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Guy Rundle

The great appropriation: ‘First Nations First’ and rebranding the new imperial Australia

Your correspondent hasn’t had a crack at using these AI graphics thingies yet, but a great way to start would be to ask for a Stalinist/Maoist socialist-realist portrayal of: “Penny Wong complimenting the Biden administration on its correct handling of the stray Chinese spy balloon.”

That would be something to go on every Australian mantelpiece, commemorating the dizzying fortnight when the Albanese government put its marker down on both foreign affairs and national identity, fused them, and then offered us up to the US as an extension of its power in the Indo-Pacific. Jim Chalmers’ commitment to the rule of capital fits in with that neatly.

Yes, the fix is in, folks, and one has to doff the slouch hat to whoever inside Team Albo put this package together. It’s a brilliant combination of progressive demands on the question of national identity with centrist and right-wing demands on the question of national security. Here’s a thumbnail sketch of how it works. 

As a first move, demands by First Nations peoples and their allies for a reconstruction of who we are — by means of institutions such as the Voice, and cultural redefinition through a First Nations focus — are honoured and emphasised as a way of rebranding the country. We repudiate Tony Abbott’s nostalgic-neurotic vision of a renewed Britishness, but also the notion that we draw our identity from the common history and sentiment of our settler ally, the United States.

Yet we also abandon the various ideas that we are some sort of Asian nation, which various Labor governments had some sort of half-hearted go at a few times. We are instead a nation in the throes of righting a great wrong, honouring the primacy and unceded sovereignty of our First Nations peoples by granting them everything except sovereignty.

From here, First Nations artists are barely going to be off a plane; performers will be at every major embassy, the art will be all over the walls, and on and on. The Voice will probably get up in a referendum. It’ll be a global embarrassment if it doesn’t, which is why Albo has given himself some wiggle room to legislate some sort of substitute through Parliament alone. 

With First Nations culture honoured as the first and real Australia, and settler society designated as gaining its identity by being in a state of “reparation” (psychological; no actual money involved), and with that buttressed by the primacy of First Nations peoples in the national cultural policy, we are not white, but nor are we claiming an Asian identity we do not possess. 

This allows us to commit absolutely and unequivocally to the US alliance, to the wider AUKUS alliance, to taking nuclear submarines, and to integrating ourselves to being a dependent part of the US military command system, but without such (here’s the genius) acquiring a cultural significance. We’re not the deputy sheriff, we’re not a branch office of Great Britain — we’re a First Nations nation in alliance with these two nations. Who could object to an alliance?

That was the purpose of Wong’s speech, on British soil, gently reproving the British for not having a full confrontation with its colonial past. It’s hilarious. As we lace ourselves into a military alliance based on white-skin history and involving the re-legitimation of a role for the UK in the South China Sea, we chide the Brits for not apologising for the empire. Because we’re a First Nations nation and we can say that. 

With that move, the Albanese government gives itself carte blanche to pursue whatever traditional, Western imperialist arrangements it likes because, after all, we’re defending a First Nations nation, a place in the process of redefining itself by genuinely engaging with its oppressive history. Who wouldn’t want to defend that project? And who really believes we can defend ourselves? Doesn’t our commitment to the process of reconciliation and its completion demand we do everything to defend it from nations with government systems that aren’t so crash hot on the whole engage-with-the-public thing?

I mean, what sort of bastard would endanger the security of this process by making a few quibbles about actual national independence, independent defence, having a reciprocal relationship with Asian nations, etc? Have you no shame, sir or madam, to assert settler sovereignty when we are trying to redefine ourselves? What’s that? Pine Gap? Well, yes, of course, Pine Gap and other bases are de facto US territory, and there’ll be more of them. But I mean, the land was stolen anyway. We can’t give that bit back now, because it is vital to the defence of the process of reconciliation, and this journey to the incredible thing that this country, this continent, is becoming.    

The final piece of this puzzle is Jim Chalmers’ essay, which does what Labor governments have been doing since the end of the Whitlam venture. The stuff about “values-based capitalism” is just a bunch of adjectives. The essay can be used to reassure US lawmakers who still believe Labor to be a socialist party that we will not be endangering US ownership in Australia. As John Lander notes in a brilliant essay in Pearls and Irritations, US ownership of our capital has become comprehensive in recent years and coincides with our integration into US defence — as well as the clear intent that we will be doing the forward defence for the US in any engagement with China.

This stitch-up has the political advantage of being endorsable from all sides. The foreign policy and alliance hawks really won’t have much to object to because their focus will be on the alliance. No one wants to sound like Abbott in any way, shape or form. Noel Pearson will be a reliable foreign policy hawk should the Voice get up, and the faction that devised the Voice will be able to control how its members are selected. 

One principle option for the Albanese and subsequent governments will be the capacity to shop around for whatever First Nations endorsement they need, from the Voice or MPs. With such backup, governments can completely synthesise reconciliation and white-alliance defence. In 2040, our new nuclear submarines will be named after Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander spiritual marine creatures from the region their home ports are based in. William Cooper will get his own battleship because he fought fascism. Everything about this can be integrated, and it reverses the emphasis of certain things we have fought for. 

Many activists have long argued, for example, that the frontier wars should be included in our war memorials and memorial ceremonies. Well, according to the new director of the Australian War Memorial, they will be. Who’s that new director? Why Kim “Bomber” Beazley, of course, the champion of modern Australian forward defence in Asia!

So how will the frontier wars be remembered? I would guess as a form of civil war, sparked by the arrogance of colonialism, and something that, by being commemorated alongside Gallipoli and Kokoda, becomes part of reconciliation — and a commitment to our shared martial spirit. First Nation or modern nation, Australians defend country. 

The process also mops up progressives who have no real interest in foreign policy, let alone defence policy, since the latter involves some invidious choices. The First Nations reconciliation process steams on, and look at all the money for First Nations artists. Most progressives support the Voice, and though few will admit it, they find the No campaign of Senator Lidia Thorpe a bit of a spoiler. They don’t really want to think about the uses to which it is being put. They want to support a legitimate demand, identity with First Nations peoples, and slough off the settler guilt. 

The young left, inclined to the left No case, will find it hard to admit that the confrontation with settler colonial history has been co-opted, and co-opted in part because we have turned Australian history into a vacuum that cannot speak its name. They, too, don’t want to think about national defence, and will hide behind various forms of internationalist, Quaker-pacifist babble. Even the grizzled old left is going to find it difficult to admit that this two-step is going on, and to track the co-option of Blak struggle to new national ends.

Will First Nations artists resist this comprehensive co-option of their culture and their practice to nation-state ends, in both soft- and hard-power modes? Well, that’s going to be tricky, because there’ll be a lot of (deserved) new audiences, prestige and honour, as well as serious money put in. Why should they miss out? It’s going to be a real dilemma for many, and the recognition of this great co-option will be gradual. They should get to it now, to save time. The bottom line is that the process being presented as true recognition can become, when wielded by a (junior) imperialist state, an actual completion of colonisation: the co-option of the recognition process to state ends. There is some of that happening already.

Meanwhile, the Greens and other groups should make a simple case against war, especially war in Taiwan. Part of the reason to do all this malarkey is that there is no appetite for war among the general public. People will make vague noises about defending Taiwan when it is push-polled as a question about “democracy”. Should such a war draw closer, the reality of it will start to open up a rift between the government and public, and though it will take a lot, between this government and progressives.

Bad news for the hawks in government, and bad news for Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) — the peak body funded by US-owned defence contractors, now entwined with Labor and its system of factional negotiations. There are a lot of people who need to get this deal sealed, and if that means a few airstrips have to be dot-painted, let’s do it.

Do I overstate? Perhaps I do. But you’ve got to admit, once you think about it in this way, it’s hard to see it otherwise, whatever style you paint it in. Call it a trial balloon and let’s see if anyone can shoot it down. 

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