FAP winner – MEAA Member: Conspiracy against the colony

In the 1975 ABC-TV documentary, Their Ghosts May Be Heard, a young Caroline Jones journeys to the west of Paraguay to introduce her Australian television audience to ‘The Paraguayan Australians’ – the descendants of Australian shearing families who sailed from Australia to South America in 1893 to found the ‘New Australia’ colony. Their re-born Australia was to be a whites-only socialist utopian commune, located in the jungly western district of Caaguazú in landlocked Paraguay.

Jones’ documentary traces the history of the New Australia enterprise through interviews with its then elders; men in their sixties and seventies who sound like my grandfather, a descendant of British settlers, did: all Spoonerisms, long vowels, and references to mates, blokes, Blackfellows and Chinamen. The colony appears onscreen as a startling record of late nineteenth-century Australia, oddly preserved in a Latin American country town. It is also an index of this time in the nascent Australian labour movement. The men who, with their families, boarded the ship bound for New Australia and socialist utopia were dissatisfied unionists who had been active in The Great Shearer’s Strike of 1891. Their leader, William Lane, was a journalist, socialist and white supremacist who wanted to show the world that it was possible to build a society on socialist principles whilst keeping it racially ‘pure’; a prospect he believed had diminished in Australia with the failure of the Strike to maintain wages that had been set before the price of wool fell. Writing in his popular unionist publication The Boomerang, Lane was the first to coin the term White Australia Policy, which would be taken up with gusto by the Australian Labor Party, who to this day celebrates the 1891 strike as one of its founding moments, as does one of the country’s oldest unions, the Australian Worker’s Union.

As a part of the history of Australian unionism, ‘Nueva Australia’ (as it came to be known on Paraguayan soil) might be easily understood as a cautionary tale, the kind that most unionists today might rather we didn’t remember; preferring instead to mark the rebellious worker spirit of the strikers. ‘This is where the great Australian Labor Party started,’ said former Prime Minister Bob Hawke on the one-hundred-and-twenty-first anniversary of the strike in 2016. ‘No institution, more than the union movement and Labor Party,’ he went on, ‘have approached what their contribution has been in shaping the character and quality of the Australia we enjoy today.’

That is, not only did Lane’s plans for the colony fail spectacularly – with mestizo Paraguayans and indigenous Guarani quickly joining the family – but his visions for a racially superior ‘socialism’ and the Australian immigration policy he named are roundly disavowed by the labour movement in 2018. Among the Labor Party representatives of recent parliaments are Indigenous leaders such as the eminent Patrick Dodson, Senator for Western Australia; Malarndirri McCarthy, Senator for the Northern Territory; Linda Burnie, Senator for New South Wales; as well as Egyptian-Australian Anne Aly, Member for Cowan, and Malaysian-born Penny Wong, Senator for South Australia and shadow minister for Foreign Affairs. The union movement is also home to Indigenous leaders such as Celeste Liddle, a columnist, speaker, and organiser with the National Tertiary Education Union and Thomas Mayor, Branch Secretary of the Northern Territory branch of the Maritime Union of Australia, and advocate for the Uluru Statement From the Heart.

Equally, in official political discourse, white supremacy and the White Australia policy is to be condemned. In response to a recent invocation of the Policy by new Senator for Queensland Fraser Anning of the Katter’s Australia party, both government and Opposition members spoke against it vehemently, citing the explicit rejection of the White Australia Policy last century. In the Senate chamber, Senator Wong moved that the Senate ‘recognises that since 1973, successive Labor and Liberal/National Party Governments have, with bipartisan support, pursued a racially non-discriminatory immigration policy to the overwhelming national, and international, benefit of Australia.’

So in 2018 as in 1975, the ghosts of Their ghosts may be heard are Lane and his comrades; the fathers and grandfathers of the elderly men interviewed by Jones, the men who sought and failed to build a socialist ‘society of mates’ founded on equality between white people. But if they have found some rest in the small towns of Nueva Londres and Cosme (the towns that now occupy the land where the colony settled, split and retreated from its origins), the New Australians are yet to be exorcised from the labour movement that fostered their political energy and agency. The verbal and visual rhetoric of Australian labour solidarity remains entwined with a certain kind of Aussie blokiness. Whilst spoken and depicted by people of all genders through the ideals of mateship and the fair go along with an attachment to a certain working class; this oppositional heritage was founded on the farms of white settlers. A video made by the Australian Worker’s Union to celebrate the one-hundred-and-twenty-fifth anniversary of The Great Strike in 2016 reflects this very well. A young white woman stands in the middle of a wide open road with gumtrees and freshly cut wheat fields on either side – Blundstones planted firmly; the curve of her Akubra front and centre. Australians, she says, holding an iPad in her hands, are ‘linked … by the tradition of a fair go for our mates. And nothing demonstrates that more than what happened right here, 125 years ago.’ A map shows she is in Barcaldine, in Queensland, on the traditional lands of the Inigai: the scene of the Great Strike. The frame shifts to an unidentified elderly white man leading her through a museum who says the shearers of the strike ‘were very clear about what they believed Australia should be in the future and I think they were right.’ The historical significance of the strike is then linked to the present-day fight to retain penalty rates.[1] The young woman notes that unionist solidarity around the strike seriously intensified when some of their number were arrested for ‘conspiracy against the colony’, saying ‘these shearers stood up for a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, for themselves and their mates. And though they understood that the risk of imprisonment was high, they led an important strike against the powers at the time.’[2]

At this originary national scene of worker power in consolidation against the exploitations of a colonial, capitalist system, ‘the worker’ existed as a white man. In 2016, in the visual rhetoric of the AWU video, he is somewhat smoothly transmogrified into the figure of a young white woman. As it was at the time, the indentured labour of Indigenous men and women is invisible in this rhetoric. To be sure: well before the 1891 strike, Australian states had begun crafting the Acts of Protection that would come to increase state domination over the labour of Indigenous people across the nation, based on the notion that they were ‘a dying race’. In Queensland, the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act was instituted in 1897, and granted wide-ranging powers to the state including mass removal of Aboriginal people to reserves and the control of wages. By 1901, any person who employed an Aboriginal person in Queensland was required to pay their wages to the Protector of Aborigines or an officer of police. These wages were then kept in an account administered by the Protector on the employee’s behalf, with the employee having to ask permission to spend their money. Aboriginal people on reserves had to ask permission to change locations, employment, or to leave the reserve to visit family, and for many their ‘wages’ still consisted of shelter and food rations on the property of their employer. Under the Acts of protection, the definition of Aboriginality was also subject to detailed control, with judgements of Aboriginality and exemption from the laws of protection based on the white authorities’ determination of blood quantum and moral character.

Also invisible in the memorialisation of the Great Strike is the racialised conditions of the strike itself – in which said worker power was fortified through explicit bans on union membership by ‘coloured Asiatics, South Sea Islanders, Kaffirs, or Chinese’, who tended to be blamed for undermining union power by agreeing to work for lower wages. As the Australian Labor Party gained strength and the Australian state continued to consolidate, these sentiments were baked into the national economic and social structure. By 1901, 7,500 Pacific Islander sugar cane workers were deported under The Pacific Labourers Act and banned from entering the country forthwith. In that same year, the Federal Parliamentary Labour Party was formed, and the Immigration Restriction Act – the federal, legal manifestation of the White Australia Policy – passed.

The twinned formations of a federated Australia and an Australian federal labour party thus continued the colonial project of making Australia a nation of white people, then believed to be the necessary racial cornerstone of any ‘civilised society’. For the unionists of Barcaldine and the members of the labour movement who memorialise them today, their ‘conspiracy against the colony’ seeded a particularly Australian mode of resistance to greedy industrialists, exploitative bosses, and politicians who would legislate against a fair go for all: a mode that is still easily traced back to, and severely limited by, the bearing of the nineteenth-century white Aussie bloke.

But what if this resistance – this alleged conspiracy – had been against the colonial project described above: a revolt of all who laboured for the colony, marked by a refusal to be divided by race (or indeed any other ascribed social category such as gender, or sexuality, or ability) in the pursuit of human dignity and the labour rights that, within a transnational capitalist system, are essential to it? This is the opportunity that labour movements have in Australia today: one that is perhaps being taken up by the National Union of Workers in supporting and campaigning with migrant farm workers who are paid as little as $3.95 per hour[3]; the ACTU in supporting the Uluru Statement from the Heart and its objectives for an Indigenous voice in Australian sovereign decision-making; the Sydney Solidarity Network, which has supported a range of migrant workers to reclaim stolen wages through direct action.

The unionists of the 1891 strike were charged with ‘conspiracy against the colony’ while begging it to include them in its prosperity and promising to continue subjugating Indigenous people and to shut the door to non-white migrants behind them if their request was granted. In this, today’s unions in Australia might better remember The Great Strike as a tragic failure of worker power – not because many worker demands were not met or because the strike had been broken, but because the idea of worker solidarity in Australia had already solidified against anybody who laboured for wages who was not a white man.

Again, what if the rebels of Barcaldine had instead resisted inclusion in the colony itself, understanding that the conditions of entry to this British imperial project required the exclusion and domination of those who laboured beside them to build wealth that was ultimately destined for owners of capital who they would probably never even meet? Few Australian unionists today would see themselves in the Labor Party leaders who drafted union by-laws banning ‘coloured aliens’ at the close of the nineteenth century. And yet, ALP leaders in 2018 regularly make bids for popularity in the name of the Australian workers under threat from un-prejudged migrants, be it foreigners on the now-scrapped 457 visa who were hired ahead of ‘Australian workers’ or ‘stopping the boats’ that carry people travelling to seek asylum at the Australian border, widely worried about as invaders who would ‘take jobs from Australians’. These same leaders also proudly claim the heritage of The Great Strike.[4] In doing so, they tend to remain silent on the racist origins of the solidarity they celebrate, preferring instead, as our AWU protagonist does, to invoke the principles of mateship and the fair go that the Strike apparently inaugurated in Australia. Acknowledging the role of the labour movement in the brutal management of a white Australia that dominated Indigenous peoples and excluded all other migrants seems a step too far. Within this the Paraguay colony might be laughed off as a whacky chapter in an experimental time, but, lest we forget, it was supported by people still revered as legends of the Australian social project such as Henry Lawson and joined in person by the likes of Mary Gilmore and George Birks as well as Gilbert Casey and Rose Summerfield, who both died in Paraguay.

Ironically, the relationship of today’s Paraguayan Australians to the antipodean motherland is slightly troubled by the question of national belonging. When I visited Rodrigo Wood, the great-grandson of unionist and New Australia settler Billy Wood, and his family in Asunción in 2016, they appraised me of their attempts, as New Australia descendants, at diplomatic recognition by the Australian federal government. As Rodrigo told me, members of his family have been applying to Australian authorities for work and residency rights and/or Australian passports for years, and have never been successful. Whilst several family members have lived in Australia – working as builders, farmers, and administrators – the Australian Government has refused to recognise any claim from the New Australia descendants to live and work in Australia on the basis of ancestry. Indeed, Rodrigo’s cousin Randy Wood, a prosperous, trilingual Asunción architect, tells me he was advised that an application he made in the 1980s was rejected because his English was not considered good enough. Rodrigo tells me he is disappointed for his children. His family live the lives of educated, cosmopolitan professionals in Paraguay but an Australian passport and access to the Australian economy would undoubtedly open up additional opportunities for the younger generation; the kind that has been made available, for example, to Australians whose parents were born in the United Kingdom through ancestry visas. The New Australian antecedents of the Paraguayan Australians left Australia in part because it wasn’t white enough. Now, it is almost as though their descendants are not white enough for re-entry. In such a way, the racial failure of New Australia echoes down the generations.

Perhaps if we are to remember unionism in Australia in order to strengthen it in the present, a key is to remember its failures – to break the line of descent from white supremacy; mounting a viable conspiracy against the colony; becoming unrecognisable to the likes of William Lane; towards finally throwing off colonialism itself.



[1] The wage loading that compensates workers for labouring at irregular times such as public holidays and weekends.

[2] See the Rockhampton Conspiracy Trial of May 1891.

[3] See Four Corners, ‘Slaving away’; also, this NUW article about farmworkers.

[4] See above re Bob Hawke and AWU video; see also photo and tweet showing Bob Hawke and Annastasia Paluzscak celebrating the Strike anniversary




Ann Deslandes

Ann Deslandes is an Australian researcher and writer who lives in Mexico City. Most recently, her words have appeared in Ms. magazine, PRI.org’s Across Women’s Lives, and Overland. She is a proud member of the MEAA and former activist with the Australian Services Union and National Tertiary Education Union.

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