On Australia Day in Canberra this year two stark effects of an intertwined political and mainstream media narrative were revealed.
First, that protests, no matter how small, are increasingly portrayed as security threats.
Second, the way the events were relayed at the time and then over ensuing days illustrates how historical and ongoing Indigenous disadvantage — despite being an international scandal — is treated here with a mix of dishonest platitudinal concern and "move-on" belligerence.
Escalating very visibly during the Howard period, rallies and protesters have increasingly been portrayed over recent years as either vaguely unnerving or as violent threats. When it comes to hosting big regional and international forums, this can be partially explained away as the government and PM of the day not wanting to be embarrassed in front of global leaders. However, why visible protest is embarrassing or dangerous for a purportedly freedom-of-speech-loving democracy — after all, we go to war against nations vilified for lacking such things — is never properly explained.
Last Thursday in Canberra, with no need to protect visiting dignitaries from the messy democratic spectacle of dissent, we saw the absurd limit point reached in the ‘protest as security threat’ narrative.
No wonder the spectacle of our first female prime minister being "saved" by a dashing security officer made international news. But people overseas — especially in countries characterised by much more rancorous and ideologically diverse extra-parliamentary political argument — may have been left confused by the story behind the dramatic images. Were Australia’s Prime Minister and Opposition Leader really fleeing a restaurant accompanied by a security detail just because a small and unarmed group of activists with a globally recognised cause had noisily decamped outside?
In addition to protest organisers disputing police and media claims that activists engaged in violence, an independent eyewitness has since written that the whole threat and behaviour of this small group was at best exaggerated or at worst an outright lie.
Some people undoubtedly wondered why the police reacted as they did, but excessive actions are crucial if protests are to be construed as real threats. Rather than a strange aberration, overreactions are also far from unfamiliar.
Yet rather than examining the behaviour of the cops and questioning whether the media got the story right on the day (as Ben Eltham did in New Matilda), the main emphasis in subsequent reporting remains on what the event means for the only game in town that matters.
And so we are told the restaurant rescue was bad for Gillard because she looked "weak" being ushered away. Media outlets then obsessed over the trivial and distracting he said/she said fight resulting from the Opposition’s claims of collusion by the Prime Minister’s Office and the risible demands for a Federal Police inquiry. (The AFP has responded that there is no evidence to go ahead with any prosecutions.)
But what about the absurdity of the two most powerful politicians in Australia fleeing a small gaggle of unarmed activists concerned about a serious, historically wretched and ongoing situation?
In many other countries, when Australia is in the news it is often in connection to the appalling situation in which many Indigenous Australians live. If our media only sporadically reports this international criticism, it virtually never mentions that despite some small improvements, this country ranks at or near the bottom of first-world nations in disparity of wealth and opportunity for the Indigenous population as compared to other citizens.
We also remain behind countries like New Zealand, Canada and Sweden when it comes to both successful mechanisms of political self-determination and a broad cultural reckoning with our history of colonial dispossession and violence.
Instead, Australians get fed entirely deceptive mantras such as, "we have thrown buckets of money at the problem". When it comes to total government expenditure per head of the population, you are far better off not being a member of the most unambiguously disadvantaged (pdf) group of Australians. Better the comforting, self-aggrandising lie — which directly or by association basically means it is their fault — than the awkward and frequently awful truth.
For the likes of Tony Abbott, Bob Carr, and Mal Brough to imply or quite bluntly declare the Aboriginal tent embassy should be shut down because its primary cause has been overcome displays staggering dishonesty, patronising arrogance and knowingly insensitive timing. If elite voices and representatives, be they white or black, are embarrassed by the tent embassy, what then should replace it?
"Maybe Abbott is right and it is time for the tent embassy to go", NSW Aboriginal Council member Roy RC said on the day, adding that in which case "it is time to erect a black Parliament with politicians we can choose". Such ideas no doubt cause howls of "separatism" across large swathes of white Australia and on talkback radio. But when the grand total of Aboriginal MPs ever to sit in the House of Representatives or the Senate is three, it is clear that our established political institutions and parties have abjectly failed to include representative Indigenous voices in national decision-making.
As beneficiaries of a two-party system deeply unrepresentative of Australia’s actual population, that Abbott, Carr, Brough and others made their comments on what the unquestioned rulers of this land call Australia Day but which many Indigenous Australians and a notable minority of others call Invasion Day quite fittingly tops off the insult.
It’s bad enough that this country has been repeatedly censured by the UN for the entrenched disadvantage suffered by Indigenous people. This festering sore at the repressed heart of our nation also results in an increasingly absurd and disingenuous series of disavowals — and they are now gathering steam afresh in response to the very mild proposed referendum to recognise Aboriginal Australians’ unique status in the Constitution.
Australia Day 2012 marked only the latest chapter in this depressingly continuous story. It tells of how those directly affected by the nation’s desultory record — both through their everyday lives and a strongly felt sense of historical injustice — are treated, alongside non-Indigenous Australians outraged by the ongoing scandal, as threats to "national security". In the most unattractively revealing way imaginable for this country, that is exactly what they are.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.