Dark(ie) days for Australia

So I was at the supermarket today, looking for toothpaste. In amongst the normal Colgate/Sensodyne/name brand wall of consumer choice, I came across “Arm And Hammer” toothpaste, with a kinda cute little pseudo-communist logo depicting a muscular arm wielding a mash hammer. I quite liked it – the idea of having left wing toothpaste amused me no end – so I threw it in the cart and wandered off toward the checkout.

And then, in one of those strange mental anomalies whereby your train of thought takes an unexpected left turn and ends up at a station it hasn’t been to for years, I suddenly thought of something from my youth: Darkie Toothpaste.

For anyone too young – or perhaps too fortunate – to remember it, Darkie Toothpaste was sold in Australia during the early 1980s. I remember pestering my mother to buy it, because apparently the paste itself was black, and being a five-year-old boy, I loved the idea of using revolting black toothpaste. Its broader racial and social connotations completely passed me by, of course. I guess it eventually got taken off the market, and I haven’t thought of it since. A little Wikipedia research shows that it’s still available in Asia, under the slightly more PC name of “Darlie”, although a Chinese-language campaign has apparently also reassured consumers that “Black Man Toothpaste is still Black Man Toothpaste”.

Darkie toothpaste, past and present

It’s something of a shock to realise that this shit was still being sold in Australia 25 years ago, though. Or then again, maybe not. It’s a reminder that not very long ago, Australia was a very different place. It got me thinking about how dramatically the country has changed since the days I was growing up.

My generation embodies a fundamental transition in Australian society. We’re the last generation to grow up without the internet, the first to grow up during a time when the country was starting to reach out into the world. We went to school at a time when Paul Keating was arguing that Australia was a part of Asia, rather than the “west”; our first political stirrings were at a time when it felt like the country might really become a republic rather than a constitutional monarchy.

We also had vastly improved prospects compared to our predecessors. My paternal grandfather spent his whole life working in a chain factory in Preston; my father was the first of his family to obtain a tertiary education. And here I am, in New York, blogging about music and politics. I feel incredibly lucky to have grown up when I did. My family’s past is so far removed from my present that it might have happened on another planet. This isn’t a good or bad thing, I hasten to add – just a measure of how different the world my generation inhabits is compared to the one in which my grandfather’s generation lived.

I was 32 this year, and I remember various features of my very early childhood that already seem from another era. It used to be universally acknowledged that you couldn’t get sunburnt once you had a tan, for instance. It wasn’t until the Slip, Slop, Slap campaign started in 1981 that the astronomical rates of skin cancer became an issue.

The memories of that time are largely happy ones: summer days, playing cricket in the street against a telephone pole (how often do you see that now?), getting our first computer (a Commodore VIC-20) when I was four. The memories inhabit a land that’s gone. They’re already cast in the yellowed colours of old Kodak prints and flickering, grainy Super 8 film. Another world.

A world with very different values, too. Even as a child I remember an inkling that there were people out there with very blinkered views. I’d hear things and know somehow that what was being said wasn’t right. Some of the prejudice was unthinking, in the same way that perhaps two generations ago, assumptions of white superiority weren’t so much a controversial opinion as a statement of perceived fact. I had a golliwog as a kid, and my immediate family wasn’t remotely racist. There wasn’t even a question that it might be offensive. It was a product of another time.

But a lot of the prejudices that thrived in Australia were deliberate and institutionalised, and the attitudes they reflected aren’t exactly consigned to history just yet. It’s chastening to think how recent some of the changes have been. Joh Bjelke-Petersen ran a de facto dictatorship in Queensland until well into the mid-1980s. Homosexuality was technically illegal in Tasmania right up until 1994, and as recently as 1984, a man was sentenced to eight months jail in that state for “having sexual conduct with another man” in a car. Native title was only recognised by the High Court in 1992. This only happened in 1993:

Nicky Winmar makes a stand at Victoria Park

I wrote a while back, a propos of the new Paradise Motel record, that the veneer of civilisation  in Australia can be thin indeed at times. Our cities dot the coastline, sitting uneasily at the edge of a frightening, immutable interior – a metaphor that can happily be applied to our society as a whole (something that the record was no doubt also getting at).

Scratch away at the veneer and you still find attitudes like those of the current federal election’s resident village idiot Wendy Francis. All countries are selfish – it’s human nature, to an extent – and all contain their prejudiced idiot fringe. But Australia’s isolation does seem to lend it a special brand of conservatism. It’s instructive that people talk of being “anxious” about asylum seekers arriving on our shores, for instance – in denial of actual, y’know, reality.

Real progress was made during the 1980s, sure – but that changed, I’d argue, with the Howard years. Tapping into the ugly attitudes that remain beneath the urbane image we try to project to the world is something that he did better than anyone, and long may he burn in hell for it. Dog whistle politics. The master of the sly political wink. The cynical opportunism that characterised his government was the worst feature of a dark, dark decade, and it’s not for many years we’ll be able to evaluate just how destructive its effects have been on society as a whole. The fact that his policies were dressed up in notions of “mateship” and a “fair go” only made them all the more reprehensible.

I’d argue that Howard’s reaction to the sudden rise of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party in the late ‘90s – by and large adopting its ideals, rather than condemning them – was the single most destructive political moment in Australia since Whitlam’s sacking. At a stroke, he risked undoing two decades of progress, lending mainstream legitimacy to the sort of ignorant, isolationist and occasionally downright racist ideas that should have followed Darkie Toothpaste into oblivion years ago – all to make sure he stayed in power.

The ongoing social effects of his long rule are something that are felt in the current election campaign, where demonisation of minorities for political gain – be they sexual, racial, religious or whatever – is a constant theme. Where there should be bipartisan support for the idea that we’re all created equal, instead there’s constant one-upmanship on “getting tough” with refugees and “family values”. What all this says for how much politicians think of their electorate is an interesting question. But as they say in the clichés, you get the politicians you deserve.

The changes that have taken place in our society over the last two decades are changes for the better – but they’re not something we should take for granted. Our past is both distant and frighteningly recent. I occasionally wonder whether politicians who play for populist votes wonder just how dangerous and destructive a game they’re playing. The message that intolerance is not and will never be acceptable is not a political bargaining chip. Demonising homosexuals and refugees and other minorities isn’t merely a tawdry political game to win a few votes in marginal seats. Not in a country where things like the murder of Kwementyaye Ryder still happen. Not while people like Wilson Tuckey and Bob Katter can be Federal MPs.

I guess perhaps Darkie Toothpaste surfaced from my subconscious because of the election. But it’s a reminder of our not-too-distant past, and a warning for our future. The land we live in wasn’t always this way. And its future is yet to be written.

4 thoughts on “Dark(ie) days for Australia

  1. Go for wider publication with this Tom. These are the types of essays our media outlets should be gagging for, and it’s stuff that needs to be voiced.

  2. How quickly we forget, Thomas. You have thought of Darkie toothpaste in the last 20 years – I bought a tube of “Darlie” in Kualur Lumpur in 2009, not knowing that it had ever been “Darkie”, and thought nothing of it until you saw it in Park Rd and brought it up. I’ll swear on my golliwog that this is true.

    I’ll expect my rightful share of the royalties this article generates to be paid in beer when we next meet, or donated to a campaign to assassinate Wilson Tuckey.

    Abraço
    RC

    • Good lord, really? Wow – you’re right, I’d totally forgotten. It is ringing a vague bell now. You’ll be unsurprised to hear that my short-term memory is useless, but I’m alarmed that its long-term counterpart is starting to let me down too.

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