1 Oct. 2006

Australia: Colonial Phatasm

You see this figure iterated everywhere in this country, like a corporate logo, a badge of identity where none is needed, where it is completely certain to everyone that we are on the continent depicted. Other countries don't do this, but Australians need to continually claim the entirety of the continent. This is partly because they do not have much of a hold on it. Most Australians have hardly seen any of it; there are parts of it which have hardly been seen by anyone. Australians cluster together at certain sites on its eastern and southern coastlines.

Opposing this periphery is another periphery, and outback, northern periphery. Its population is much smaller in number, and even smaller in the significance it is accorded. This is occupied territory, in which white Australia continues to impose its will on the descendents of the original inhabitants of the continent that white Australians so neurotically claim.

Aboriginal Australia was forced to coagulate around missions and townships in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Formal freedom in the twentieth century meant the difference between forced labour and simple imprisonment. I just read this article by Alan Ramsay about Palm Island. In it, he quotes a description of Palm Island, a former penal colony for Australia's most recalcitrant Aborigines, as having been a gulag. Today, it is no longer a labour camp, but rather simply a prison camp. It is not even a ghetto, since the officials are all white outsiders.

In 1975, Australia formally (as opposed to really) relinquished control of Papua New Guinea. Ostensibly, this was the end of Australian colonialism. But this lie could only be perpetrated via the phantasm of the single Australian continent, an indivisible nation united by the undeniable objectivity of geography. This masks completely the reality of colonialism within this continent. Even Alan Ramsey's otherwise-excellent article falls flat on this score: it dares to talk about "our Aboriginal Australians". Calling them Australians is one thing – that's for them to accept or deny, and it may be taken to express a geographical or legal fact, although of course in Ramsey's usage it is meant to say 'they are Australians too', which is a discourse which ultimately serves to legitimise their colonisation. But calling them 'ours' is really disturbing. Perhaps because there's some truth to it. Along with their land, Australia needs to give them back their selves.