John Howard could smell political advantage under water. Tampa changed politics in this country for the worse and made any future rational discussion of immigration and refugees thereafter political poison. Howard was in Washington when the Twin Towers were struck and it understandably had an immense impact on him, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that he also sensed opportunity. The “We will decide” 2001 campaign speech fed into the world wide climate of fear and enabled him to set in place refugee policy which became a race to the bottom in the treatment, detention and demonising of refugees and their children. Underpinning this policy, supported shamefully by both sides of parliament, was and is, whether we like it or not, racism .
Sacrificing policy and the public good for political gain, (or survival), became the reigning political morality and with it trust in politicians and politics withered.
Five years ago few in this country would have foreseen the extent and invasiveness of surveillance measures in the name of security under the control of one of the most powerful government departments ever created, and with a minister for whom things like transparency and respect for international agreements about the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees are barely paid lip service. The new data access bill to come before the parliament later this year adds a further unnerving dimension. Guarantees of the security of the information are at this stage unconvincing since it will almost certainly in time be hacked or leaked. At the same time the Nine Fairfax takeover further increases media consolidation, already one of the highest in the world, and the power and influence that goes with it. Mussolini famously said you consolidate power by plucking the chicken one feather at a time.
In Madeleine Albright’s book “Fascism: A Warning” she tells of the testimony of a well-educated but not politically minded German who experienced the rise of the Third Reich who said:
To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it it – please try to believe me…Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained, or, on occasion, “regretted,”that unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what…all these “little measures” that no patriotic German could resent must someday lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing…
And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you. The burden of self deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my case my little boy, hardly more than a baby, saying “Jew Swine,” collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose.”
No one is suggesting Australia is on the verge of Fascism but it is time to pause and think about when enough is enough. In a recent television program on East African immigrants a young man told how he had come here as a young child as part of the migration program, completed his education, got a good job, took out citizenship and participated in activities in his community. Asked whether he ever racially vilified he said more in resigned sadness than anger,“Yes, regularly”, and pushed further added, “on average about weekly.”
Racism it is a learned behaviour. Watch young kids play together and they are completely oblivious to it, but they learn it from influences around them as they grow. Waves of people have come to this country since the war, sometimes enduring resentment or annoyance because some lived in enclaves with their former countrymen or retained customs we don’t understand. Integration takes time but their children or grandchildren blend in in varying degrees and generally become part of the wider society. So why are we now struggling?
The toxic addition now is religion and the arrival of the internet age where something true or not finds an immediate audience where the speed of the communication works against understanding, reason or considered judgement. When times are rapidly changing and people fear things like terrorism or the security of their future, seemingly the response they are most easily attracted to is racism. We have to believe that it is not the natural state of humanity and try to make strengths of the human condition stronger than fears the times generate.
It is not another thing to fob off onto schools. Education has a role to play in helping kids understand what racism is and how to recognize it. The core of the problem lies in the four walls of the place people live in and the communities in which they mix. And in the way it is treated in the media .
The first step is reconciling with Indigenous Australians. We grew up with racism towards the first Australians as the natural order of things and there are still people who adopt the equivalent of holocaust denial in relation to Indigenous history. No other group endures or would put up with the same intolerable seemingly intractable problems, such as Indigenous incarceration rates, especially Indigenous children. Its manifestly depressing to believe recognition and reconciliation is so difficult.
A second step would be to try to have policies potentially inflaming racial debate developed by all- party committees. It might enable genuinely balanced discussion and provide a basis for policy around areas of agreement. The ultimate responsibility would still reside with parliament. We’ve had twenty years to observe what can now be unambiguously seen as the destructiveness of tying these policies to party politics and power.
The Senate system needs to be changed so that manipulation of preferences can’t undermine the integrity of the system when some of the outcomes defy all sense.
Freedom of speech should not be confused with the right to say anything anywhere about anyone and should not include the unfettered or the protected expression of extreme racial hatred. People get away unchallenged unsupported assertions, particularly under privilege when the evidence is to the contrary. Done knowingly it is called lying.
Vic Rowlands is a former secondary school teacher and principal