Has the Southern Cross become a symbol of Australian racism?

Is the Southern Cross warping into Australia’s most racist symbol? Is it in danger of becoming our swastika?

That’s what filmmaker Warwick Thornton suggested in a rather off-hand comment in a 2010 interview, referring to the use of the constellation as a symbol by nationalist groups in the years since the infamous 2005 Cronulla riots.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Thornton found himself under attack by many who thought his views were unAustralian, and he decided not to speak publicly on the subject again.

That was until a couple of years ago, when Thornton got angry and decided that the use of the Southern Cross required a closer investigation.

The constellation has played a significant part in Indigenous cultures all around Australia for tens of thousands of years, and Thornton, as an Aboriginal man from Alice Springs, wanted to examine that culture alongside the Southern Cross’s contemporary cultural meanings. That includes, perhaps most significantly, its use as a tattoo.

The resulting film — a sprawling, punk-inspired documentary about Australia called We Don’t Need a Map — opened the Sydney Film Festival this week, and will be broadcast on NITV later this year.

Although it features some extraordinary images of remote areas around Australia (Thornton has been an in-demand cinematographer for two decades, so knows his way around a camera), the film feels, in some ways, like an odd choice as the Opening Night film at this year’s festival. It was commissioned as part of NITV’s Moment in History documentary initiative, and is, stylistically, very much a TV project.

But in terms of films which tap into the national psyche — and the deeper, evolving attitudes which form the core of our national identity — it’s difficult to imagine a better choice.

The film shoots out of the gates with extraordinary anger, buoyed by a thrashing rock soundtrack, quick-edits, and Thornton’s straight-shooting narration. Lo-fi, darkly funny historical recreations are interspersed with interviews, performed with the help of “bush toy” puppets from the Ltyentye Apurte and Titjikala communities of central Australia.

There’s also plenty of footage of Thornton behind the camera, shooting interviews and speaking to his subjects. The film is its own behind-the-scenes documentary, and it’s the most unguarded moments that are often its most charming.

But the initial burst of passion and anger that starts the film soon gives way to something more thoughtful and meditative as Thornton’s exploration broadens out.

He takes in scientific perspectives of the Southern Cross, as well as white historical perspectives (from its use as a symbol during the Eureka Stockade right up to its sky-rocketing popularity during the Cronulla riots), through to the Cross’s role in the lore of several different Indigenous tribes.

There are some rather provocative views about Australia’s identity and symbolism presented. Thornton speaks to academic Roz Ward, who was suspended from La Trobe University last year for saying the Australian flag was racist, as well as Ken West, who was subjected to violent threats after trying to discourage audience members at the Big Day Out from bringing Australian flags to the event.

But Thornton tries to present those perspectives without the heat and fury that tends to surround them. And there really should be no reason why these perspectives are so unacceptable — it should not be controversial to suggest that all non-Indigenous Australians are, to some degree, the beneficiaries of theft. That’s a mere fact of our history.

Perhaps the most powerful aspect of Thornton’s film is how it presents the fast-burning social and political debates that dominate contemporary media alongside the histories and practices of cultures that have existed in Australia for tens of thousands of years.

It’s a film that tries to put much of Australia’s conflicted identity into perspective and, for the most part, it succeeds brilliantly.

We Don’t Need a Map will be broadcast on NITV/ SBS July 23, 8.30pm

16 responses to “Has the Southern Cross become a symbol of Australian racism?

  1. As a descendant of convicts I have long wanted an Australian Flag that would unite us: aboriginal, British free settlers and convicts, and the rest who have come from a vast array of backgrounds. We have a checkered history with a lot of racist wounds but so do most countries.
    The Eureka Flag is a good heraldic design. It originated from a group who wanted “no taxation without representation”, which was democratic for its time. Australia and New Zealand were the first countries to bring in universal suffrage, except for aboriginal people.
    I do see the Eureka Flag and the Australian flag being co-opted by some pretty nasty, racist and xenophobic groups. I wonder if these associations would fall away if we adopted it as our national symbol?

  2. Yes I’m beginning to despair at the false rhetorical flourishes by some of the DR contributing writers who assert the general principle from an instance of the particular. It must be a new leftist historical methodology. One instance and the experiment is proved and a new science evolved. Men rape therefore all men are potential rapists. Bulldust. The origins and history of the Southern Cross at Eureka have been belittled by the unreconstructed hard Left by communist historians such as Humphrey McQueen as being a symbol of racism (White supremacy – an Australian version of the confederate Stars and Bars flag of the American Civil War)) and bourgeois aspiration because the miners wanted independence from taxes (like Lang Hancock don’t you know), were independently self-employed and wanted minimal authoritative interference. Then they were criticised by the Left because groups like National Action (in the late 70s) adopted the Southern Cross to fuel their nationalism and racism putting it in an Australian context even though their traditions were rooted in European imperialism and white supremacy and European racism like the UK BNP, i.e., National Front. They were criticised by the Right for their anti-establishment and anti-British implications and seeming rebelliousness.

    The poor bloody thing can’t win. Communist groups in Oz like the Eureka League in the 70s and 80s and various militant left wing unions like the BLF, the BWIU and the CFMEU, and others, have adopted it as their flag.
    Given its frequent use by left and right groups and its disdain by left and right groups of different persuasions and for different reasons I would like to see the Eureka flag be our new flag. It’s better than the current Pommy-lite one. We need to break the ties with the UK before they revert to civil war in addition to their political instability.

    Cheers. Go the SC.

  3. “…it should not be controversial to suggest that all non-Indigenous Australians are, to some degree, the beneficiaries of theft. That’s a mere fact of our history.”

    I REJECT this reworking of the Catholic concept of Original Sin. I was NOT born into sin. I made NO CHOICE to be born in Australia, I would leave if I could but can’t for a number of reasons. I am happy for the Indigenous People of Australia to get a Treaty; special seats in Parliament as the NZ Maoris; HUGE reparations and land back. BUT I refuse this endless and indulgent focus on Racism as if racism is a living meme we have to feed all the time. All humans are racist INCLUDING some Indigenous People and I don’t for one moment blame them. Racism of some sort will always exist.

    ALSO can I say I object to the endless use of the Cronulla Riots as being warped into anti-Aboriginal. The riots had nothing to do with Aboriginal People.

    We must understand that many people are just SICK of being denigrated for the simple fact of being born white! As for all this Indigenous Art that is accepted as “good” because of the colour of the maker’s skin…that is a form of racism too to privilege one race over another.

    I have born the brunt of anti-white artist sentiment and I can tell you it ain’t nice!!! Especially when I made not one work about such. Surf Culture is NOT racist Vernon AhKee and its a fabrication to say so and it was done for professional reasons entirely!

  4. Can’t wait to see it – huge respect for Warwick THORNTON – and for the chance to see the Southern Cross as understood by Indigenous Australians for tens of thousands of years! Anything to wrest its deeper-than-iconic sense back from otherwise ignorant yobbo symbolism.

  5. Having read the Comments as at 17:39 this evening, I’d say Ben Neuze has touched a sore spot with many who read Daily Review. Who knew? I thought Daily Review readers were all literate, literary, thoughtful and social justice “types”. Clearly not!

    1. Clearly we who express the views you don’t like are just more literary, more intelligent and deeper thinkers than those such as you.

      I have just had a t-shirt printed dedicated to all you sad lefties out there:

      ‘WHITE
      MIDDLE AGED
      MALE
      I am responsible for all your problems.’

  6. Better tell the EU-Australia forum who have the EU star-circle alongside the SC on their icon:
    https://www.europeaustraliaforum.eu/

    Of course, omitting the Union Jack only makes sense. I’m reminded of the joke flag after the Brexit result (or was it after Abbott’s Knights & Dame throwback?): on the Oz flag it added an arrow pointing to the Union Jack and text: “I’m with Stupid”.

  7. The title to this piece fulfils Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, which states that any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word ‘no’. The reason why subeditors and journalists use this very, very tired style of headline is that they know the premise of the piece is bulldust, but they want to run the story anyway. Neutze can’t seem to resist though – he throws up another provocative but silly question concerning whether the Southern Cross may be ‘in danger of becoming our swastika?’ Betteridge’s Law applies here too. It is a cornerstone of pseudo-intellectual thought to lob in a reference to Nazi Germany – coz it was like, you know, really really racist and bad and stuff. Generally I like Neutze’s reviews but this lapse into lazy Betteridge Law journalism with a cheap and desperate Nazi Germany reference (yawn) is well below par.

    Speaking of racism in Australia, how many people know that a majority of Aboriginal Australians (around 55% as of 2006) have a non-Aboriginal partner? Compare this to the USA, where only 19% of African Americans have a partner from another community. Brace yourself people – the Guardian reported the rising prevalence of Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal partnerships as evidence that racism is on the wane.
    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/apr/06/aborigines-australia-marriage

    1. Godwin’s law (or Godwin’s rule of Hitler analogies)[1][2] is an Internet adage which asserts that “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1″[2][3]‍—‌that is, if an online discussion (regardless of topic or scope) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Hitler or his deeds.

  8. For what is happening to the Southern Cross symbol just look at the Sons of the Southen Cross ring ad from the Bradford Exchange.
    Incidentally there is a Sons of the Southern Cross motorcycle club network.

  9. Here we go again.

    The answer is no. No, neither the Australian flag nor the Southern Cross is a symbol of racism.

    And Australians are not rascist. The notion that Australian people are a bunch of rascists has never held water. It flies in the face of the facts and the history of his country. The harm done to the aboriginal people by some of the early settlers and some of their leaders is proof of their imperialist attitudes; the attitudes of the self-important elites of the day (interesting similarities between the elites of then and now).

    It is easy to find a few nut-job rascists in any country even in Australia. The idea they are somehow representative of most of the population or even emblematic of us is IntelligenceLite. And anti-science. A lot more intellectual rigour please.

    If you want to see real and more widely spread rascism you need to go to Europe, Asia and Africa. But even in these places most people are decent and not rascist.

    Am I a rascist because I remind Warwick Thorton that the Cronulla riots were triggered by the overt racism of certain men of middle-eastern origin:
    “Tension had been building for months as gangs of Lebanese swarmed on to Sydney’s Cronulla beach, jostling elderly patrons, abusing Australian families and threatening to “rape Aussie sluts” for wearing bikinis.”

    “They did not come to enjoy the beach in the Australian tradition. They came to flout their disrespect for Australian culture and for Australian law and order.”

    “Matters came to a head the previous weekend when two young Australian lifesavers were bashed by a Lebanese gang.”

    “Following a series of text messages, 5,000 Australians turned up on Sunday December 11, 2005 at Cronulla determined to “reclaim the beach”.

    The slant of this artice based on Warwick Thorton’s views leads me to ask, Is it ‘better’ to be a rapist / violent criminal than a rascist?

    1. Ah yes, you’re so confident in your quotes, you failed to mention they come from The Australian.

      If Alan Jones and the Australian say so, it must be true!

  10. Trying to make the Southern Cross about race and racism misses the point.
    It’s a constellation of stars, used by navigators for centuries and used on a lot of national flags (including both the Australian and New Zealand ones), it’s hijacking by dick heads across the political spectrum doesn’t detract from that.

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