Among the Barbarians
By Paul Sheehan
Random House, 1998. 338 pp., $19.95
Review by Ben Reid
This book represents the ideas that underpin much of the xenophobic and racist thinking of the "respectable" right in Australian politics. Sheehan, a journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald, has produced what is rapidly becoming a bible for xenophobes in a climate of mounting racism.
Sheehan's book has received extraordinary promotion; the Age went to unprecedented lengths in what appeared to be a front-page news article on May 30. The "article" was in fact reprints of Sheehan's writing.
Michael Duffy, columnist in the Weekend Australian, applauded the book as "bold, brave and brilliant". (Elsewhere in the same issue, Duffy demonstrated his own brilliance by professing to have "not been able to find anything to specifically support the charge of racism against Pauline Hanson".)
Paddy McGuinness and Christopher Pearson chimed in with their own acclamations. Les Carlyon, former editor of the Age, showered praise on the work. Even a more critical review by the slightly less reactionary Robert Manne agreed with one of Sheehan's central arguments, that charges of racism have been used to "stifle discussion of issues".
The reason for the ovations is obvious: Sheehan has managed to put together a xenophobic diatribe that looks "respectable".
Sheehan appears, at first, to be no Pauline Hanson or John Pasquarelli. He accepts the need for Asian immigration and native title. He just believes that the "excesses" that have come with them need to be curtailed.
However, his arguments are riddled with contradictions and rely on half-truths and outright falsehoods, all held together by an extraordinary conspiracy theory worthy of the League of Rights.
Sheehan's central argument is that Australia's tolerant "national culture" is under threat from a conspiracy of the "multicultural industry" (ethnic community councils, ethnic media, immigration lawyers) and "thought police" (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission and so on).
The former ALP government's creation of entrenched Aboriginal and multicultural bureaucracies now threatens Australia's "national identity". This "identity" is not explained, apart from some ludicrous passages on the qualities of gum trees and a gratuitous yet revealing gloating over Australia's victory against China in hosting the 2000 Olympics.
According to Sheehan's fantasy, the ALP opened the floodgates to immigration to bolster its electoral support, resulting in Asian crime gangs and hordes of "ungrateful" Chinese and Vietnamese heroin addicts who swelled the ranks of the unemployed, formed ghettos and now threaten Australia's fragile environment.
But the long-suffering majority rebelled in 1996, bringing in the Coalition to stop the rot. The trouble is they're just not doing enough to curtail the "conspiracy". The "multicultural industry" and "thought police" have intimidated them. Hanson is the result, stepping into the void as the representative of the "unheard millions".
The federal ALP government's record on immigration and Aboriginal rights has little in common with Sheehan's dream world.
Sheehan lists a stream of alleged funding "rorts" by migrant groups to prove the ALP use of public funds for vote buying. This includes cases of staggering sums such as a $2000 grant to a Somali dance group!
What he doesn't reveal is that allocations to multicultural projects decreased as a proportion of budgets under the ALP government. Far from an opening of floodgates, there was an increase in immigration controls and cuts to migrant services.
The fact that the ALP reduced net immigration to Australia through the 1990s does not fit well with the image Sheehan presents. The Hawke government abolished the Australian Institute for Multicultural Affairs, cut funding to language programs and cut multicultural education in schools.
Under Keating, there was the imprisonment of Indochinese refugees in remote detention centres, the continuing denial of overseas qualifications and the imposition of a six-month wait on social security payments.
Sheehan similarly avoids mention of the ALP's failure to implement real Aboriginal land rights. He accepts the Mabo and Wik judgments precisely because of their limited nature.
There may be some substance in claims of ALP manipulation of ethnic and Aboriginal organisations. The ALP used cooption of migrant bureaucracies to prevent opposition to cutbacks — not to allow a rise in migration, as Sheehan would have his readers believe.
There is also some truth in the claim that legal sanctions to censor racists are unlikely to succeed. But why shouldn't human rights commissions and similar bodies be able to argue against racist views? This is really all that has occurred, yet Sheehan calls anyone who argues against racism part of the "thought police".
Blaming the victim
The most gratuitously offensive and misleading parts of the book relate to its underlying assumption that high levels of unemployment and welfare dependency are the result of high immigration levels and welfare scams in ethnic communities.
The first "proof" Sheehan presents is the Coalition government's alleged findings of welfare fraud. Senator Jocelyn Newman's claim that payment reductions and cancellations were up 40% from the ALP's time in government in 1996-97 is regurgitated without question.
Sheehan, incredibly, admits that there are no figures suggesting how many of these cases involved migrants. Yet he just asserts that it is proof of his argument!
His other "evidence" is a few anecdotes of one ex-worker from the DSS and some theories by an academic who works for the NSW police.
In comes Monash University's Bob Birrel on spouse immigration and marriages, with the claim that, of an average 120,000 marriages a year, 30% involve offshore spouses — as if this accounts for the swelling of unemployed welfare recipients.
Let's say one-third of this 30% (36,000) actually go on to receive unemployment benefits. That's an addition of only 12,000 unemployed per year — hardly enough to account for the 800,000 plus total unemployed.
Enclaves of migrant groups exist and in some cases have higher than average unemployment. That is usually due to economic restructuring that has resulted in plant closures and relocation of industries where those groups predominated.
In another chapter, Sheehan rehashes in tabloid style myths about Asian crime gangs. Statements by police agencies are accepted without the slightest scrutiny or questioning. Nor is there any discussion of how drug use may be influenced by job cuts, poverty and the other effects of economic rationalism.
Sheehan one-sidedly quotes studies that claim immigration creates more costs than benefits and ignores those that indicate the opposite.
He never mentions that unemployment levels were much lower when immigration levels were much higher in the 1950s and 1960s. Nor does he talk about the slowdown in growth that is the real cause of structural unemployment since the mid-1970s.
Real solutions, like a shorter working week with no loss in pay to reduce unemployment, are ignored.
In an attempt to give some liberal gloss to the book, Sheehan spends a lot of time talking about the environment. His arguments are contrived and downright silly.
Australia, we are told, has the potential to be an "environmental superpower": while the rest of the world, especially Asia, sinks into ecological disaster, Australia can somehow escape. We just have to keep everyone else out!
Sheehan wheels out a few Malthusians to back him up with the thoroughly unscientific concept of "carrying capacity", ignoring that there are simply no reliable quantitative measurements of how many people can exist on this continent.
The idea that one nation state can escape the consequences of environmental crises, which are by their nature global, is absurd. Australia will feel the effect of climate change and other problems as much as anywhere else.
While he berates the environmental record of Asian nations, Sheehan makes no mention of the impact of Australia's high energy consumption and greenhouse emissions.
His list of allies who "seek reductions in immigration" makes for interesting reading. Most, with the probable exception of the racist Australians for an Ecologically Sustainable Population, would cringe at most of Sheehan's claims.
Sheehan's book is a nationalist fantasy that promotes the same politics of racist scapegoating as Howard and Hanson. It is a cowardly and despicable attack on the most exploited.
Sheehan demagogically tries to present himself and his ilk as the voice of a silent majority. Hanson and Howard allegedly represent the majority who have rebelled against an intellectual elite.
The real elite is Sheehan and the class he represents. They want to promote false answers to Australia's problems, to avoid pointing out the real culprits — the tiny elite of corporate rich and their profits first system.
Some workers did rebel against the ALP in 1996, but not because of multiculturalism. They rebelled because of cuts to their living standards. Some may be fooled by racist myths that claim migrants and Aborigines are the cause of this. But these feelings are not very deep.
The racist myths can be swept away by a mass campaign against racism, right-wing populism and austerity. Such a movement can start by exposing the likes of Sheehan as the cowardly charlatans and liars that they are.