At a forum earlier this year, a prominent Leftist economic commentator outlined his greatest fear that as the economy soured, politicians would shift the blame by reverting to the slogans and stereotypes of the White Australia era.
My response was that the notion of racism lurking latent in the nation’s soul, ripe for electoral exploitation, did not match contemporary social and political reality. Diversity was not just a social phenomenon born of decades of non-discriminatory immigration policy.
More importantly, it was a family reality for millions of ordinary Australians who — due to the high levels of intermarriage between different ethnic groups — recoil from anti-immigrant sentiments promoting prejudice against family members.
I have been thinking about the commentator’s statement after viewing the television ad produced by the Victorian Liberal Party criticizing the union opposition to the China Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA).
The ad depicts a typical Australian — and typically ethnically diverse — suburban family. As Fairfax reported earlier this month, it shows an “Australian man on the couch with his arm around his Chinese girlfriend” while watching “union attack ads on TV with the man’s parents.”
When the girlfriend says that she didn’t think Australians were racist, she is reassured by the mother that this is correct, and the father blames the Labor politicians who haven’t stopped “some unions” from running a dog-whistle anti-Chinese campaign. It ends with the slogan: “Free trade is good for Australian jobs”.
I take great heart from this ad that the days of White Australia are long behind us.
A century ago, politicians from all sides of politics strongly endorsed anti-Chinese and Protectionist sentiments – because there were lots of votes to be won by backing a White Australia. But times, attitudes, and Australian society have changed. Today, recalcitrant unions are called out as racist for endorsing throwback ideas that are no longer in tune with mainstream values.
Fears that politicians will resort to playing the race card are indeed exaggerated — as is illustrated this week by the Federal Labor Party’s capitulation on the ChAFTA deal. The racism of earlier times will simply not play politically in contemporary Australia for the simple reason that this is genuinely offensive to millions of Australian voters.
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