Rudd’s ‘nation-building’ and Aboriginal affairs

Writing lecture on nationalism for Modern Political Ideologies I was considering the relation between social democratic parties and the project of liberal nationalism. It is arguable that confronting a perceived Islamic fundamentalist challenge to liberal norms social democrats have moved towards a more unitary concept of national identity. An example would be Gordon Brown’s interest in Britishness, even if this seems to have dropped off the agenda since he became PM. In Australia the perceived crisis of indigenous self-determination has attracted much attention. In government Labor had continued many aspects of the Howard government’s Northern territory intervention. Rudd’s own apology to Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islanders hinted at a new ‘pragmatic direction in indigenous affairs:

A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, indigenous and non-indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity. A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed. A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility. A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.

How consistent is this approach with Labor traditions? A recent analysis of the new class of Labor MPs elected in 2007 highlighted their allegiance to the nation-building tradition of the Whitlam government and their evocation of allegedly archetypally Australian values of egalitarianism and the ‘fair go’. Yet these could be values very much associated with a shared identity as Australians empowered by a social liberal state. Will Sanders emphasises Labor’s contribution to the ‘decolonialisation’ of indigenous Australia, but has Labor ever seen indigenous affairs in these terms?. If Whitlam’s style combined elements as Beilharz argues of 1940s planning and 1960s radicalism perhaps Rudd Labor upholds most of all the nation-building traditions of the 1940s (and in 1944 Labor sought federal control over indigenous affairs).  What has endured from the 1960s is radical liberalism and this too was a theme of the 1940s exemplified by H. V. Evatt.

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