John Hewson: We must continue to call out racism everywhere

OUTSTANDING: Tim Soutphommasane handled several attacks on immigration and multiculturalism. Picture: Andrew Meares

OUTSTANDING: Tim Soutphommasane handled several attacks on immigration and multiculturalism. Picture: Andrew Meares

This week I had the privilege of speaking in support of Tim Soutphommasane, who delivered his final speech as Race Discrimination Commissioner at the University of Western Sydney. It was an excellent speech and an excellent event, but, in many ways, it was a shame that he had to make it.

Tim did an outstanding job as commissioner, having to handle two attempts to weaken Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, our historical standard for the treatment of race issues, by both Abbott and Turnbull, and other concerted attacks on immigration and multiculturalism.

It has become a most disturbing and unfortunate feature of recent politics, particularly here and in the US and Europe, that many politicians – seeking short-term personal, political advantage – have played the race card. Sometimes it is little better than blatant racism, on other occasions they hide it behind a confected concern for some broader issue, such as immigration, or the activities of “Sudanese Gangs” or the “excesses” of multiculturalism.

In particular, there has been a strong anti-immigration movement evident in most European elections in recent years, gaining significant momentum with the “flood” of refugees from Syria, Iraq, and North Africa.

The Brexit vote in the UK was driven by concerns about the lack of an effective immigration policy, and the exaggerated threat of some 5 million refugees to hit their shores in the next few years.

Trump has made a feast of anti-immigration sentiment, everything from his planned wall to keep out new Mexican illegals, to wanting to “expel” those who had arrived over several decades to establish a home in the US, raise and educate their kids, to his travel bans on arrivals from certain Muslim majority countries, through to outright commitments to ban all Muslim immigration.

In our country, we have had Pauline Hanson defining herself as anti-immigration, particularly anti-Chinese and anti-Muslim immigration, specifically to tap certain latent racism lying just under the surface in certain Australian communities.

Then the likes of Howard (with his own history of wanting to reduce Asian immigration as a means of boosting his failing poll standing in the 80s) let Hanson’s maiden speech sit without comment for some days, then only to notionally accept that we had to recognise that “some” in our country hold such views, all in the misplaced belief that her comments would manifest as additional electoral support for his government.

At the time I aired my concern to a very senior member of the Liberal Party federal executive, also pointing out that rather than manifesting as support for the government, it would more likely encourage her to form a party of her own – enter One Nation.

More recently, supported by elements of the conservative media, others are seeking to strengthen their marginal electoral standing by raising the issues of immigration and refugees – you know … nudge, nudge, wink, wink … what I mean!

To put all this at risk, just for personal electoral gain, is dangerous, divisive, grossly irresponsible, and threatens the very fabric of our tolerant society.

While the appropriate pace of immigration, and the size of our population, are significant and legitimate policy issues, for this group it’s much more about raising electoral fears about the “threats” of Muslims, emerging “ethnic ghettos”, failure to assimilate, failure to adopt “our values”, burkas and the like – all just scaremongering for votes.

Surely our greatest national post-World War II achievement has not been some sporting performance, or some particular policy like Medicare or the NDIS, but rather that we have built a tolerant, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society that is, quite frankly, the envy of the world.

Of course, this has not been without its tensions and challenges. It also remains a work-in-progress that must be nurtured, while being further developed. But, the whole process has been an outstanding, and defining, national success.

So to put all this at risk, just for personal electoral gain, is dangerous, divisive, grossly irresponsible, and threatens the very fabric of our tolerant society.

The challenge is for leadership, at all levels of society – for our politicians it is to also be bipartisan, rather than attempting to just score points on each other, or to shift blame to the other side. For all of us, the challenge is to call out racism wherever, and whenever, we see it or experience it – to take both a private and public stand against it.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.

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