Is Australia democratic? We normally would not even pose the question in this manner. Because we have it ingrained in us, that standard sophisticated slogan: despite all the minor itches Australia is a liberal, tolerant, democratic society. And like most immigrants, if you are full of hopes, expectations and dreams for your life in Australia (something that, when all is said and done, is not the same as life in the third world), you’d most likely be inclined to close your eyes and believe that this is it, the promised paradise on earth. You would ignore the problems and challenges in your day-to-day life as you focus on the incentives and rewards that come with living here: a disposable income, a car, a home, a credit card, and so much more that an affluent society goads you into believing could well be within your reach. This so much more is that social dream no immigrant is free of: getting some things easily, they hanker after more, only to discover the seamy and disconcerting side of the Australian democracy. More often than not this discovery happens in a confused manner that leads them to be practical and resigned to the possibilities of social life for the racial other in Australia.
It is commonly, and in a sense unquestioningly, believed that Australia is a democracy because the people of this country elect their leaders, who are accountable to the people; because class divisions and economic disparities are not dramatic; because women enjoy equal rights and liberties in Australia; because Australia is tolerant of differences: racial, religious, linguistic, lifestyle etc.
But leaving aside this official propaganda that enforces an image of a liberal tolerant Australia, and in that process sets a framework of images that we have to grapple with in coming to grips with our lived reality here, what are the ways in which we could interpret the common undercurrents of life for many immigrants down under? No one can deny that large numbers of immigrants strike it affluent in Australia. Yet it would be absurd to deny that the most noticeable underclass of Australia, the underclass that has to bear the brunt of urban poverty, unemployment, poor housing, the worst excesses of institutionalized racism and apathy are the growing numbers of immigrants from the third world-and large numbers of them have their rights to economic opportunity, be it employment or welfare, and a decent life seriously curtailed through visa and residency regulations. As we all know, such regulations are all government policies, ostensibly in the interests of maintaining Australia’s democratic ethos, and of course the demographic balance this ethos is dependent on.
Let us stick to the reasons commonly associated with Australia’s claim to be a liberal democracy. Australians elect their leaders/representatives through democratic elections, preceded by campaigning and “free discussion and debate” on issues facing the nation. If one looks at the political arena, as it is represented in the mainstream media, its dramatist personae have so much in common (in terms of cultural affiliations, political aspirations, ideals and a well-defined idea of what the national interest is synonymous with) that one would have to strain to find any deep divisions within this Australian community. This is the Australian community that is normally associated with democratic liberal modern Australia; this is the community that is at the helm of social and political affairs in Australia; and this is the community that promotes, maintains and benefits the most from this image of a free and fair Australia. (No, this community is not ethnically/racially homogeneous, although race/racialism is a major factor in cementing and maintaining this political faction and giving it an identifiable core. It would be naive to think that white Australia is not aware of the fact that its political hegemony stands seriously challenged, and that it hasn’t moved with the times. While the ghost of white Australia is still the shadow under which social life unfolds today, in reality we are faced with a radically new situation that has forced the old Australia to assume new avatars.) This ruling community in Australia, whose grip on power goes back to the earliest days of our new nation-rock solid is its sacred and heroic origins-has the greatest clout and biggest say in any matters pertaining to the nation. And why not: traditionally they have outnumbered everyone else in all the institutions of power: government (local, state and federal), the police, the army, the courts, the media, the educational institutions; they determine who is an Australian, and they use this definition to determine how many people in Australia should be counted as citizens eligible to fully participate in its democracy. Their traditional hegemonic status has meant that they have cornered the riches of the land and reserved its largest share for their sole benefit, economically, culturally, politically whatever way one looks at it.
Every avenue for upward mobility in Australia, cultural, educational, administrative, economic, the higher echelons of the security apparatus etc etc are all paths well-secured by and for the enrichment of this cultural and racial aristocracy that rules Australia. We all know that there are no kings anymore, but what we don’t realize is that entire communities and classes are the modern parallel of the ancient or medieval institution of kingship and the traditional rights that came with the institution of kingship. The ruling class in Australia is a racial and cultural social formation that is king-like in its demeanor and bearing and the rights it reserves to itself and denies to vast sections of the community.
Look at what all these privileges translate to. If you look at the nature and patterns of poverty and dis empowerment in Australia, and if you are serious about maintaining your sanity, you would have to believe all the mystification and mumbo-jumbo their journalists and academics come up with to sanctify the social status of the white or westernized or Anglicized Australian. Think about the average Australian office and the way the majority of the positions are normally filled. Have you been telling yourself that this is a good-company-versus-bad-company issue? Well, think again. This is a general phenomenon quite characteristic of Australia’s workplace and economy. And why should it come as a surprise? The workplace is a crucial site that is integrated into and taps into the wealth that circulates in the economy. Controlling this workplace, through the right staffing programs, enables the players behind this to determine the nature and distribution of wealth in society.
How many people from a particular culture get to work in a particular industry or office may seem to be a consequence of the nature of the work or industry (that it is culture specific, or that it calls for skills that not too many immigrants have in the right measure etc), yet this is only the surface reality that few people in the workforce today are not cynical about. The fact of the matter is that being a real Australian (you know what I mean, don’t you) means often you get jobs that you don’t have the required experience or skills for. Actually, being a “real Australian” is a great qualification so far as the Australian labor market is concerned. It qualifies you for all the best jobs that are primed for the greatest upward mobility and career progression: what all this translates to at a collective level is a huge coordinated effort to control the circulation and distribution of wealth and status in society. This, of course, does not in any way block the other job seekers, from other cultures, from gaining access to other positions in organisational hierarchies. If one looks at the composition of the personnel in the public sector one gets the feeling that this is another arena that is not representative of and adequately responsive to the needs of a multicultural society that it is meant to serve. But making the public sector so is going to be more than just economically costly, so far as the traditional interests of Australia is concerned. The game is not to serve but to rule and administer.
And if you keep your eyes on the larger picture it’s hard not to get the feeling that the Australian state has also criminalized entire sections of the community that were inimical to its policies of favoring white privilege and cultural domination. This is to say that the prevalence of crime in certain communities or regions of the city is not unrelated to the systematic nature of exclusion and domination that is necessary to maintain white privilege in Australia.
The point is that a lot of this has the consequence of creating disarray and confusion among important sections of Australia’s newer communities who find themselves on the defensive and crippled vis-à-vis the official political processes and institutions, all of which are embedded in the cultural mores and values of the dominant community. The refusal of the political establishment to accommodate in a genuine manner the diversity that we see and live all the time here means an outrageous lie is perpetrated in Australian public life: a smoothly functioning stable democratic process riding on the back of a political and cultural consensus based on the fantasy of a white Australia. Democratic?
Every debate on TV, in Parliament, on radio, in the newspapers is mere theater revolving around some sanitized and petty differences about how to keep and share the spoils of power within the dominant white Australian class. In Australia, if you are a thirdworldie you don’t usually get to speak for your own interests; you get the aristocrats to speak for you, in good English, with great passionate oratory or prose. This, and this more than anything else, explains the so-called civilized manner of these differences and debates that encapsulate and evoke the actual trends and processes unfolding in the larger Australian community. This spectacle beamed through TVs and endlessly and narcissistically dwelt on by the print media has the effect of captivating and hoodwinking the gullible gaze of people who are not given to thinking too much about these matters. Who wouldn’t end up thinking that this thing called democracy is not something they were culturally equipped for in their allegedly backward homelands.
And the free women? What is that freedom but a system of well-entrenched rights reserved for the female members of the racial and cultural aristocracy? A system of rights and privileges that percolate in the most dubious manner to the lower classes and cultures of Australia. Does this need any great explanation? If you were an unemployed woman from India, Lebanon, China or Sudan, living in Australia, what do you think would be on offer in terms of rights and freedoms? Go to the factories, the small restaurants, the markets, the brothels and see for yourself what this freedom translates to for the vast majority of women pouring into and living in this country? Find two women in their fifties who have been living in Australia for a few decades, one the real Australian and the other an immigrant from the third world. Look at their hands, and see for yourself which pair of hands shows a life of ease and luxury and which has all the marks of work and care etched on it from a lifetime of servicing the free society.
Democracy? It’s not easy to convince you in the space of a newspaper column, but if you still insist I’d say that it’s all a matter of faith.