Speaking out about racism does not show disdain for Australia

Australia has a problem when it comes to talking about issues of race and racism, particularly when it is done by people of colour. It is clear when you compare the public treatment of Yassmin Abdel-Magied and the reaction to Red Symons interview of Beverley Wang to the relative silence about comments by Rowan Dean about Tim Soutphomassane and Prue MacSween about Yassmin Abdel-Magied.

Right-wing critics of “identity politics” such as Rowan Dean, Mark Latham and co seem to think that when people of colour speak out about racism and underrepresentation, it is a complaint that comes from a disdain of Australia. People of colour are essentially told to “love it or leave”. These critics could not be further from the truth.

For so many people of colour, Australia is their home and the only one they have known. It comes from a wish for the image of Australia to reflect how it really is, where people of colour are a part of it. Every time there is a pushback with not even coded racist language, it reinforces a sense that people of colour are not allowed a say and will never truly be accepted as Australians. What makes it worse is when you see comparable nations like Canada doing far better. Canada is not perfect but on basic representation in institutions like in Parliament or even measuring the representation of ‘visible minorities’, it is far ahead of Australia.

Those who think it is funny obviously have never experienced the exhaustion, the second guessing and the frustration of it all. To top it off, people of colour are expected to cop it and be servile, to accept it and be grateful they do not live in an underdeveloped country ravaged by the legacy of colonialism. I do not know whether it is a fear of people of colour or malice towards individuals or just a belief they have it good so they should not complain but this is our home as much as theirs.

Personally I do not want white guilt about this situation, I do not even want commentators fired, I just want it to be normalised that racist comments are called out and ridiculed and to move on. I want our institutions to truly reflect our nation’s breadth in race, sexuality, disability, class and gender. I want people to understand that there is not a pure binary of being a racist versus not being a racist so there is not pushback when casual racism is identified. And most of all, I would like people of colour to get the respect they are entitled to when they speak out about these issues and to not be treated as some irritant that has been “tolerated”.


The Real Story Behind Harmony Day: How John Howard Depoliticised Anti-Racism

Tomorrow is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, but you probably haven’t heard it called that before.

The day commemorates the Sharpesville Massacre. On March 21 1960, police opened fire and killed 69 people at a peaceful demonstration against apartheid laws in Sharpeville, South Africa. In proclaiming the day in 1966, the United Nations General Assembly called on the international community to redouble its efforts to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination.

Yet few people in Australia would be aware of the origins of this day since it was re-named as ‪‎Harmony Day. The Racial Discrimination Commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane, and Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews were among the few public figures who mentioned the origins of the day last year on its 50th anniversary.


From Anti-Racism To “Harmony”

You might wonder why this matters. Surely a celebration of cultural diversity fits in with opposition to racism? But calling it Harmony Day drains the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination of its real meaning. Rather than focusing on tackling racism and the structural barriers that continue to exist, it is instead a self-congratulatory day about how “harmonious” we apparently are.

The nature of Harmony Day is unsurprising since it was originally an invention of the Howard Government. It was created 1998 in response to research conducted by Eureka Research for the federal government about the causes of racism and issues of national identity that were prominent at the time.

Rather than addressing Australia’s deep-seated issues and acknowledging there was racism, the project latched onto the idea of celebrating already existing harmony in the community, based on the second phase of research. Celebrating and protecting this harmony would be the focus, avoiding any uncomfortable conversations about racism. It didn’t threaten the status quo, which John Howard was all too happy with.

Nearly two decades on, the day manifests itself by encouraging people to wear orange, for no clear reason, and eating ‘ethnic food’. At best, Harmony Day is cosmo-multiculturalism — a multiculturalism that makes people feel classy and sophisticated, where ‘ethnic’ products are a form of exoticisms for consumption, detached from history and culture.


Racism Exists in Australia

Yes, nowhere is perfect and Australia does better than some other places in the world, but an absence of outright racially discriminatory laws does not mean racism does not exist. It remains in structural barriers, casual racism and instances of abuse throughout the country. Ask any non-white person or anyone visibly from a minority racial group and they can tell you about it.

You see it in the lack of diverse representation in our institutions. Soutphommasane, for example, has spoken about a “bamboo ceiling” preventing Asian Australians from taking their share of leadership positions. You see it in outright hostile depictions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in our broadsheets. You see it in our politicians’ rhetoric about who we decide to let into this country and the circumstances in which they come.

We also seem to do far worse than other comparable countries in terms of general parliamentary representation. In Canada, for example, people from minorities have served as premier, governor-general and make up 14 percent of the Canadian parliament. In Australia, less than 10 percent of our federal parliamentarians are from non-English speaking backgrounds, even though nearly one in four Australians are.

The image of Australia projects of itself is predominantly still Anglo-Australian, both overseas and even at home. Race becomes the defining feature of anyone who is not an Anglo-Australian and any proper representation of a culturally diverse Australia in the media seems to be siphoned off to SBS. Then there are the more subtle forms of racism such as media reporting about Arab Australians and Asian Australians. The endless articles about “the Chinese” buying up property immediately come to mind.

As long as we continue to call it Harmony Day, we are legitimising this widespread denial about racism in Australia. One day can’t fix racism, but we can start by calling it what it actually is, and staying true to its real message: the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Published in Junkee on 20 March 2017

Battling the Pauline Hanson battler myth

The big surprise of the recent federal election was the success of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party. Not only was Hanson elected but three other One Nation Senators were as well. Their election has led to much soul searching about Hanson’s ongoing appeal, and public discussion about how to respond.

A recent SBS Insight episode suggested that those who voted for Hanson predominantly were disillusioned with the major parties and believed Hanson had a passion and authenticity that the others lack. Hanson benefitted from the perception that she is a political outsider who speaks for ‘ordinary Australians’.

This affirmed polling by Essential Research that found 62 per cent thought she speaks for a lot of ordinary Australians and 65 per cent thought she spoke about issues politicians are too scared to tackle.

It is ironic that Hanson thrives on the perception that she is an authentic outsider against ‘the system’ when in fact she is part of that system. Think about how she is constantly given paid platforms by television networks.

She hasn’t been silenced by ‘the system’, her voice is heard and has been amplified. She is also no amateur, she is a professional and knows exactly what she is doing. She is not some ‘battler’ being picked on, and that needs to be emphasised.

The resonance of Hanson’s message goes beyond being seen as an outsider. Part of it also comes from her portrayal of her views as ‘common sense’. Her perspective is never complicated or sophisticated; it is matter of fact, and based on practical intuition. Think back to her maiden speech and her comparison of immigration to being allowed to choose who she invites into her home.

A good recent example of how Hanson uses ‘common sense’ was her comments about squat toilets in the Tax Office. Her simple message was that if you cannot figure out how to use something as simple as a toilet, how can you know how to run something complex like a tax system?

Her messages are not based on facts, so fact checking is pointless, as are overtures to diversity or that it does not matter. They are simple ‘common sense’ messages, so they cut through.

That ‘common sense’ approach thrives in the current media landscape and explains why it favours populists. Simple messages cut through the noise and grab media attention, in an era where resources for serious journalism are limited. It is a vicious cycle where the media and populists have an almost parasitic relationship.

While Hanson is not the only One Nation senator, the party’s success has always been reliant on her. There has been increasing scrutiny of some of the other One Nation senators but it seems unlikely to damage the party. One Nation, like other similar parties, is reliant on a charismatic figure. As Ben Moffitt points out, populist parties tend towards extreme personalisation where party leaders ‘speak for, represent and embody the hopes, desires and voice of ‘the people’. The re-branding of the party as Pauline Hanson’s One Nation is a case in point. So long as One Nation and Pauline Hanson are seen as synonymous, the other senators might cause some embarrassment but will not undercut the party’s base level of support.

Given all of this, how should those who want to challenge Hanson respond? Firstly, Hanson and One Nation should not be indulged, but the broader concerns of her voters should be acknowledged. Acknowledging is not the same as agreeing.

The myth that she is an authentic outsider also needs to be challenged. She is not some poor downtrodden member of society, but very much a part of the system and a beneficiary of it.

The attempts to correct her using facts or talking up the benefits of what she opposes should stop. When responding to Hanson, don’t fact check; point out how her view’s lack ‘common sense’ and respond to them on that basis.

Finally, try to avoid giving attention that aids her. Every time she says something and we feed the frenzy, she gets more attention from the media, which ultimately aids her. Nuanced replies on her terrain do not win.

All of this is easier said than done, but relying on reasoning or facts will not undercut Hanson’s appeal.

Published in Eureka Street on 16 September 2016

Peter Dutton throws a “dead cat”

This morning I awoke to furore about comments that Immigration Minister Peter Dutton made on Sky News last night. He claimed that if Australia’s refugee intake was dramatically increased (as proposed by Labor and the Greens), “illiterate” refugees would come to Australia, take jobs and drive up unemployment.

Social media was ablaze with people attacking Dutton for making such a suggestion, accusing him of racism and rebutting his claims about refugees with facts. Some even suggested it was a gaffe. It was not. It was intentional.

What Dutton did was “throw a dead cat on the table.”  It is a signature election manoeuvre by Lynton Crosby, used to regain control of public debate. Media attention switches as everyone reacts to whatever outrageous and offensive statement is made. Everyone will be talking about what you want them to talk about (in this case, refugees). Julie Bishop’s tacit agreement with Dutton affirms that this is no gaffe, it is an intentional strategy. It is aimed at distracting everyone and keeping the focus on refugees. It is a tactic that is succeeding.

The Tories used the “dead cat” to great effect in the last British election and locally George Christensen and Cory Bernardi are particularly adept at this tactic. People dismiss them as idiots because of the views they espouse publicly but they know exactly what they are doing. Their incendiary statements are about grabbing maximum public attention and trying to force a response on their issues.

Those who oppose the Coalition need to stop taking the bait. The Coalition does not want the election to be focused on education, Medicare or housing affordability which are far more important issues to voters and Labor’s strengths. Instead it wants it to be focused on refugees and national security because they see them as electorate winners. Labor does not win votes talking about either. They either lose votes to the Coalition or the Greens.

It won’t be the last time that the Coalition tries this tactic during this election but progressives need to far get better at responding and shifting the focus away whenever a “dead cat” is thrown.

Cross-posted to AusVotes2016

Why I’m an ambivalent republican

Over the past year, there has been a renewed push for a republic and momentum seems like it is on its side. The Australian Republican Movement got a new chair and its membership has grown significantly, high profile Australians have endorsed the call for a republic and it is a topic in public discussion. Its latest achievement was a joint show of support from state and territory leaders for a republic last weekend.

As someone whose politics is left-of-centre I obviously support an Australian republic. You cannot have truly egalitarian politics and support a monarchy, even a constitutional one. And yet I feel fundamentally ambivalent about the republic.

While I have significant reservations about how the campaign being run and its elite-top down nature, it is not the root cause of my ambivalence. At its heart, my ambivalence is because the call for an Australian republic is not transformative, it is a conservative and timid vision of a republic.

The monarchy is framed a relic that does not represent contemporary Australia but the institution of a President somehow will, or at least a version of what some think we are. The problem is that unless it is transformative, a republic will only reflect the status quo. It will not actually reflect the diversity or breadth of Australia or be less exclusionary, rather it will entrench this elite idea of cosmo-multiculturalism that has taken shape.

We may no longer have a Queen but our institutions such as Parliament, the media, our culture and how Australia projects itself to the rest of the world won’t necessarily reflect Australia as it actually is. The appeal for an Australian for a head of state has little resonance to platitudes about our identity and belonging when it means not much else changes.

The lack of a transformative vision is best highlighted by how a republic is discussed in complete separation from a treaty or reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. It is almost as if becoming a republic will happen in a vacuum. As Mark Bahnisch points out, it is because such a conversation is about how we do whiteness and requires real change.

This issue of whiteness and Australian identity is important because for all the talk about becoming a republic and reflecting that we are in the Asia-Pacific, it means little without this discussion of whiteness and national identity. The timidity means that this discussion will not happen.

I understand the timidity because there is the belief that without bi-partisan support it will not pass but without a transformative vision, it is hard to get excited about Australian republic. It becomes a debate about process and bogged down as an academic exercise.

If a referendum was to be held tomorrow, I would vote for a republic but I won’t pretend that what would be on offer will change Australia or my own sense of identity or belonging.