Like indigenous peoples worldwide, Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations face harsh social disparities in their own homelands – greater underrepresentation than any other ethnic group in higher education, coupled with greatest overrepresentation in the areas of unemployment, incarceration, homelessness and poor health. Despite these unfortunate realities, a few months ago the Australian government announced its plans to cut AUS$534m over the following five years that were previously reserved for indigenous programmes. Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey justified these changes, stating that “there has been incredible duplication and some waste.”
The severe governmental cuts to programmes for Australia’s indigenous peoples reflect society’s current wave of neoliberal policies that prioritises private, free market enterprise and a reduction of governmental involvement in the global economy. Furthermore, it is this neoliberal ideological agenda that is proclaimed the most efficient, rational approach to successful nation-building.
Frequently lost in the discourse over neoliberalism, however, is its Eurocentric cultural bent. Privatisation of resources for the purposes of limitless economic growth is a cultural principal brought by European colonists and imposed upon indigenous people centuries ago. Moreover, the competitive, individualistic free market society that has evolved since the early years of colonialism, and that we see controlling much of the global economy today, is starkly unaligned with most indigenous peoples’ cultural values, which tend to stress collective living practices and a deep, spiritual connection to the land.
Of course sifting out race relations is an intensely complicated process. Settler societies, such as Australia, New Zealand and the United States, are no longer comprised only of those who trace their ancestries to the original people of the land or the descendants of early western European settlers.
Rather, these countries’ diverse cultural landscapes are shaped by on-going immigration from across the globe, through calculated immigration systems that feed the dominant western, neoliberal culture by defining migrants’ potential through economic terms. In turn an expanded racialised dynamic is established where incoming migrants – often of ethnic minority backgrounds – share space with majority group members in the neoliberal system, while indigenous peoples and their values become increasingly marginalised.
Histories of restrictive inclusion
As Aljazeera’s three-part documentary, “Immigration Nation,” demonstrates, society’s current cultural landscape is shaped largely by history. In the decades that followed early waves of colonialism, incoming settlers of colour to countries like Australia were defined hierarchically and strategically by colonial powers, recruited as objectified, racialised tools to help build these burgeoning colonial states. Immigration policies, such as Australia’s dictation test, were orchestrated that consciously privileged British migrants over those defined as “others”.
Australia is not alone in this story of colonialism and restrictive immigration. In the United States, the Chinese Exclusion Act was established in 1882 after Chinese migrants, originally recruited to work on the transcontinental railroad, were deemed threatening and undesirable by white Americans.
One year earlier, New Zealand enacted the Chinese Immigrants Act, which objectified Chinese migrants, restricting their entry relative to a vessel’s bulk – only one Chinese migrant allowed per 10 tons of a vessel’s weight. And similar to Australia’s dictation tests, New Zealand employed English language tests in 1907 to further limit Chinese entry.
For many of these early migrants of colour, the initial plan was to make enough money as physical labourers with eventual hopes of returning to their home countries with newfound wealth. Unfortunately, extraordinarily harsh working conditions coupled with poor wages crushed most sojourners’ dreams, and they were either deported, essentially moneyless, or forced to settle in the colonial territories and alter their goals. Often times, reshaped goals involved pursuing the Australian, Kiwi or American dream -achieving a rightful place in the Eurocentric, capitalist system.
Thus, in Australia, New Zealand and the United States, Asian immigration was allowed, but limited to those who could help fulfil each nation’s economic needs through racialised employment in exploitive work deemed unsuitable for the majority white populations. The story of immigration was undeniably one of unforgivable oppression and remarkable perseverance, but not one that accounted for indigenous rights.
Multiculturalism, neoliberalism and neocolonialism
Policies once grounded in blatant exclusion of people of colour have softened in appearance and practicality over the decades, now balancing migrant entry needs (eg, possible refugee status) with skills defined as helpful to boosting the host nation’s current economic system.
As such, present day Australia hosts some of the world’s most ethnically vibrant and financially dynamic cities, projecting a contemporary image to the world of harmonious multiculturalism. Recent census figures show that 25 percent of those living in Australia were born overseas; in New Zealand and the United States, the corresponding percentages stand at 24 percent and 13 percent, respectively.
However, multiculturalism does not automatically translate to respect for indigenous rights. Speaking strictly in demographic terms, New Zealand’s indigenous Maori population stands at 14 percent. In Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders make up only 3 percent of the total population; in the United States American Indians and Alaskan Natives do not even comprise a full percentage point. Moving beyond population statistics, national commitments to multiculturalism rarely translate to tangible policy changes that truly benefit indigenous populations.
|101 East – Locked Up Warriors|
Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, now includes residents representing over 200 ethnicities. As such, the city regularly hosts ethnically dynamic night markets and lively cultural festivals, including Diwali and Chinese New Year. These liberal celebrations of ethnic diversity reflect Auckland’s status as a global hub and are no doubt important, providing citizens from all ethnic groups opportunities to broaden their cultural experiences. Still, liberal multiculturalism cannot mask the New Zealand government’s neoliberal efforts that encourage foreign investment from China and through broader global partnerships that embolden overseas investor corporations.
Unfortunately, while migrant communities of colour celebrate their cultural traditions and work to partake in their host country’s neoliberal economy, like Australia’s indigenous populations, Maori in New Zealand suffer “higher exposures to risk factors for poor health, more injury, more disability and poorer outcomes when they interact with health services” as compared to non-Maori. Migrant communities of colour have a role to play in countering these colonial disparities by speaking out against governmental policies that facilitate foreign investment and cut funding to indigenous programmes.
National attempts to homogenise minority group members through participation in a “growth with no end” economic system furthers the dominant Eurocentric narrative and presents assimilation into the neoliberal system as the pathway to a post-colonial society, free of social injustice. In reality, however, neoliberal economics masked through celebrations of multiculturalism extend the divide between settlers and indigenous peoples while discounting the contribution that settlers frequently play in perpetuating indigenous exploitation. To this end, development of a multicultural society through neoliberal economics is neocolonial.
This is not to suggest that migrant communities are homogenous or that their transitions to a new homeland reflect a comfortable “model minority” experience. Rather, migrant transitions into settler states are designed through a Eurocentric framework that values economic growth over indigenous rights. Indigenous worldviews are ultimately defined as extraneous in the overall system, if acknowledged at all, and the physical dislocation and genocide inflicted upon indigenous peoples centuries ago is perpetuated through contemporary neoliberal ideology and utopic visions of multiculturalism.
The discrimination and struggles that migrants face do not exempt them from their responsibility in perpetuating a contemporary colonial model. Importance must be placed on examining the ways that migrants, despite their circumstances and history, inadvertently support the broader neoliberal, neocolonial structure of settler states.
Speaking as Asian migrants to a settler state, we call for collective accountability and responsibility on the part of all settlers, for the ways in which settlers’ actions stand in contrast with, and impede native struggles. Settlers – even those of colour – must recognise their complicity in perpetuating colonialism and alter their behaviours accordingly. Only then can steps be taken towards effective decolonisation interventions and the subsequent upholding of indigenous rights.
Raagini Vijaykumar is a third year undergraduate student in Sociology and Law at the University of Auckland.