The Blog

Why I Fear Australia Is Becoming a Zombie Nation

For the most (white) privileged of lands, Australia, the price of rejecting authentic stories about itself - like how central aboriginality really is to the national consciousness - is a superficiality, and a strange boredom that fills the spaces where there should be meaning.

I spent my childhood holidays in the 70s at our little house in the bush. Lake Victoria was on one side, the Ninety Mile surf beach on the other. So vast was the surf beach it stretched out and then disappeared into a white sea mist on the horizon, both ways. Our house was a three hour drive out of Melbourne. One hour of which meant driving on bumpy dirt tracks. We pressed the windscreen with our little fingers when cars came the other way because we thought they would act as shock absorbers and stop tossed up pebbles from smashing the glass.

In those days children were allowed to go out without adult supervision as long as they were back before dusk. I remember running up and then jumping down the endless sand dunes of the surf beach. Once I jumped down and landed next to a deadly brown snake. My whole life of 11 years flashed before me. They are panicky creatures, yet their venom is supposedly the second most deadly in the world. I jolted to one side instinctively. Thankfully it lurched in the opposite direction, then slithered away into the native long grasses.

From time to time in my explorations, I also came across "keep out" signs marking Aboriginal artifacts and sacred ground. This always filled me with wonder. I fantasised about what life was like back in those days, before the British came. I concluded it must have felt freer than being an 11 year old in the mid 1970s. That the small town we holidayed in relied on tank water and only got electricity when I became an adult, added to the whole "other worldly" experience. After eight weeks in the bush I felt like I had to be slowly reintroduced to Melbourne technology to be able to operate a toaster again.

I am sure the overwhelming beauty and power of this land became part of me, providing an anchor throughout my life. I developed a deep respect for the land and the people who came before me. The traditional owners of the land are the Gunaikurnai nation. When I imagined what their world must have been like, I had not thought that they might have been murdered. I remember feeling sad that the original people were no longer anywhere to be found near my house. Fortunately, my experience in the bush helped me to tune out during the racist history lessons in high school.

It was only as an adult that I learnt the Gunaikurnai semi-nomadic people were killed in British-led massacres. Gunaikurnai people resisted the invasion of their land with guerilla tactics. But the British response was brutal. One squatter wrote in 1846 about how white men would: "ride into a camp and fire on [aboriginal men, women and children] indiscriminately, as is the custom whenever [their camp] smoke is seen. They will very shortly be extinct." Infections, trauma, disorientation and the collapse of traditional ways probably fed the unimaginable cycle of death and despair.

The grief of the original inhabitants continues today, matched only by the population's general lack of awareness, and the inadequate government response. As John Pilger has documented, the Australian government apologised for the stolen generation of children in 2008, yet government continues a policy of taking children from their families - disproportionately affecting aboriginal children and once again approaching industrial scale. Additionally, false child sex-abuse scandals are manufactured to manipulate Aboriginal communities. But the media go quiet when it is time to correct the smearing of whole communities. In a country widely regarded as more racist than most others in the UK, experiences of discrimination based on "skin colour, ethnic origin or religion" rose from 12% to 19% of the population between 2012 and 2013. And over 40% of some groups, like those born in India, were reporting this kind of discrimination last year. Both prosperity and fear go hand-in-hand.

Germaine Greer argued that many admirable Australian qualities - of which there are many - filtered through from Aboriginal bloodlines and cultures. It is not all about white lineage. Think of the relative personal openness and directness of Australians, their resistance to British ways, including almost complete obliviousness to the British obsession with their class system. Back home in London, while the British regularly struggle to work out where I fit in their hierarchy, wily bus drivers compete to close the door on my leg as I hurl one foot in the door. In Australia, bus drivers insist on telling me their life story, and taxi drivers coerce me to ride in the front seat with them for a chinwag. This is all true, but there are myths too. Like the chilled out Australian: But where does all the anger go? In London we all know where it resides: It's like the Hunger Games as soon as you descend the escalator to the Underground on Monday morning. Here, women have taken to wearing 'Baby on Board' badges to avoid getting wrested to the ground for a seat.

With so much to gain, rather than face up to the past, Australia remains to this day the Tony Blair of countries, with its perma-tanned Teflon exterior and tenuous grasp of reality. But it is apartheid by another name. And no amount of cruelty towards non-whites (including indigenous Australians and asylum seekers) seems to stir the collective consciousness, though many people gallantly follow the aboriginal lead and resist the status quo. In the main, the world's richest population have tuned out, if ever they were tuned in. Distinguished Australian diplomat Richard Woolcott once remarked on this phenomenon as the "strangely apathetic and detached wider [Australian] community".

The failure to embrace our Aboriginality means missing a key opportunity to embrace our own identity. A kind of self-rejection I sometimes see in therapy clients. Instead, the population votes into being ever more grotesque manifestations of its worse nightmares. The Attorney-General there recently asserted that ''people do have a right to be a bigot, you know.'' The government is now attempting to roll back race hate speech laws. Australians will now have to play catch-up with this encouragement at have-a-go racism.

Meanwhile, Australia has resorted to eating itself via the lucrative mining industry while it still has land left to exploit. It now plans to expel the coal and waste products out through the Great Barrier Reef, and the coal itself may speed up global warming, which is also predicted to harm the Reef. One of the most remarkable things about coming to live in London was how much people cared about social issues, almost to a fault. But I loved it after living in Australia. Like the endless hurt and anger about invading Iraq that continues over 10 years later. This all passed virtually without comment in Australia as the government there committed to go all the way with Blair.

For the most (white) privileged of lands, Australia, the price of rejecting authentic stories about itself - like how central aboriginality really is to the national consciousness - is a superficiality, and a strange boredom that fills the spaces where there should be meaning. There is the growing fearfulness and xenophobia, which increasing wealth does nothing to soothe. Governments now personify that big scrunched-up ball of fear that a chilled-out culture prefers not to examine. Like the brown snake I encountered as a child, for Australia, the choice is frozen fear despite great power to make better choices. It is a kind of zombification of a nation.

And yet, as I write this piece, there is also much hope. Over 20 years ago, one prime minster overcame the common failure to imagine the plight of aboriginal Australians in the remarkable Redfern Address. And thousands of non-indigenous Australians were genuinely moved and sorry for the Stolen Generations in 2008. Progressive Australians continue to work hard to overcome the paralysis of xenophobia. True, six in ten Australians want the government's already harsh policy of lengthy punishing detainment of asylum seekers (including children) arriving by boat ramped up a notch. Yet, tens of thousands marched earlier this year, many to protest the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers. And over 86,000 have joined the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) page on Facebook, an organisation dedicated to overcoming cruel and unusual punishment of asylum-seekers. Paralysing fear of the 'other' in Australia is not inevitable. But astonishing leadership will be required to undo the self-inflicted damage.