Senator Anning makes a point

Fraser Anning, in an image taken from

Currently events from a mere nine days ago in Australian politics feel like ancient history. Nonetheless…

On 14 August 2018, Fraser Anning, a senator for Queensland, made his maiden speech in federal parliament. Among the other things he said in his nearly 35 minute speech was this:

“We as a nation are entitled to insist that those who are allowed to come here predominantly respect the historic European, Christian composition of Australian society, and embrace our language, culture and values as a people.”

One could challenge the accuracy of these remarks on the basis that the first Australians were neither European nor Christian. But then, one could also finesse the meaning of “nation” and say that he was correct. Before white settlement the land really did consist of a patchwork of many different Aboriginal nations. Currently in Melbourne, I live on the land that originally belonged to the Wurundjeri people. I’m from Perth – the land of the Noongars.

Still, let’s not go there, because that would be wandering off the point.

It’s also worth noting that a century ago it wasn’t altogether clear how long Aborigines had been in Australia. I’ve found two British newspaper articles suggesting that it was commonly believed in the 1950s that Aborigines had arrived in Australia merely hundreds of years before white people. In fact archaeologists had already found evidence of Aboriginal presence for at least 5000 years but the discoveries that would push that back to at least 65000 years were yet to be made.

But back to senator Anning. He spoke at length about infrastructure development, with obvious knowledge and having clearly given the matter a lot of thought. That part of his speech received little coverage.

He received much more attention for what he said about immigration. As well as the above quote he was especially critical of Muslim immigration; criticised the current general immigration rate; and in what was at the very least a poor choice of words talked about a “final solution” to the immigration problem.

It was universally agreed that he shouldn’t have used that phrase, associated as it is with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.

More generally, Anning outlined his political beliefs in his speech. He pulled no punches. Politically he is on the hard right and would like to see a return of the White Australia policy – the unofficial policy that lasted until the 1970s of only allowing white people as immigrants.

As is protocol, other senators shook Anning’s hand after the speech. They were right to do so. It was nonetheless clear from belated parliamentary reaction that many people found his remarks objectionable. There was a clear sense of bipartisanship about this that I find heartening. Yes, this was only nine days ago.

Still, a couple of the examples that Anning used in his speech, and one I thought of myself, do make me wonder. Do we ignore the fact that some admirable people had attitudes that aren’t now considered admirable?

Take Jan Smuts as an example. I do not know if Anning has ever heard of Smuts, who was twice prime minister of South Africa and who lived from 1870 to 1950.

Smuts was instrumental in helping to set up both the League of Nations and the United Nations, was a member of Churchill’s war cabinet, and was held in almost ridiculously high regard by Churchill himself. The first and second world wars each ended with a peace treaty. Smuts was the only person to sign both of them.

In 1948, Smuts lost an election to South Africa’s National party. It was the National party in South Africa that introduced Apartheid and Smuts had been opposed to them. All in all, a pretty impressive resume.

So why isn’t Jan Smuts better remembered outside of South Africa? Perhaps, because he believed in segregation and opposed giving blacks the vote. It does not pay to be on the wrong side of history.

Let’s shift our attention back to Australia. The proper dismantling of the White Australia policy began under Harold Holt in 1967 and it was finally consigned to history by Gough Whitlam’s government in 1973. Similarly, the referendum altering the status of Aborigines in Australia’s constitution was carried out under the Holt government in 1967. Menzies had talked about it but did nothing.

One consequence of these and other decisions is that Menzies’ second period as prime minister, from 1949 to 1966, is now seen as a very conservative and old-fashioned era. Changes now seen as necessary did not come about until after he’d left politics.

But wait a second. What about his predecessors? A simple count will show that fifteen other men were prime minster of Australia before Menzies began his second term. Some of the names are now obscure but others are remembered as great leaders, such as Ben Chifley and John Curtin. But the fact is, the White Australia policy survived intact under all of them.

Which is one of the points that Fraser Anning made and I hate to admit it, but it’s a good one. Anning’s ideas on immigration are repugnant to me but he reminds us that even heroes sometimes have feet of clay. It’s a useful thing to remember.

The Melancholy Roman