Where history repeats as farce is in what drove Johnson and his government to come begging for a trade deal at its own expense. Britain can’t stand its neighbours, and is reaching out to its kin on the other side of the globe to prove to its own people that it still has clout. In this respect, Britain has reverted to Australia’s self-defeating posture a century ago.
Britain looks down on Europe, and its people in the same way that Australia once viewed Asia and its people. Times have changed, of course, and Brexit is not as overtly racist as the White Australia Policy. But an equivalent anxiety underwrote Brexit: the fear that Europeans would take British jobs, and erase a proud people’s distinctive national identity.
It should be remembered that the British government didn’t share our obsession with racial purity in 1901 – its interest back then was in the free movement of people and goods throughout the empire. Joseph Chamberlain, the secretary of the colonies in London, had pre-empted the White Australia debate with a warning that he would veto any legislation that explicitly banned migration from Asia. The compromise that was reached between London and Canberra allowed Australia to achieve the same end through the backdoor of the language test.
One quick quote from that debate demonstrates how the far the wheel of bigotry has turned between the two countries. George Reid, leader of the Free Trade party, and who would become the fourth prime minister of Australia, was keen to remind Britain that it had the luxury of a generous attitude to migration because Asians were not moving there. “Let us imagine for the moment that in the United Kingdom nearly 5 per cent of the population consisted of coloured races from Asia, that some 2,000,000 of Asiatics were settled in the United Kingdom,” he told Parliament on September 25, 1901. “It strikes me that the feeling in the mother country would then become very much in touch with the feelings which we express in Australia today.”
Brexit weirdly fulfils that prophesy, but with a twist. Britain will reduce European migration via the back door of separating from the European Union. Asian migration, by contrast, may actually boom if Johnson follows through on his promise to offer asylum to Hong Kong residents.
The Brexit vote of June 2016 thrilled the conservative side of politics in Australia because white working-class voters shifted from the left to right on the question of border control. The US presidential election in November that year reinforced the analysis.
But the shock of 2016 actually cut both ways. A federal election was held between the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump, and Bill Shorten almost led Labor back to power after a single term in opposition. To squeeze Brexit and Trump into an Australian narrative, it is better to look at the 2019 election, when Scott Morrison led the coalition to a surprise third term.
But what happens if the US cycle is turning away from nativism? A Joe Biden presidency would suit Australia’s ambition to keep trade open, and to restore America’s global leadership role. But there is a deeper cultural question for the Morrison government to reflect on. If Biden wins comfortably, and the Democrats take control of the Senate, Trump’s scalp will belong to the Black Lives Matter movement.
This would place Australia in a tricky position with its main ally. An America recommitted to civil rights is likely to find fault with Australia’s record on race relations, especially our political foot-dragging on reconciliation. It won’t come directly from the White House, but from the people, in the US and Australia. There is an energy to the Black Lives Matter movement that is rolling across national boundaries, and it won’t spare the Morrison government if it continues to react defensively on this issue.
The Prime Minister surely senses the shift. Last Friday, he was quick to apologise for his assertion that there had been no slavery in Australia’s past. “Well look … I acknowledge there have been all sorts of hideous practices that have taken place,” Morrison said. “And I don’t think it’s helpful to go into an endless history wars discussion about this. It’s all recorded. I acknowledge all of that, okay?”
History does matter to Indigenous Australians and many non-Indigenous Australians and it important that Morrison understands this before he faces a version of the scrutiny that fell on this country the last time the politics of civil rights was ascendant in the US.
Harold Holt had begun the long process of dismantling the White Australia Policy soon after succeeding Robert Menzies as prime minister in 1966. The following year, on a tour of the US, he was taken aback by the presumption of racism in the questions from American journalists. “Your country by geography is Asian,” he was asked on the NBC’s Meet the Press program in June 1967. ”By race it is white. And you continue a pure white immigration policy, excluding Asians, your neighbours, from immigrating into Australia. Will that not boomerang against your country?”
Holt tried to explain that he had just liberalised the rules, but got no credit from his interviewer.
The referendum to count Indigenous people in the census had just been passed the month before.
If history is repeating, and the US is entering a second era of civil rights, Australia will surely need to move with the times and deal with its unfinished business on reconciliation.
George Megalogenis is a journalist, political commentator and author.