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It certainly seems that the official line in Australia is a fear of the other. Despite a new government in power, the message remains the same.
Is Australia becoming a more racist country? That was the screaming headline on CNN.com on August 9, triggered by a tame Sky News interview with neo-nazi sympathiser, Blair Cottrell, leader of the far-right United Patriots Front who suggested a portrait of Hitler be hung in Australian classrooms.
The subtext of the headline was revealing: we are already racist.
The CNN article quoted our hapless and now former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull: “Australia is the most successful multiculturalism society in the world.”
Quite. Ever since the Racial Discrimination Act in 1975, when Gough Whitlam referred to Australia as a “multicultural nation”, subsequent PMs have rarely missed an opportunity to inject a jingoistic jab to the arm of Australia.
But scratch beneath the surface and the festering wound of racism runs deep into the bosom and the belly, or underbelly, of this country.
Cottrell was followed by Fraser Anning, a parliamentarian from Katter’s Australian Party, who used his maiden speech in the Senate to invoke the “final solution” to deal with the “problem” caused by Muslim immigration. His solution – to ban Muslim immigrants – was “solid gold”, according to his leader, Bob Katter.
No doubt ScoMo will soon be quoted on CNN, like Turnbull, reminding us how multicultural Australia is. It’s not entirely false. But it’s not the whole truth either.
Muslims are today’s scapegoats. Yesterday it was Asians and before them it was Sheilas, Wogs & Poofters, as the title of football doyen Johnny Warren’s 2002 book famously referenced European immigrants who dared infiltrate Aussie culture with their roundball game.
Even News Ltd’s arch-conservative columnist, Andrew Bolt, appeared to dip his ink in racism with a column earlier this month, provocatively titled The Foreign Invasion, arguing that “a tidal wave of immigrants” was treating Australia as a “hotel” as opposed to “home”.
Bolt cherry-picked statistics for Chinese, Vietnamese, Muslims and Jews, saying that immigrants who refused to assimilate were sweeping away “what’s left of our national identity” and “changing our culture”.
Bolt incurred the wrath of Jewish community leaders, prompting him to clarify in a subsequent column: “Not all of these colonies should worry us. The more Jews the better. In fact, I neither said nor believe that Jews do not integrate.”
Academic Robert Manne had this response in the Guardian:
“Over the past 20 years the slow but inexorable drift of the national conversation – chiefly policed by the Murdoch press – has been towards refusing permission to anti-Anzac sentiment and granting permission to racism.”
Indeed, who can forget George Brandis’ infamous remark in 2014? “People have a right to be bigots,” he said during the Coalition government’s failed bid to change Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which makes it unlawful to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” on the basis of race.
In his parting shot last week as Race Discrimination Commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane said, “I take no pleasure in saying this, but, right now, it feels like there has never been a more exciting time to be a dog-whistling politician or race-baiting commentator in Australia.”
It shouldn’t be a surprise. Racism was effectively written into Australian law moments after Federation, with the Immigration Restriction Act in 1901, latterly referred to as the White Australia policy. It may have been disbanded in the 1970s but its hangover still looms over our struggle to transform from the mono-culture of last century to the multi-cultures of this century.
Consider, for example, the institutional racism inflicted upon our Indigenous population for generations. This was backed by law and forcibly exercised by authorities. It still exists, but because it largely plays out in far-flung outback communities it is out of sight.
The same can be said of what is virtually government-sanctioned racism exacted on refugees and asylum-seekers who we maroon on Manus Island and Nauru. In a new documentary, Border Politics, Julian Burnside QC investigates how anti-terror legislation has affected the human rights of refugees and asylum seekers. His conclusion: what is happening there should shock the conscience of all Australians.
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“We are imprisoning innocent human beings – men, women and children – without charge, without trial,” he says. “And we put them in hellish conditions until young children try to kill themselves or engage in self-harm.”
As former US vice-president Hubert Humphrey put it: “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”
On that count, our leaders – Liberal and Labor – have failed us, and them, miserably.
Scott Morrison, our newest PM in Canberra’s revolving-door circus, may not be Peter Dutton, but he did precede him as Immigration Minister, and was the architect of “Operation Sovereign Borders”, effectively a euphemism for detaining asylum seekers indefinitely on remote islands.
No doubt ScoMo will soon be quoted on CNN, reminding us how much of a multicultural success story Australia is.
It’s not entirely false. But it’s not the whole truth either.
This piece was originally published on Plus61J.