Settler Nationalism and Progressive Discourse

Julianne Schultz’s recent book The Idea of Australia has been welcomed by Tom Griffiths AO as ‘a brilliant successor to Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country’ and by Glyn Davis AC as a ‘similarly timely, urgent and skilful reading of an Australian moment’ that ‘rewards with a singular vision of the people we have become’. Melissa Lucashenko calls it a ‘valuable contribution to the debate over what Australia is, once was, and might yet become’, Peter Mares a skilful ‘dissect[ion]’ of ‘Australia’s soul’ and Ann Tiernan a ‘timely and urgent call for Australians to chart a shared path towards a bolder, more imaginative and inclusive idea of their country’. It opens with such a resounding list of endorsements from a who’s-who of Australia’s knowledge-culture establishment that should one make it beyond the six full pages of praise with some vestigial scepticism intact, it would take a very confident disposition to even contemplate taking issue with anything that follows.

I will, however, attempt to do exactly that, as one of the most remarkable cultural-political processes in this country has been the recent passage of progressive intellectuals from a more-or-less critical engagement with questions concerning settler-colonialism and its effects to a redemptive form of nationalism provoked and informed by that earlier critique. Even the most searching accounts of Australia’s founding cannot resist the very assimilationist logic they expose in looking towards a ‘reconciled Australia’, and nowhere are the urgencies and contradictions of this process more apparent than in The Idea of Australia.

***

Donald Horne’s original title for The Lucky Country was, Schultz observes, An Anatomy of Australia. In keeping with his original intent, his project involved the dissection and diagnosis of the existing character and qualities of Australian culture, politics and society, as well as his prognosis of its future possibilities. While Horne’s famous phrase and his scalding, de Tocquevillian indictment of Australia as derivative and comfortably complacent—‘a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck’—have come to represent, in shorthand and often inaccurately, his purpose, The Lucky Country was not only descriptive but also prescriptive. Horne sought to not only identify Australia’s flaws, but ‘liberate’ the ‘good qualities of Australians’ from the prevailing morass in the hope that they might ‘constitute the beginnings of a great nation’.

In this, Schultz follows Horne, though with certain modifications to and accommodations of the changing conditions from which her ‘search for the soul of the nation’ proceeds. Where Horne’s account was carefully and critically diagnostic, however, Schultz’s offers a more wide-ranging appraisal of Australian life and culture. At times her mission is somewhat Frankensteinian: in addition to her complex, nuanced and frequently insightful contemplation of contemporary settler-colonial Australia, she dissects the nation’s past and present and seeks to excise the dis-eases of silence and racial exclusion that she locates in the inception of the national body itself, and which ‘infect every aspect of life’ and ‘corrode the soul of the nation’, in the hope of reassembling and reanimating the national spirit into a ‘fully formed nation—grounded in a civic, not ethnic, way of belonging’.

At the beginning of the pandemic, which frames Schultz’s analysis, Tony Abbott invited Australians to ask: who are we? Schultz welcomes this question, which has been so pervasive over such a long period that Richard White, in 1981, labelled it a ‘national obsession’. Even Horne, who flatly denied the existence of ‘something called the Australian national identity’, seemingly suffered from the same condition; as Schultz reflects, ‘he was seeking in 1964 to answer a recurring big question: what kind of people are we?’ While the debate has ebbed and flowed in response to changing conditions, it has persisted. Despite John Howard’s claims to have ended Australia’s ‘endless seminar on national identity’, Schultz’s is only the most prominent in a spate of new books concerned variously with the idea/ls, symbols and hi/stories of the nation.

***

Schultz’s account is, like most if not all of its contemporaries, informed and perhaps impelled by the transformations of the imagined geography of the settler nation over the past half-century or so. Schultz dismisses Jared Diamond’s suggestion that the social and political upheavals he witnessed in Australia over the same period were manifestations of a crisis provoked by ‘imperial detachment’, arguing that it ‘missed the mark’, lacked ‘nuance’ and identified ‘the wrong source of crisis to drive change’. Yet while many of those changes occurred independently of Britain’s ‘abandonment’, and monocausal explanations for complex social processes are inevitably incomplete, the ‘idea of Australia’ itself was fundamentally altered by this shift.

While preceding national/ist traditions were organised around the primary dialectical relation between colony and metropole, from P. R. ‘Inky’ Stephensen to Manning Clark and beyond, the insistence that Australian ‘civilisation’ began with British ‘settlement’ has been central to the project of Australian cultural nationalism. As a result, as James Curran and Stuart Ward convincingly argued, the demise of Britishness as a cornerstone of Australian identity—whether embraced or rejected—raised important questions about the nation and its place in the world, to such an extent that they caused what Horne described as a ‘general “national identity” crisis’.

Yet these questions were also provoked, and responses conditioned, by decolonisation movements abroad and at home, represented in Australia by a renewed and resurgent movement for Indigenous rights. Broadly speaking, a transition from the imagined absence to the acknowledged presence of Indigenous peoples, histories and sovereignties can be traced back to the reversal of demographic decline and advent of organised Indigenous political activism in the 1920s and 1930s. While its effects were initially, ineffectually repressed through the adoption of absorptionist and later assimilationist approaches and imaginaries, by the late 1960s they could no longer be contained. During the post-1967 period in particular, and even more in the wake of the High Court’s decision in Mabo no. 2, the continuation of traditional modes of erasure, denial and disavowal became increasingly untenable, and those shrinking quadrants of the cultural and historical landscape that still clung to them correspondingly shrill.

In the absence of Indigenous visibility, or in the comfort of ideologies imagining Indigenous marginality, irrelevance or outright disappearance, preceding settler-nationalist traditions had remained relatively free to concern themselves with traditional pursuits: establishing the cultural/historical basis for independence from the metropole; sending down ‘roots’ in the ‘new soil’; establishing national literary-cultural traditions and debating the proper content of associated canons; developing a distinctive national ethos and identity in conflict with a ‘hostile’ environment, in the ‘crucible’ of war, and so on. The transition from Indigenous absence to Indigenous presence, however, rendered the traditions founded in and on what Schultz calls the ‘terra nullius of the mind’—the national imaginary of ‘generations of settlers, old and new’ who ‘preferred to think of Australia, literally and figuratively, as a blank slate on which their dreams could be etched’—increasingly implausible as projects of national cultural construction.

The ground on which the settler nation had been previously constructed was irreversibly transformed. As Schultz acknowledges, echoing decades of Indigenous insistence, ‘It is no longer an excuse to say, “We didn’t know”, or to ask “Why weren’t we told?”’. This represents a dramatic shift in the ground from which projects of national cultural construction can proceed, and the ‘linked Mabo and Wik judgments’ in particular ‘challenged the founding principle of the nation’ and ‘upended many of the accepted wisdoms that had shaped’ it. In Schultz’s national/ist vision, as the implications of these decisions were ‘unpacked, it was clear that they demanded the re-creation of a half-formed nation’—precisely the project Schultz is engaged in.

***

Changed conditions, Schultz concedes, have ‘irreparably tarnished’ the very ‘prospect of a positive notion of national identity’. In terms that reflect those Humphrey McQueen articulated more than fifty years earlier, Schultz’s dissection reveals a ‘racist heart’ and a ‘national psyche’ founded on ‘a brutal “logic of elimination”’, inside a national body still suffering under ‘the wound Jeremy Bentham described in 1803 as “incurable”: settler-colonists’ failure to resolve the legal basis of colonisation. Schultz’s response to this is to abandon the search for a national idea/l and to search instead for a national soul. Her search is transcendental, and not only because to search for an immanent ‘idea’ of Australia at the current conjuncture is to confront the prior claims of First Nations peoples, who exhibit many more of the characteristics of ‘nations’ than the settler nation ‘Australia’ does. It is also divine—she is, after all, searching for a soul—in part because the heart and body she has found are so fundamentally flawed.

The narrative Schultz presents in The Idea of Australia is a teleological one that has echoes of antecedent nationalist traditions founded on the dialectical evolution of an Australian national ethos and identity, but revised and enlarged to accommodate changed conditions. From postwar reconstruction, immigration and assimilationist nation-building, through the successes of the Indigenous civil rights movement leading up to and beyond the 1967 Referendum, to the end of White Australia (hastened by the heady days of Whitlam), with the structural transformations of neoliberal globalisation constrained, somewhat, by the Hawke and Keating governments’ ‘social compact’ that ‘ensured that the excesses of neoliberal economics were curtailed’, Schultz’s progressive teleology leads inevitably, and in line with an established contemporary settler-nationalist tradition, towards the fantasy of a reconciled republic in which both dimensions of the settler-national/ist predicament might finally be resolved.

The fulfilment of this fantasy seemed tantalisingly close at the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics in 2000, where, we are told, a ‘reconciled, outward-looking, inclusive nationalism’ drew from ‘a deep well of art, dance, song and history to describe a diverse and inclusive society’. Yet it was swiftly brought crashing down by the ‘baddies’ in Schultz’s Manichaean tale—Pauline Hanson and John Howard, with Rupert Murdoch providing rear-guard support—who, by actively fostering a ‘them and us’ divide, ‘slowed’ the ‘momentum that had driven national transformation’ and ultimately derailed national progress towards the ‘new age in Australia’ that ‘should have dawned with the centenary of Federation in 2001’.

Despite stalled progress towards a ‘renovated idea of Australia’, for Schultz it remains the case that if the nation is to transform from half- to fully formed, the foundational ‘wound’ of settler colonisation will need ‘to be healed’. Thankfully, Schultz argues, renewed ‘inspiration for this journey … and indeed the model methodology of how we might embark upon it, comes from an unlikely source: the people who even three score years and ten ago were still routinely and unemotionally treated as vermin, described as a dying race’. Schultz is, of course, referring to the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which she insists will, ‘sooner or later, fundamentally reshape the idea of Australia’.

In a key move that reveals the political implications of this particular brand of progressive nationalism, Schultz argues that Australia is not threatened by decolonisation, but is itself decolonising. Rather than being unsettled and reshaped by decolonisation globally and Indigenous activism here, Schultz’s ‘positive, inclusive, home-grown nationalism’ develops in line with and is driven by the ‘same ambition’ as the ‘decolonising movements’ that ‘swept the world’ in the postwar period. It is a subtle slippage, but a significant one. Although Schultz cites Patrick Wolfe’s work on settler colonialism, the implications for the settler nation invested in the ongoing settler-colonial project of attempting to displace Indigenous peoples in order to replace them on and of the land, are absent from her account. This has the effect of imbuing the ‘soul’ of the nation with an essentially positive, progressive telos, and of aligning progressive settler-nationalists with the decolonising aims of First Nations peoples, as if progressive settler-nationalists were not themselves part of the ongoing settler-colonial system of relations. Contrary to the well-established rejection of Australia as postcolonial, Schultz argues that ‘decolonisation’ here has already occurred—though it is not clear how, when, or even entirely in relation to whom—and, what’s more, that the process was ‘less violent … than in India, Malaysia or Rhodesia’.

One response to changed conditions, expressing continuities with the traditions of silencing settler-colonialism common to earlier settler-nationalist traditions, has been to attempt to maintain patterns of denial and disavowal and to seek the wholesale assimilation or incorporation of Indigenous (and exogenous) alterities into a reified, (re)unified national body. An alternative that seems to have presented itself to some on the progressive cultural Left is an emergent tradition that Anthony Moran has termed ‘indigenising settler nationalism’. This ‘involves a reaching out to embrace the indigenous [sic] (and their Aboriginality) as full moral members of a shared Australian nation … with the indigenous accorded a central, identity-giving place’. Indigenous peoples’ ‘cultural heritage, their long and deep spiritual connection with Australian lands, given as a “gift” to the national community’ works to indigenise ‘the Australian nation’ as a whole. In keeping with Schultz’s approach, through this process ‘Australia would become a truly post-colonial nation’.

Whatever the politics of the contemporary debate, in this context the attraction of the Uluru Statement from the Heart for progressive Australia may be understood as having less to do with its proposals for substantive, structural reform in the relationship between First Nations peoples and the settler state than with its invitation to ‘walk with us … for a better future’ in which the ‘ancient sovereignty’ of Indigenous Australia ‘can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood’. The degree to which ostensibly progressive individuals, organisations and media outlets have seized upon this offering—to such an extent that many Indigenous voices have felt silenced in the debate over the Indigenous Voice to Parliament—seems to bear this out.

***

Schultz’s ‘search for the soul of the nation’ is telling, and not only because it simultaneously accedes to and attempts to supersede the implausibility of any attempt to identify or define a singular, cohesive national character, culture or identity. Such a project has been comprehensively undermined through the processes of diversification and complexification that Schultz carefully describes, which have progressively dismantled, if not structurally then at least at the level of national symbolism, the ‘almost invisible scaffold of exclusion’—of First Nations peoples, of women, of migrants and refugees—on which the ‘romanticised, sometimes well-justified view of Australia as a land of mates where Jack is as good as his boss’ was constructed. Alongside a hollowing out of the substantive social relations and solidarities that underpinned the Australian idea/l of an egalitarian society, founded on principles of fairness and (white, male) equality, the no longer plausibly deniable reality that Australia’s ‘attachment to fairness’ was always ‘colour coded’ and ‘partial’ leaves the searching out and salvation of a national ‘soul’ the last remaining hope of a vestigial, no-longer-radical nationalist tradition.

Schultz herself attributes the hollowing-out of ‘the nation’ to Howard’s cynical reinvention and commodification of ‘the myths of the Australian legend’, but this misses the point. The symbolism of national culture has been not only commodified, but undermined, even emptied out, by social and historical processes: hollowed out by the decimation of prior levels of place-based social relations, however exclusionary these may have been; destabilised by diversification and plurality; and ultimately delegitimised by the undeniable shift from absence to presence of prior, persistent Indigenous societies and the incommensurable sovereignties instantiated through their ongoing, ontological relation to land.

This—not instead of, but as well as Howard’s cynicism and rat cunning—is why the symbols of old Australia have so readily shifted their political polarity from, broadly, Left to Right, while an abstract, generalised First Nations culture has been co-opted as the last possible instantiation of a distinctive Australian identity—the culmination of a longer trajectory founded on what John Morton termed the ‘logic of symbolic substitution’. As Guy Rundle recently remarked, writing for Crikey,

White progressives have latched on to First Nations acknowledgment out of genuine ethical passion, but also out of cultural need. The frameworks of progressivist/knowledge class life are abstract, generalised. First Nations cultures retain rich and compressed meanings, which can assuage progressive anomie.

With Australian ‘values’ weaponised by the remnant, ressentiment-based ethnic nationalist contingent in the Culture Wars, the progressive project now seemingly rests on a combination of ostensibly ‘universal’ liberal-democratic values and a turn towards the cultures of First Nations peoples as the only distinguishing characteristic of the contemporary Australian nation.

***

The long history of this process can be seen in Melissa Harper and Richard White’s Symbols of Australia, and even in the contextual changes that have occurred since this now reissued book was first published in 2010. While the editors note that ‘worrying about national symbols in the 2020s seems almost quaint’, their history effectively ‘reveals a great deal about where we have come from and how we have imagined ourselves, perhaps even how we can look to the future … Symbols attempt the impossibility of defining “us”, whoever we are’. Drawing useful comparisons between Australia and other Anglophone settler-colonies, Harper and White render explicit the derivative, dialectical and appropriative nature of these and similar projects of national/ist imagining. For example, as they point out, Australia and Canada ‘are very similar communities historically, not least in their propensity to find symbolism in the very cultures they displaced’, but ‘incidental features of their geography and history give them quite different symbolic histories’: Australia ‘has access to a much wider range of “natural” symbols because—being, uniquely, “a nation for a continent”—so much of its flora and fauna is found nowhere else’. In contrast to Schultz, Harper and White observe how ‘Australia’s symbols were often developed in the context of a historical relationship with Britain, often in reaction’, and document how, as Morton also insisted, the ‘indigenisation of Australia’ is precisely ‘correlative to its un-Anglicisation’.

From the Australian Natives Association’s decorative use of Aboriginalia and reference to meetings as ‘corroborees’ to The Bulletin’s section entitled ‘Aboriginalities’ in the 1890s, through the more explicit indigenism of the Jindyworobaks, Margaret Preston and others in the 1930s and beyond, to the more recent shifts outlined and works drawn on above, appropriative projects of national/ist cultural distinction have been pervasive and persistent in Australia. Harper and White note that as settlers ‘built up a symbolic repertoire to express their Australianness, they were also engaged in a cultural dispossession of First Peoples, as the newcomers claimed their own identification with kangaroos, wattle and gum trees’. At the same time, however, and at least partly by virtue of necessity, that ‘did not prevent them from looking to Indigenous culture as a quarry from which the new nation would mine new symbols, as settler colonialism did in other parts of the world’. In a sense, this is inevitable and unavoidable. As Patrick Wolfe highlighted,

in order to produce a narrative that can bind it transcendentally to its territorial base—to make it, as it were spring organically from the local soil—the settler stage is obliged to appropriate the symbolism of the very Aboriginality that it has historically effaced.

As Symbols of Australia makes eminently clear, such borrowings have been part of the settler-national/ist tradition in Australia ever since its inception. Yet as Harper and White observe, in accordance with the historical development of settler-national/ist projects—over and above the conditions they responded to and were themselves conditioned by, over the same durée canvassed above—‘the appropriation of First Peoples’ symbols as Australian national symbols increased, often without reference to their creators and with little understanding or even in violation of their underlying significance’. The ‘new’ and subsequent nationalist traditions that Schultz both recounts and is engaged in ‘called on them to fill a symbolic vacuum left by the withering of monarchical ties and the fading of a pioneering bush culture’. In this context, the symbols and motifs of First Nations cultures were seen as providing ‘a spiritual centre and a historical depth to Australian national imagery that was otherwise lacking’.

Harper and White’s task of appraising rather than engaging in the impossible task of ‘defining “us”, whoever we are’ allows them to retain their critical distance. Their hope is that ‘by taking a representative sample of the symbols that stand for Australia’, their catalogue of ‘national’ symbols and accompanying commentaries might provide ‘a way into understanding the processes by which the nation is imagined’. Their relative detachment enables the accurate reflection that the ‘motives behind non-Indigenous Australians’ identification with Indigenous symbols are ambiguous and not easy to unpick’, ranging ‘from reconciliation and sincere imitation to appropriation, absorption by the dominant culture and the desire for the approbation of—and commercial advantage in—the outside world’.

At the same time, however, their attentiveness to symbols rather than underlying structures leaves them prepared only to wonder whether Australia’s provisionality ‘might help explain what seems to be increasing vehemence in the battles they provoke, as statues are graffitied, critics of Anzac are “cancelled” and symbolic acts around anything from the flag to Uluru meet with outrage on social media’. A consideration of the fundamental hollowing out of ‘the nation’ into an increasingly free-floating category of identification, on the other hand, suggests that this does indeed, at least in part, explain the vehemence of battles over the symbols of national and other identities, as the ground of established solidarities—within and between cultures, increasingly fragmented, free-floating identities and social boundaries, and even generations—has turned to quicksand.

***

These are the promises and pitfalls of narrating the settler nation as such. Whatever amendments to the national teleology may have been made to accommodate changed conditions, Schultz’s project, alongside others like it, remains nationalist in its unquestioning insistence on ‘the nation’ as singular, substantive and in need of salvage and salvation. Her search may be necessarily for an ‘idea’ or a ‘soul’, rather than a character or identity like antecedent traditions, but Schultz clearly conceives of a ‘real’ Australia located in this soul, which, by remarkable coincidence, aligns quite neatly with her own variety of late Baby-Boomer social-liberal progressivism. The ‘ethos’ she grew up with was, despite the stains of settler-colonial invasion, White Australia and the series of exclusions that ensued, ‘increasingly inclusive, tolerant, egalitarian, independent, ambitious, and engaged with the region’. Schultz’s real Australia was ‘a place that was open and generous, prepared to engage rather than just tolerate’.

However, as Richard White noted when introducing his investigation of Australia’s national obsession in Inventing Australia, ‘there is no “real” Australia waiting to be uncovered … When we look at ideas about national identity, we need to ask, not whether they are true or false, but what their function is, whose creation they are, and whose interests they serve’. This is the opening gambit of The Story of Australia: A New History of People and Place, in which Louise C. Johnson, Tanja Luckins and David Walker adopt an alternative approach.

Johnson, Luckins and Walker’s is less a quest for the soul, the heart or any other facet of ‘the nation’ as such, and more an eclectic but still chronologically organised narrative history of ‘Australia’ (whether as continent or nation is not always easy to discern). They are clearly and carefully attuned to the complexities of narrating a nation founded in and on dispossession, and their account prioritises previously marginalised voices and draws from an impressive range and diversity of sources. The fact that it began life with the same publisher as The Idea of Australia—Allen & Unwin—but ended up with Routledge instead says much about the nature and approach of this text, and offers clues as to its intended and potential audience beyond the broader cultural appeal of Schultz’s spiritual quest.

Ultimately, theirs is a quite conventional history, done well but with relatively limited scope, and for precisely these reasons it succeeds. Just as effectively as Schultz’s less formal, more free-ranging style and approach, if not more so, The Story of Australia balances the competing narratives, experiences and interpretations of all those living in the place now called Australia. Freed from the constraints and contradictions inherent in the search for a national telos, character or identity, this ‘new history of people and place’ is content to have ‘highlighted the complexity of our past’, signalling ‘some of the dilemmas to be faced in the future’ along the way.

***

In contrast, Anna Clark’s Making Australian History stands as an example of history done differently. Abandoning even the potential pitfalls of narrative historiography, which The Story of Australia studiously but never quite successfully attempts to avoid, Clark presents a wide-ranging and complex, thematically organised story of history-making rather than a history as such. Like Johnson, Luckins and Walker, but one step beyond, Clark operates at a level of remove from her subject that is precluded by the very nature and underlying imperatives of Schultz’s search, and her book is all the better for it. As Larissa Behrendt’s endorsement suggests, Clark ‘understands the complex role of the discipline in creating a national narrative’ but is not engaged directly in it.

Clark too confronts the reality of contemporary settler-colonial Australia, and her account opens with an Acknowledgment of Country and a recognition that ‘the History discipline has been part of the architecture of colonisation, policing whose stories can be told and by whom’, even as it nevertheless insists that ‘History can also play a vital role in truth-telling and reconciliation, as the Uluru Statement from the Heart has advocated’. Observing and rejecting the imbrication of History and nation/alism and acknowledging that there exist ‘multiple histories in and of this place’, Clark is clear that hers is not a settler-national/ist narrative of replacement, but rather an account shaped by the power and persistence of Indigenous resistance.

Clark is troubled by questions of where ‘Australian History’ begins and what it consists in, as well as by questions of the incommensurable ‘historical temporalities’ that History, in its traditional form, forecloses on. As a result, while her book began as ‘quite a conventional narrative history of “Australian historiography”’, it becomes ‘a more creative … analysis of the structure, function and ethics of the discipline itself’, founded in practices of ‘history-making’ as more diverse and representative than History as such. From this complex and challenging point of departure, Clark artfully and ethically traces the emergence, continuities and discontinuities of the Australian national idea/l. Hers is good history, and a pretty good story as well.

Critically, Clark notes the ‘newly emergent nationalist sentiment’ of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when ‘Australian identity took on an independence and irreverence that moved away from its imperial ties and searched for authentically Australian historical roots’. While ‘[f]amily histories of convicts and diggers, as well as local community histories and heritage conservation, were some of the outcomes from this refocusing of the historical lens’, another, central one was the ‘growing public connection between the modern Australian state and its deep Indigenous origins’. In keeping with the trajectory and traditions outlined above, Clark reads this connection in relation to changing notions of Australian national identity, which ‘increasingly acknowledged Indigenous history and culture in an attempt to conjure a creatively distinct, modern Australia’. As she interjects, however, ‘sometimes the line between acknowledgement and appropriation has been pretty blurry’.

***

The dynamics described above explain, at least in part, the persistence of White’s ‘national obsession’, to the extent that as Andrew Lattas concludes, the ‘continual questioning of who we really are is the essence of Australian nationalism’. In 1994 Richard Nile characterised Australia as a ‘community of perpetual provisionality’—a ‘civilisation that is always arriving, but which has not yet quite arrived’. In Schultz’s view, it remains ‘an oddly amorphous idea’: Australia is ‘both solid’ in a continental, geographical sense and yet culturally ‘provisional’. The paradox, as she sees it, is that ‘for all the many and real achievements of the past two centuries, Australia is only truly unique as home for 65 millennia to the world’s oldest continuing civilisation’. Until that ‘truth is fully embraced, the paradox will prevail, erode the soul of the nation and leave Australia half-formed’. As Schultz herself concedes, ‘[d]ebate about national identity still rumbles here in a way it does not in much longer settled nations, or those forged more recently from conflict’.

If settler-colonial invasion entails a project of territorial displacement for the purpose of replacing prior social formations with a singular, settler one, the dominant form of this replacement is the settler nation. The incompleteness of this project is the result of ongoing Indigenous resistance and the transformation it provoked, in which overt eliminationism (whether via violence or assimilation) was rendered politically unpalatable, in Australia and beyond. In Schultz’s terms, First Nations’ survival in the face of ‘extraordinary efforts’ towards their elimination—via ‘massacres, incarceration, poisoning, family and cultural destruction, impoverishment’—stands as ‘the greatest national achievement’. However, this is an achievement against the nation, and seeking to co-opt it and other achievements, cultural or otherwise, of admittedly First Nations for the settler nation to come is to attempt the evasion, even foreclosure, of the realities of settler-colonial society that Schultz purports to accept and appears to be responding to.

Schultz concludes that until settler-colonial Australia’s ‘incurable flaw’ is ‘structurally and meaningfully addressed, notwithstanding all her remarkable achievements and her brilliant and generous people, Australia will be a half-formed thing’. Yet this cannot be only a matter of recognition and/or ‘reconciliation’. Without an acknowledgement of ontological difference and priority and a willingness to grapple with the incommensurability of social (and historical) forms and the implications arising therefrom, the progressive idea/l of Australia promoted by Schultz and parallel progressive fantasies of reconciliation run the risk of perpetuating what Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang critiqued as the ‘metaphorization of decolonization’—a project and a process which ‘makes possible a set of evasions, or “settler moves to innocence”, that problematically attempt to reconcile settler guilt and complicity, and rescue settler futurity’.

Against reconciliation and associated ‘settler moves to innocence’, what Tuck and Yang term an ‘ethic of incommensurability’ invites the opening-up of potential pathways towards different futures without requiring in advance the ‘detail’ of actually decolonising moves. In place of interminable promises and prospects of the resolution of ongoing settler-colonial relations—as, for example, in Noel Pearson’s framing of an Indigenous Voice to Parliament as the pathway to national ‘synthesis’, as the last hope for national reconciliation in the form of ‘a new settlement that celebrates the rightful place of Indigenous heritage in Australia’s national identity’—proposals and processes such as Voice, Treaty and Truth might instead offer at least the possibility of opening up into ongoing relations of incommensurability and national incompletion.

In the offering-up of reconciliation, through constitutional recognition or otherwise, as a form of national fantasy fulfilment, as in Schultz’s search for the soul of the nation, White’s question looms large. Whose interests do such projects actually serve? As Rundle remarked, in the absence of ‘material transfer—urban land, reparations, capital’, the co-option, if not outright appropriation, of First Nations cultures, detached from their ontological roots and repackaged and repurposed to suit the needs of the settler nation—whether ‘by progressives needing to import rich meaning into their own lives, or a national government … needing to give the country an identity on the world stage’—remains ‘extraction and exploitation’ in keeping with the founding logics of Australian settler colonialism: ‘We are mining First Nations cultures just as we have mined their lands’. This process is not immaterial, but works to perpetuate and profit off the reciprocal processes of social abstraction and symbolic excavation that at least in part underpin the structural problems Schultz’s account is responding to.

Engagement with the questions raised by Australia’s settler-colonial foundations and the ongoing system of settler-colonial relations—including primarily Indigenous priority and persistence—will be necessary if those who now call Australia home are to salvage some hope of ethical belonging, to make possible the continuation of social life here, in this place, together. This may entail a process of cultural ‘regeneration’, as John Hinkson recently proposed, or some other form of ethical engagement with the questions raised by ontological difference and incommensurability that leads not towards ‘cultural convergence’ and the collapsing of difference, but rather towards something resembling a ‘fusion of horizons’.

The competing options offered up by antecedent and contemporary settler-nationalist traditions alike—the attempted maintenance of silence and exclusion and the corresponding insistence on national unity and coherence on the one hand, the ostensibly progressive but nevertheless possessive incorporation of Indigenous difference and priority as a means of national/ist salvation on the other—reveal themselves, in the last instance, as different sides of the same process: the drawing-in of genuine, incommensurable difference to a one-dimensional modernity, in which recognition is reduced to a series of symbolic acts oriented towards inclusion. While such processes seek the resolution of relations, understanding them in these terms brings their performative and incompletable character to the fore. National ‘wounds’ posited as the symbolic manifestation of real events and their effects cannot so easily be sutured into healing by such acts. The process begins as interminable, and ends in self-defeat. It is not impossible that we are seeing this happen as we speak.

Books discussed

Anna Clark, Making Australian History, Sydney, Vintage, 2022.

Louise C. Johnson, Tanja Luckins and David Walker, The Story of Australia: A New History of People and Place, Abingdon, Routledge, 2021.

Julianne Schultz, The Idea of Australia: A Search for the Soul of the Nation, Crows Nest, Allen & Unwin, 2022.

Richard White and Melissa Harper (eds), Symbols of Australia: Imagining a Nation, Sydney, NewSouth, 2021 [2010].

Additional sources cited

Manning Clark, A History of Australia. Volume 1: From the Earliest Times to the Age of Macquarie, Carlton, Melbourne University Press, 1962.

James Curran and Stuart Ward, The Unknown Nation: Australia after Empire, Carlton, Melbourne University Press, 2010.

Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, New York, Viking, 2005.

Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2nd ed., London & New York, Continuum, 2004 [1960].

John Hinkson, ‘AUKUS, Nuclear Technology and Australia’s Future’, Arena Online, 6 April 2023.

Donald Horne, The Lucky Country, 3rd revised ed., Ringwood, Penguin, 1971 [1964].

Andrew Lattas, ‘Aborigines and Contemporary Australian Nationalism: Primordiality and the Cultural Politics of Otherness’, in Race Matters: Indigenous Australians and ‘Our’ Society, G. Cowlishaw and B. Morris (eds), Canberra, Aboriginal Studies Press, 1997.

Humphrey McQueen, A New Britannia: An Argument Concerning the Social Origins of Australian Radicalism and Nationalism, 3rd ed., Ringwood, Penguin, 1986 [1970].

Anthony Moran, ‘As Australia Decolonizes: Indigenizing Settler Nationalism and the Challenges of Settler/Indigenous Relations’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol. 25, no. 6, 2002.

Anthony Moran, ‘The Psychodynamics of Australian Settler-Nationalism: Assimilating or Reconciling with the Aborigines?’, Political Psychology, vol. 23, no. 4, 2002.

John Morton, ‘Aboriginality, Mabo and the Republic: Indigenising Australia’, in In the Age of Mabo: History, Aborigines and Australia, B. Attwood (ed.), St Leonards, Allen & Unwin, 1996.

Richard Nile (ed.), Australian Civilisation, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1994.

Noel Pearson, ‘We the Australian People’, Boyer Lectures, 2 December 2022;

Noel Pearson, ‘Who We Were, Who We Are, and Who We Can Be’, Boyer Lectures, 4 November 2022.

Guy Rundle, ‘Labor’s Revive Policy Promotes First Nations Culture. Reparation? Not So Much’, Crikey, 1 February 2023.

Bernard Smith, The Spectre of Truganini: 1980 Boyer Lectures, Sydney, Australian Broadcasting Commission, 1980.

Percy R. Stephensen, The Foundations of Culture in Australia: An Essay Towards National Self-Respect, Gordon, W. J. Miles, 1936.

Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, ‘Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor’, Decolonization, vol. 1, no. 1, 2012.

Richard White, Inventing Australia: Images and Identity 1688-1980, Sydney, George Allen & Unwin, 1981.

Patrick Wolfe, Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology: The Politics and Poetics of an Ethnographic Event, London & New York, Cassell, 1999.

The Kumanjayi Walker Inquest: Bodycam, fear and the unmaking of intercultural relations

Melinda Hinkson, Jun 2023

The quest to understand the death of Kumanjayi Walker has progressively opened out to reveal a wider plain of consequence. Withdrawal, disengagement, lack of trust, betrayal.

About the author

Dan Tout

Dan Tout is a lecturer in history and sociology at Federation University and an Arena Publications Editor. In 2023, he was an inaugural Visiting Fellow with the Australian Centre at the University of Melbourne. His research focuses on settler colonialism and nationalism in Australia and their impacts on and implications for First Nations peoples.

More articles by Dan Tout

Categorised: Arena Quarterly #15

Tagged: ,

Comments closed

Support Arena

Independent publications and critical thought are more important than ever. Arena has never relied on or received government funding. It has sustained its activities largely through the voluntary work and funding provided by editors and supporters. If Arena is to continue and to expand its readership, we need your support to do it.