Badge - Vote Yes for Aborigines, Australia, 1967
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Americans are famous for their depiction of white trash in debates about class and racism. Australia was, however, also the new world home for what was considered as the human rubbish of the old country. Places like America and Australia were deemed as destinations for economic refugees and convicts from Britain by those in the upper echelons of power and influence of that colonising empire. White trash and the Voice in Australia are something old and new coming into agonistic contact in 2023. The friction between lower class white Australia and Indigenous Australians is, however, nothing new.

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Australia, White Trash & The Vote

“a member of an inferior or underprivileged white social group”

“White trash.” (Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/white%20trash. Accessed 15 Jul. 2023.)

The defining criteria for those classed as white trash was traditionally the landless and poor. These folks didn’t have the vote until the latter half of the nineteenth century and only men over 21 received this entitlement in the various colonies in Australia. Women did not get a vote until Federation at the turn of the twentieth century. Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people did not get the vote federally until 1962. Queensland did not grant Indigenous people the state vote until 1965. Voting in Australia became compulsory in 1924. The vote therefore is a foundational indicator of citizen rights in Australia. Australia used to be a world leader in things like female suffrage but, unfortunately, that was more than a century ago.  

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White Australia Founded By Convicts & Economic Refugees

White trash, although not a widely used term in Australia remains a pejorative in discussions about class. The fact that the colonies prior to federation were in many cases penal colonies means that the roots of many Australians were from the lowest possible stock. Convicts were transported to Australia for a variety of crimes, including Irish political prisoners. In addition, the vast majority of those immigrating to the new world were doing it for economic reasons. These were not the cream of British society but more likely to be classed as the dregs.

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A New World Where White Trash Morphed Into The Middle Class

Of course, the new world has sold itself ever since as novel in terms of its citizens’ equality and classlessness. The truth is that this is not entirely factual but definitely there has been greater opportunity for many more in economic terms in both America and Australia. Indeed, many Australians over generations have lifted themselves and their families out of poverty and into the once burgeoning middle class. In the great southern land, for many decades during the twentieth century, the dream of owning one’s own home was very real for up to around 70% of Australian households in the 35+ age group. This figure has been in steady decline in the twenty first century as rampant property price inflation has pushed prices upward of a million dollars in some capital cities. Today, many working Australians will be consigned to renting for the term of their natural lives because house prices are just too darn expensive. Australia is in the grip of a housing crisis at the moment with shortages of housing stock pushing up market rents by 20% and 30% in cities right around the country. Meanwhile, a 1 000 new migrants are pouring into the nation each day. Australian economic growth has long been dependent upon these levels of immigration lifting demand and productivity.

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Neoliberalism has been the dominant political and economic trend around the Western world for the last 40 years and Australia is no exception. The economic results of this privatisation and corporatisation has been an explosion in unfavourable economic benefits for the majority of Australians. Billionaires have emerged whilst at the same time wage growth has slumped for the many sending them backwards on the wealth ladder. The trickle-down effect has not delivered equitable shares of wealth for the working population. Rather, it has made a few very wealthy at the expense of us all. The wealth of the middle class has stagnated and is now going backwards. Conservative political parties play a shell game with their supporters by pointing the finger at fringe issues like LGBTQI stuff and race relations whilst feeding their insider mates the plum economic opportunities. Billionaires and the dominant cohort, white conservative men, flourish under neoliberal economic policies to the detriment of everyone else.

Profitability is not the universal panacea promised by those  driving the economic bus down the neoliberal highway. The housing market in Australia and its general unaffordability to large sections of the population is proof positive of this.

The lack of rental stock and the market’s response to this is to dramatically raise rents, thus hurting more Australians. The RBA’s obsession with wages as the root of all inflationary evil is another misguided neoliberal belief about the economy.

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White trash is a nasty label and a hangover from our colonial past and the British class system. The only relevance it may have in the current debate around the Voice to Parliament for First Nation’s people is to identify a demographic of Australians still susceptible to outdated ideas about race and economic opportunity.

If those identified by this grouping were to share a defining criteria still today it would be based on their level of education. Australia, when it is not subject to nepotism and jobs for the boys, has been described as a fairly brutal meritocracy. In that, as a society until recently, we have set the societal bars pretty low in terms of expectations around civic duty. Materialism here, as in America, has overtaken our culture with success most often measured in terms of amassing great wealth. Bigger houses and flashier cars are the order of the day. The waning of organised religion, as the most influential cultural determinant within Australian society, has seen a diminishment of the spiritual and inner life of Australians. One of the things that the aristocracy, in most civilisations, eventually realised was that they needed to educate their children to be responsible for the future of their cities and races. It is not enough to sit around boozing in front of really big TV screens in your big house overlooking the ocean. Australians love their sport and white trash culture has not shifted much from this marker. Corporate gambling is feasting on working Australians and their love of sport. You will likely find the insider mates of those conservative politicians enjoying directorships and control of these gambling corporate entities. Poorly educated Australians have been excessively playing pokies and gambling wherever possible for many decades. Australians are the biggest losers in the world, per-capita by the online bookmakers. The level of gambling accessibility has only increased exponentially over the last 10 years, which coincided with the decade of LNP government at the federal level. The ancient Roman nobility and emperors kept the working poor amused via gladiatorial games and gambling was pretty big there too. This whole concept is nothing new and has rich historical traditions for the stratagems of the powerful in their exploitation of the poor.

Robodebt disgrace: The legacy of the Coalition

White trash and the Voice in Australia. Authoritarian leaders like to have societal villains as scapegoats, someone to point the finger at when things aren’t going well. Conservatives like to pick on those they used to call savages and natives. Today, we identify these folk as Indigenous Australians and First Nations people. The fact that their skin colour is different is important for simpletons who are conditioned by tradition to want everyone to look the same as them. The conservative media, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and his legion of newspapers and Sky News Australia pander to the white trash of Australia. This is their target demographic, those folks who aren’t educated enough to know better. Those who actually believe rubbish like Aborigines are getting a cushy ride and that the Voice will give then an unfair advantage over their own interests. This kind of stuff is as crazy as believing Jews control the financial wealth of the world. These nutjob beliefs often go hand in hand. Fox News in America lives and breathes this utter bullshit and was recently successfully sued for a million dollars on the basis of their telling lies about the 2020 election in the US. The absence of standards around truth and objectivity in the media there has seen the rise of Donald Trump and radicalisation of the Republican party. Far right white nationalism has become the number one domestic terrorism threat in the United States. Rupert Murdoch has fanned the fires of division via Fox News to financially feed on this audience. Trump has been described by a number of commentators as a grifter, also, fund raising on the back of this upsurge in white trash dissatisfaction with the status quo.

The definitive element within the right-wing media across the board is the amount of fake news content found there. One can only conclude that the lack of education among its subscribers is a feature common to this phenomenon. The stuff that this audience seems to believe is far fetched and paints them as really stupid.

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“According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report titled “Trends in Injury Deaths, Australia”, from 1990 to 1995 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were 16.5 times more likely to die in police custody and at present are 13 times more likely to be arrested compared to non-Indigenous Australians (AIHW, Citation2019). The report cites a range of stark statistics, including significantly higher rates of homelessness, unemployment, problematic drinking, and gambling among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples compared to non-Indigenous Australians. In addition, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have lower completed education rates, concerningly experience 2.7 times greater psychological distress and 2.3 times higher suicide rates than non-Indigenous Australians.”

  1. (Thomas Falls & Joel Anderson (2022) Attitudes towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia: a systematic review, Australian Journal of Psychology, 74:1, DOI: 10.1080/00049530.2022.2039043)

One of the most prominent things about a tertiary education is learning about things outside of your own direct experience. Courses in the humanities and social sciences enable students to delve more deeply into the perspective of others.

This is an important fact when considering things like the Voice to Parliament for Indigenous Australians. A university degree is not the only way of achieving respect and tolerance for those who share your world but spending time studying things like human rights and philosophy sure helps. In contrast to this, if an individual has spent their life predominantly focused on working for a living surrounded by similarly educated folk who did not finish secondary school, then there has been no formal grounding explaining the perspective of others outside of the dominant cohort. Diversity and pluralism within a society often struggles in poorly educated communities and populations. People without sophisticated levels of education are prone to exploitation by political parties promising band-aid solutions and stuff like making America great again. Authoritarian conservatives typically run on law-and-order issues like get tough on crime without doing anything about the underlying causes. Peter Dutton wanting to bring in the army to control youth crime in Alice Springs for example. Simple thinkers want simple solutions to, often, very complex issues. The anti-elite thing has become a political trend which is exploited by people like Trump and feeds on the dissatisfaction levels of those who feel left behind. It may be those who reside in regional areas or just feel like they have been short changed by progress but these folk have a big NO to where the Western world is heading. Senator Price and Warren Mundine have both repeatedly labelled the Voice as elitist and not representing the concerns of local Aboriginal people.

It is an easy trope to play, however, and no amount of pandering to these feelings of being excluded from power is going to improve the lives of ordinary Indigenous Australians.

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Gender identity is a big social issue for many of these people, as is sexual preference and, therefore, LGBTQI+ rights. Choosing your sex is beyond the pale for many of these folk. Economically, many of those who may fall into the white trash category see themselves as missing out on a big enough slice of the wealth pie. They see a shrinking pie and do not want to share it with previously marginalised groups like Indigenous Australians, refugees, and LGBTQI+ groups. The No vote camp in the coming referendum on the Voice to Parliament for First Nations people is appealing to them on this basis. They are saying revel in your negativity by crushing this progressive move for positive change by voting No.

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Personally, I find it problematic to understand those Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders opposing the Voice. Surely, it will be a force for the better whatever form it takes. Surely, if all those who identified under the First Nations badge united and did their very best by the Voice it would make for a better world. The fact that the two most prominent No campaigners come from the conservative LNP side of politics indicates that they say see this in political terms. The LNP federal government repeatedly rejected the Voice to Parliament concept before they were voted out of office by the Australian people. Price and Mundine have put their own individual careers ahead of everything else, in my view. Perhaps, they do not want to see those individuals driving the Yes campaign from rising to further power on the back of the Voice? Sometimes you have to let historical shifts roll forward irrespective of your own place in the greater scheme of things. It is up to them if they want to be a footnote to history in the positive sense or the negative.

“Australia has a new conservative lobby group that wants to knock on your door, get in your ear and ultimately swing your vote.

Advance Australia’s named with a nod to our anthem and the hope it can rival the powerful left-wing lobby Get Up!

It has some prominent backers and a bold mission — but can it succeed?

Who’s behind Advance Australia?

The group’s financially and ideologically backed by a group of prominent business leaders including storage king Sam Kennard, businessman and former ABC chairman Maurice Newman and the Australian Jewish Association’s Dr David Adler.

Its national director is Gerard Benedet, who was the chief of staff to former Queensland LNP Treasurer Tim Nicholls in a previous life.”

Advance Australia is leading the No campaign against the Voice.

Personally, I think that the Voice to Parliament is an incredibly brave proposal and campaign by the many Indigenous Australians behind it. I will be voting Yes for it in the coming referendum because it is a voice for positive change and greater empowerment of First Nations people in Australia. To vote No to such a thing would be a huge backward step for Australia, in my view. We need to be brave and not slumped in conservative lethargy. Let us all make the future brighter and much more hopeful, with many more voices heard on the national stage.

Robert Sudha Hamilton is the author of Money Matters: Navigating Credit, Debt & Financial Freedom

I listened to an informative presentation by Nancy Isenberg from her recent book, White Trash: The Four-Hundred-Year Untold History of Class in America. Below is an excerpt from a scholarly review of that work.

“Poor whites who found no place in the prevailing economic or social order were seen as threatening its stability in both England and the colonies. Thus despite his reputation as a “great and glorious asserter of natural Rights,” (43) John Locke included in The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina certain provisions for a quasi-feudal colonial hierarchy that granted both aristocratic standing and actual wealth in property to certain “titled elites and manor lords” (44) while creating a permanent white servant class bound to work their properties for life. When the Carolina colony was divided, critical elements of Locke’s plan were speedily incorporated into the governing structure of the new polity of South Carolina.

Locke’s American disciples of the Revolutionary era appeared to be more concerned about the societal than the human consequences of white impoverishment. Like Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin saw the experience of settling and building up a vast territorial expanse as simply too propitious for acceptance of severe poverty as the consequence of anything other than sloth. Though he thought they might be prodded out of their poverty by making them “uneasy in rest” (74), Franklin envisioned no rags-to-great-riches stories for these laggards. Rather, he hoped that, properly motivated, they might achieve what he called “happy mediocrity” (65) in a middle class meant to serve as an expansive, stabilizing presence within the larger society.

Isenberg shows that Thomas Jefferson was also loath to see the stability and good order of the new republic jeopardized by allowing too much freedom and influence to the landless white “rubbish” (91) who, urged on by demagogues, might seek to throw over a system in which they were so little invested. All the more reason, Jefferson thought, to nurture a large, dispersed population of inherently virtuous small farmers who owned the land they tilled. As a consistently equilibrating presence, this “solid independent yeomanry” would occupy the middle tier of society, “looking askance at those above, yet not ventured to jostle them” (102–3).

Like many of his contemporaries, Jefferson foresaw migration to the interior of the young nation drawing the superfluous population of “waste people” into the untamed backcountry frontier in search of a fresh start. It was this movement that supposedly sparked the rise of “Jacksonian Democracy.” As Isenberg demonstrates, however, this was largely a cruel misnomer, given that Andrew Jackson himself had played a leading role in stiffening voting requirements in Tennessee before presiding over an era when the poor [End Page 104] “squatters” and “crackers” (109) actually found themselves further excluded and stymied by tighter restrictions on suffrage in a number of states.”

  • (Cobb, James C. Review of White Trash: The Four-Hundred-Year Untold History of Class in America, by Nancy Isenberg. Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas, vol. 15 no. 1, 2018, p. 104-106. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/article/687279.)

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