulatory mythos: our convict past, as Russel Ward first asserted in the 1950s, was the font of our subversive, anti-authoritarian sense of humour.
More recent Australian history forces us to consider another side of those penal arrangements: even an open-air prison requires snitches and screws. The uniformed men who flayed or executed troublesome prisoners also formed the country and sired children – the administrators of this exceptionally brutal system were the country’s original ruling class.
Prisons function only if most people, most of the time, bring themselves to knuckle under. A prisoner’s personal position might well be improved by throwing a likewise incarcerated person to the wolves.
With this in mind a case might even be made that for a proud liberal democracy Australia is more and more authoritarian. Governments increasingly legislate to curtail rights of protest, assembly, property and privacy. Police and security services frequently trample the civil rights that do exist. Feral, rightwing media hound prominent dissenters and millions of citizens acquiesce. Some even cheer.
At the federal level governments and oppositions, at the behest of security services, have eroded what few protections exist in our age of ubiquitous surveillance. Last year’s anti-encryption measures were hurriedly passed without serious challenge from Labor.
The measures compel tech companies to help police spy on people and undo encryption. Tech companies consider Australia an unsafe place to store data. These powers have been used extensively against journalists and to circumvent the few protections that reporters have over their information.
There is no widespread protest against such laws, even if opposition to them has provided a rare show of unity across media organisations.
The last year has been equally concerning at the state level.
This year the Queensland government criminalised certain forms of nonviolent protest involving the self-immobilisation of protesters. At the same time it expanded police powers to allow search and seizure of devices that protesters might use to lock themselves in place.
Their target was Extinction Rebellion protesters, and among that group’s concerns is the Adani coalmine.
There was some muted concern from the Queensland government’s allies in the trade union movement, but they didn’t take any action. There was reporting in outlets including Guardian Australia, but not much concern was evident among ordinary citizens.
Just two months earlier, the same government stripped native title holders of land rights, also to facilitate Adani’s mine. White Australia’s original destruction of Indigenous sovereignty was repeated in miniature for a project that will accelerate climate crisis.
Separate climate protests in Melbourne in the early part of this month were marked by police beating protesters, one officer apparently flashing a white power hand signal (his social media posts were later found to be festooned with 4chan memes), and another sporting a sticker reading “EAD (eat a dick) hippy” on his chest-mounted body camera.
The officers were subject to a day or two of critical coverage across a range of outlets and Victoria police expressed disappointment. But the men are still serving. And there was no broader, more searching consideration of how widely such attitudes were held among police, and whether they were compatible with the duties involved with policing protests.
Police are still given the benefit of every doubt in Australia; even the most egregious and obvious exemplars of bias and corruption will find defenders. Coverage and debate often seems to begin with the premise that police are constitutionally incapable of wrongdoing.
Often police are coddled by the same media organisation that mounts extended campaigns against people who express public opinions – most enthusiastically when they are members of marginalised groups.
Attempts to crush protest and dissent and the repetition of Indigenous dispossession are not the actions of a cheeky, irreverent or anti-authoritarian people.
I am far from the first to critically point to the hollow nature of contemporary larrikinism, and Australia’s apparent thirst for authority. I’ll likely not be the last either — the climate emergency, a consequent increase in the flow of refugees, and the increasing probability of economic headwinds will lead to righteous anger and protest in the future.
If current trends are any guide, they will be met by an increasingly authoritarian response from the state and police. And we’ll once again have occasion to compare the myth of our national character against the limits that have been imposed on our capacity to voice political dissatisfaction.
There is an element of our penal past that we can draw on in resisting that outcome. A subset of convicts were Irish rebels, political prisoners of rebellions against the colonial British government in Ireland. Some of these people also fed political rebellions in Australia, like the one at Castle Hill in 1804.
The rebellions failed but they originated a strain of Australian radicalism that really was anti-authoritarian, which was visible in the labour movement in its best moments, the struggle against conscription in the first world war, resistance to authoritarian populists such as Joh Bjelke-Petersen, protests against apartheid and the Vietnam war, the long struggle for Indigenous rights, and actions against refugee detention such as those in Woomera at the turn of the century.
Climate protesters and those who protested the death of Kumanjayi Walker this month are the heirs of that.
We’ll need to rediscover that determination to place limits on authority – to suspect and resist it – if we’re going to confront the powerful vested interests who don’t want us to address mounting crises (water, fire, land degradation, climate) and the injustices wrought in our names on Indigenous Australians, refugees and migrants.
If we don’t, Australia might start looking like a prison again.
Jason Wilson is a Guardian Australia columnist
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