Ghosts of apartheid

Today racism has its own pecking order of targets: Aborigines; the Vietnamese; young troubled men from Somalia and Sudan. Islamophobia is rife.
Also included: Have we escaped our past? by Robert Manne

Hanifa Deen (The Age) Sydney Morning Herald June 12, 2010

Hanifa Deen
Hanifa Deen is a Melbourne based author of Pakistani-Muslim ancestry
who was born in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia

I grew up in an Australia whose psyche was shaped by its brutality and total disrespect towards Australian and Torres Strait Islanders flanked by an Immigration Restriction Act known as the White Australia Policy, which persisted from 1901 until 1973. Anyone wanting to migrate to Australia soon discovered that only certain people were accepted. My family was an aberration because my grandparents had arrived from pre-partition India (now Pakistan) in the 1890s, before the doors closed.

"Mateship" in those days meant more than loyalty to your cobber/digger/mate; it also signified conformity in outlook, behaviour and how you looked — namely the colour of your skin. Somewhere along the way our real history became lost and in its place a highly ethnocentric and masculine mythology of how we saw ourselves took hold.

Closing the door on the past is not a simple matter. The cultural effects of racist policies drag on long after they've been rescinded. In America, slavery was abolished in 1865 but segregated schools in the south continued until the civil rights movement of the 1960s; black Americans and Hispanics still face prejudice. South Africa is still recovering from apartheid. And Australia's multicultural and indigenous policies are a work in progress.

The ghost of the WAP and our treatment of indigenous communities continue to bedevil our reputation as a democratic nation. We protest that racism doesn't define us — it's not who we are today. But when we start preaching to our neighbours on human rights, India, Malaysia and Indonesia quickly find evidence (conveniently ignoring their own backyards) that racism still exists today in Australia in spite of our anti-discrimination laws.

Over the decades I've observed the ebb and flow of racism at an individual and systemic level in different parts of Australia. I've witnessed the good years when we took pride in our diversity and the bad years when we put asylum seekers behind wire in detention hell-holes. As a former public servant, I've helped shape policies that broke new ground years before the term "politically correct" was used to deride decency and social justice.

I felt proud to belong to a country where researchers from overseas visited the Victorian Ethnic Affairs Commission, where I worked, to survey our English-on-the-job programs or cross-cultural courses. The Bureau of Immigration Research in Melbourne was internationally famous — so much was happening here — the '80s and early '90s were a great time to be working in ethnic affairs. Prime ministers such as Malcolm Fraser (with lieutenant Petro Georgiou by his side), Bob Hawke and Paul Keating put cultural diversity high on the agenda. Governments, state and federal, did not fan our old fears over border protection to win elections, an old fear that is being cynically manipulated even now.

Six years ago, my partner and I decided to leave Perth and resettle elsewhere. Since then Melbourne has been our home for a second time and the city I remember has changed after a decade of John Howard's conservatism.

Racism in Australia
Racism in Australia

A popular racism has crept out of hiding and people feel free to say in public what they've previously confined to their living rooms. Although Melbourne is now emerging as the inter-faith capital of Australia, the old anti-racist secular alliances have been slow to reconfigure themselves, and the new players — the ubiquitous bloggers — sweep everything before them, often in grandiose flows of hate speech.

Today racism has its own pecking order of targets: Aborigines; the Vietnamese; young troubled men from Somalia and Sudan. Islamophobia is rife.

Australian Muslims live in the shadow of hostility, attitudes have hardened against them as they've graduated into a perceived problem with potential enemy status. The dreary monologue about Muslim women is ongoing; the annual hijab debate has become a fixture on the calendar only recently replaced by calls to ban the burqa.

When the Cronulla riots happened in 2008, my Muslim friends and I told one another: "Oh, Cronulla couldn't possibly happen in Melbourne, it's a Sydney disease." I observed that Sydney Muslims behaved like typical Sydneysiders: brash, outspoken, ready to march on Parliament.

In Melbourne, Muslims were more likely to organise a workshop, act collectively and avoid the spotlight — just like typical Melburnians.

But today in Melbourne racism wears a new face. With the attacks on Indian students we've morphed into a city of denial where politicians and senior police blame the victim: "Talk quietly," (meaning speak more English); "hide your iPods, don't draw attention to yourselves". The word "assimilation" is trotted out regularly. We can no longer point the finger at Sydney and Cronulla. Nasty racist things are happening in Melbourne and our pride's been dented.

For a decade we have drifted away from the acceptance of racial and cultural diversity as an integral part of Australian society. There is a strong belief that some people are more Australian than others, that your loyalty as a citizen and your attachment to Australia is measured by how long you have lived here. Drunken adolescents who drape themselves in the Australian flag believe that their behaviour transforms them into an Australian Ubermensch defending their homeland.

The cycle of abuse can only be broken if politicians and police stop denying there is a problem, take a strong public stand and allocate money for community education campaigns. Tensions arising from differences in race and ethnicity need to be resolved — not swept under the carpet. Funding symbolic "harmony" days once a year doesn't bring results — what happens on the other 364 days?

I want the old pre-Howard Melbourne back again. As Nicky Winmar and Michael Long demonstrated years ago, racism can be confronted and revealed for what it is: mean-spirited, cruel and destructive. The AFL footballers confronted the racists in the footy crowds, shaming the redneck elements by declaring pride in their identity — and we stood and cheered. Racism had been publicly outed and was not to be ignored or tolerated any more.

Surely it's time that we stop burying our heads in the sand and become the people that we think we are.

Hanifa Deen is a Melbourne-based, award-winning author. Her latest book The Jihad Seminar (UWA Press) was shortlisted for the 2008 Australian Human Rights Literary Award.

Have we escaped our past?

The situation in the mid 1990s can be summarised like this: the Australian government was committed to the process of reconciliation with the Aboriginal people. There was no political tendency or school of history that denied that, in the destruction of Aboriginal society, a terrible wrong had been done. Great hopes were held for the revival of traditional Aboriginal communities through "self-determination".

Robert Manne

The Age June 12, 2010

1974 Tent Embassy
1974 Tent Embassy

Two forms of racism were located at the heart of the Australian experience of nation-building. Across the continent, as justification for the occupation of their land, the settlers mounted a prolonged attack on the barbarity of the indigenous "savages". Racism also provided the basis for strict border control. The White Australia Policy was founded on the fear that, unless repelled, Australia would be swamped by the Asian millions.

If I had been asked 15 years ago to answer the question - has Australia escaped this racist past? - I would have been inclined to answer yes.

The situation in the mid 1990s can be summarised like this: the Australian government was committed to the process of reconciliation with the Aboriginal people. There was no political tendency or school of history that denied that, in the destruction of Aboriginal society, a terrible wrong had been done. Great hopes were held for the revival of traditional Aboriginal communities through "self-determination". Arguments for slowing the rate of Asian immigration had been successfully resisted. There was no asylum seeker issue and therefore no talk about "border control".

It is now clear that the belief that Australia had successfully transcended its racist past was at least in part an illusion. In mid-1990s Australia anti-racist values predominated only among the well-educated and the well-heeled.

In 1996, a populist backlash against anti-racism, by now re-described as "political correctness", exploded. The One Nation Party of Pauline Hanson argued that Aborigines were being accorded privileges at the expense of ordinary Australians. It maintained that Australia was being swamped, first, by Asian immigrants and, later, by Muslim asylum seekers. These views were popular. At its height One Nation was able to gain nearly one-quarter of the votes in Queensland and 10 per cent of the votes in Australia as a whole.

The Howard government watched the emergence of One Nation attentively. In regard to the issues raised in the backlash, the government began to pick and choose.

Concerning indigenous Australians, the government abandoned the movement towards reconciliation. It refused to apologise to the stolen generations. When a revisionist school of history emerged, denying the depth of the injustice of the dispossession, it sympathised. In rightly recognising the failure of the movement towards self-determination, the government provided sanction for the revived public expression of apparently banished feelings of anti-Aboriginal contempt.

The Howard government did not share One Nation's nostalgia for White Australia. But it did share its hostility to mainly Muslim asylum seekers. Even though Australia had a smaller asylum seeker "problem" than any major Western nation, Australian politics became obsessed with the question of border control. In the government's grotesquely disproportionate response to the arrival of asylum seeker boats - first incarceration and then military repulsion - the shadow still cast by the legacy of White Australia could unmistakably be seen.

By this time the Howard government had not merely abandoned all talk of multiculturalism. Following September 11, it began to incite popular anti-Muslim feeling for political gain. Gratuitously, it questioned the loyalty of Muslim citizens some of whom had been successfully settled in Australia as long as 40 years ago.

The one-off Anti-Muslim riots at Cronulla in 2005, led not by hoons but by young people of "middle Australian appearance", provided a warning about the rise of racism and its near-cousin, Islamophobia. For many people, an even uglier warning was provided by the recent sequence of vicious attacks on Indian students in Melbourne.

THE Rudd government has not been able to undo the profound cultural movement towards the normalisation of racism and Islamophobia that took place during the Howard years.

Although it offered an apology to the stolen generations, it has shown little interest since then in the process of reconciliation. Although it has abandoned its predecessor's anti-Muslim rhetoric, it has not restored the earlier multicultural rhetoric or aspiration. Although it sought to detoxify the Howard legacy on asylum seekers, as boats began arriving its rhetoric and its actions began to change.

The Rudd government now faces a Liberal Party that has returned with popular support to the most punitive brand of asylum seeker policies. It now governs in a society where racism and Islamophobia, provided by talkback radio and the columns and blogs of the right-wing commentariat, form part of many citizens' daily diet.

The meaning of all this seems clear. from the 1960s many Australians finally recognised the common humanity they shared with indigenous Australians. Mass Asian migration proved a remarkable success. Because of this, in the mid 1990s it was possible to believe that Australia had emancipated itself from the darker aspects of its history.

Fifteen years after the arrival of the backlash against anti-racism, it has become obvious that self-congratulation on having escaped from the shadow of its racist past is delusional.

Robert Manne is professor of politics at La Trobe University and author and editor of many books, most recently 'Goodbye to All That' with David McKnight.