In this article reference was made to the Memorial Service at which there was an eloquent tribute from Noel Pearson on behalf of indigenous Australians.
In this speech Pearson concentrated on the important role of the racial discrimination laws and land rights reforms in improving the lives of people. Pearson appeared to express genuine surprise that a man like Gough, whom he said had never experienced discrimination, at least in the way he conceived of it, could be so understanding of the implications of this issue and so responsive to eliminating its consequences.
What I would like to suggest here is that in thinking this way Pearson reveals that he does not fully understand the concept of discrimination and the especially the way Gough understood it.
Gough was an heir to the western classical-religious tradition. He was inspired by Christian principles and humanistic values. From these concepts he became a committed internationalist and a dedicated egalitarian. As such it was inevitable that he would be a fierce opponent of colonialism. For this reason he was determined to liberate Papua New Guinea from Australia’s oppressive colonial control. But his anti-colonialism did not stop at Australia’s borders.
He recognised that the state of our indigenous people was a direct consequence of their colonial oppression, first by Britain and then by the various successor colonial regimes including the Commonwealth itself.
Colonialism takes the form of seizing land and resources, abusing cheap labour and exploiting captive markets - all built solidly on a foundation of racial inequality before the law.
In Australia as the colonial mentality evolved it came to be expressed by a policy of indigenous assimilation – possibly even culminating in extermination – which was so thoroughly accepted that it involved the scandal of miscegenation, the removal of children, the criminalisation of indigenous identity.
With the expansion of Australian immigration it even came to be extended to the mockery and humiliation of non-British immigrants.
Gough was a vigorous opponent of colonialism and so it was not necessary for him to actually experience discrimination to recognise that it was a consequence of a system he knew to be contrary in so many ways to the principles and values on which his life was built.
Thus when we understand racism is a discriminatory mechanism serving as a means to justify and promote colonialism and the colonial mentality we can see why Gough was such an advocate for PNG independence, Indigenous land rights, multiculturalism and racial equality.
What Pearson does not recognise is that colonialism which is the parent of racism is also the child of what we would today call a corporate culture with its emphasis on profit ahead of people. It was probably for this reason that Gough identified with a political movement opposed to the free reign of that corporate culture – because he believed that the best way to advance the liberation and equality of people was by containing the power of that culture.
There is another issue of discrimination. This is in the area of political discrimination, of which Gough was in fact a victim. Gough was not only discriminated against within his political party but also in the wider Australian society where his political positions were often sources of severe attack and alienation.
All the forces of power, profit, prejudice and privilege were often brought to bear against him for seeking to promote policies which sought to implement the principles and values to which he was committed and which so often challenged those seeking to preserve their power, profits, prejudices and privileges – though he never defined his opposition to discrimination in terms of his own political experience of it.
Thus Gough is a model of the way in which high principles can lead one to high ideals and on to noble aims and just policies.
It does not require the personal experience of injustice to advocate for justice, only a sense of decency, respect and a genuine concern for the welfare of one’s fellow human beings.
These are the qualities which made Gough such a beacon of hope and we can only hope that they will inspire the next generation of leaders not only throughout the world but especially in Australia.
Dennis Petrossian, former teacher of history and a member of the IEU for more than 40 years