“Racist” is a powerful accusation to make against anyone, but since the Christchurch terrorist attack it has been frequently applied to Australia’s political mainstream. Hardly a day goes by without talk of our nation’s entrenched racism and how it fuels Islamophobia and extreme right-wing violence.
It’s not a persuasive argument, because anyone who seeks to whip up racist sentiments is relegated to the fringe of our public discourse. Besides, since March 15 the widespread outpouring of support for Christchurch’s Muslim community — and indeed Muslims in the wider Australian community — has been a rebuke to those who commit violence in the name of race and to those who think Australia is irredeemably racist.
For all our nation’s historic blemishes, and notwithstanding the pockets of xenophobia, we are a broadly liberal and tolerant multi-racial, multi-ethnic society. And it has been that way for the best part of half a century since both major parties chipped away at the great white walls of White Australia and moved quickly to enshrine the multicultural ideal as the basis of national community.
In a very short period — from Menzies and Calwell in the mid-1960s to Whitlam and Fraser a decade later — we moved from a nation dedicated to what the distinguished historians Neville Meaney and James Curran call “British race patriotism” to one celebrating ethnic diversity, tolerance and inclusion.
Today, half of our population is either born overseas or has a parent who was born overseas. More than a third of our migrant intake comes from Asia and about 20 per cent comes from Africa and the Middle East.
Although our border protection policy remains highly controversial, controlled borders boost public confidence in large-scale, non-discriminatory migration. We have one of the world’s most generous humanitarian refugee intakes in per-capita terms.
After the Tampa asylum-seeker stand-off in 2001, John Howard more than doubled our annual immigration for the rest of his tenure. At the height of Syria’s civil war in 2015, Tony Abbott, with broad bipartisan and public support, provided an extra 12,000 refugees over and above the 18,000 annual humanitarian intake.
In Europe, by contrast, a policy of open borders has led to a sense of helplessness, which in turn has led to the rise of genuinely far-right, nativist movements that are in power in Austria, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.
When Islamist terrorist incidents occur, critics such as cross cultural consultant Tasneem Chopra say our political leaders demonise Muslims. In reaction to the Christchurch massacre, Chopra said that “for decades, Australian governments have demonstrated a deft culpability in the demonising of Muslims and Islam for political gain”. In fact, our leaders go out of their way to associate any jihadist threat or attack with violent extremists, such as al Qaeda or Jemaah Islamiyah. Far from targeting our Muslim community, our political leaders attack radicals, and those Islamist clerics who aid and abet their cause.
Former race discrimination commissioner Tim Soutphommasane says: “There has never been a more exciting time to be a dog-whistling or race-baiting commentator.” But whenever a public figure goes outside the bounds of respectability on race or religion or both, there are many more countering voices.
Take Michael Daley. A week before the NSW election, he was tipped to lead a minority Labor government. After his remarks that Asian immigrants had stolen Australian jobs had surfaced, he lost the election, the Labor leadership and suffered a 12-per cent swing in his safe seat. A lady with a long name stole what Daley thought was his job.
As offensive as Fraser Anning’s maiden address was, remember the many more powerful bipartisan speeches shaming the Queensland senator. When Sky News host Ross Cameron referred to “black-haired, slanty-eyed, yellow-skinned Chinese” on air, he was swiftly sacked.
If racism were dominating the political mainstream, how does one account for the fact that the body politic treats such views with shock, distaste and censure?
None of this is to deny that successive waves of immigrants have each aroused anxiety that new arrivals would never fit in: think of the Greeks and Italians in the ’50s or Chinese and Vietnamese in the ’70s.
Nor is it to deny that there are few minorities in Australia’s mainstream media. Compare our television presenters or radio hosts with those in the US and Britain. Still, it’s a fair bet that over time there’ll be more Stan Grants, Kumi Taguchis, Jeremy Fernandezs, Karina Carvalhos and Waleed Alys in our media landscape.
After all, the transformation of our nation since White Australia has been nothing short of remarkable. Just look at our society’s determination to integrate immigrants and isolate racists.
Tom Switzer is executive director of the Centre for Independent Studies and a presenter at the ABC’s Radio National.
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