No country has a spotless past. Countries such as Great Britain, that disengaged from their respective empires in the 20th century, present an especially complex challenge to historians faced not only with the task of telling the truth about the past but also doing justice to it. Indulging in gestures of apology for events that happened long ago has little point and is morally worthless. Worse, it can fuel a conviction that, regardless of how a society has changed and developed since, at its heart there still festers a moral depravity.
So it’s hardly surprising that her British audience took offence at Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s moral posturing during a recent speech in London that was supposed to be about greater collaboration between Australia and the United Kingdom in the Indo-Pacific region.
Wong chose to remind her audience that Great Britain once happened to have had a vast empire that included a number of a countries in that region — including Australia. The thrust of the minister’s speech was that Australia had shrugged off the “experience of British colonisation” and no longer “sheltered” in the narrow shadow of its history.
She reminded the Brits that since the end of World War II, under the ‘visionary leadership’ of Whitlam and Keating, Australia had turned itself into “a modern, multicultural country, home to people of more than 300 ancestries.” (Of course, no mention was made of Menzies or Holt, the leaders who actually dismantled the White Australia policy between 1949 and 1966.) Wong said that today, far from being a British outpost in the Indo-Pacific region, Australia was a modern country “of the Indo-Pacific”.
But then, pointing the finger of woke righteousness at her hosts, she presumed to urge Britain to take a candid look at its own past, dispel the “narrower version” of its own history of empire and colonisation, and face its own “uncomfortable” feelings about its history in order “to find more common ground” with Australia. Why? Because “understanding the past enables us to better share the present and the future”. The minister’s British hosts were understandably irked at an overseas visitor using history as a political cudgel.
These kinds of woke bromides have become the all too familiar hallmark of postcolonial activists who are intent upon expunging every manifestation and remnant of colonialism wherever they think they can find it. This purging is pursued in programs of ‘decolonisation’ in our schools and universities, aimed at rooting out all oppressive, dominant ‘Western’ attitudes and ways of knowing wherever they are suspected of lurking.
The trouble is that in their indignation about the past, decolonisation activists have abandoned the discipline of history as the pursuit of empirical truth; they use it instead as a weapon with which to achieve certain political objectives. The question of how we think about the past is an important one. But postcolonial activism presents an oversimplistic dichotomy between ‘oppressed’ and ‘oppressor’ which corrupts the discipline of historical enquiry.
In the case of Australia, it generates interpretations of the present that are often thoroughly distorted, leading to condemnation of the country as being forever, and irredeemably, racist. But this distorted representation of contemporary Australia conflicts directly with the country’s widely recognised status as a cohesive, multicultural society. However, in answer to a question about how she thought Australia, itself, might be perceived by other countries in the region, the Foreign Minister boldly asserted that “Australia is not a white colonial power” — a declaration may well have come as a surprise to many back home.
Aussies are lectured about their supposedly racist attitudes repeatedly by the progressive, political Left. We are never allowed to forget that this country not only allegedly retains the ugly stains of empire but will continue to do so until the last vestiges of colonisation are expunged. This can only be achieved, we are told, by ditching the monarchy, enshrining an Indigenous Voice in the Constitution, and tearing down every last statue commemorating white colonial invaders.
But when addressing a former colonial power like the United Kingdom, moral superiority is demonstrated by deploying shame and making accusations of inherited guilt.
The self-righteous woke always adopt a position of moral superiority and appeal to absolute principles by which anyone in any age can be judged guilty and condemned for the sins of the past. According to them, knowledge is always a construct of power, guilt is perpetual and heritable, and justice can never be attained. Woke, postcolonial activists feel entitled to denounce and shame any opponent as a vestigial coloniser who is either white or acts in ways that are deemed white. This helps to explain why Wong was not vacillating between her apparently inconsistent views about Australia.
Of course, the question of how we think about the past is an important one. Certainly, history confronts contemporary Australia — as it does every nation — with events and actions that need to be considered and addressed.
However, postcolonial activists insist that these wrongs can only ever be addressed by eradicating all vestiges of association with the past, whether in the form of literature, the fine arts, statuary, the curriculum, and language. By attributing guilt that can never be discharged, and pursuing justice that can never be attained, postcolonial activists threaten to tear the very fabric of our society.
Wong, herself, is a fine example of Australia’s open and meritocratic society in which any person with talent, intelligence and ability can aspire to the highest offices in the land. Rather than calling upon Britain to unburden itself of its past, she would have served both her own country — and her government — better by emphasising to all nations the importance of pursuing policies that foster social and economic stability, strengthen the rule of law, and enshrine democratic accountability.
In pointing the finger of shame and ladling out the gruel of postcolonial guilt, grievance and shame the Foreign Minister betrayed both her own best interests and those of her country.
Peter Kurti is Director of the Culture, Prosperity & Civil Society program at the Centre for Independent Studies, and Adjunct Associate Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame Australia.
Photo by Lina Kivaka