"The thought of our beautiful Camden accommodating to this religion is a disgrace … This Islamic school will change the town forever", "Hayley", a Camden resident, was quoted by the November 6 Sydney Morning Herald as saying in relation to an attempt to build an Islamic school in the far-outer Sydney suburb.
It was a statement that revealed much about racism in Australia today.
The proposal by the Qu'uranic society Dar Tahfez El-Quran Inc to build an Islamic school in Camden was rejected by the local council on May 27. The council decision was allegedly made on "planning" grounds, according to the May 28 Australian, but in the lead up to the decision, and during the initial purchase of the land, the discussions adopted a hideously racist tone.
In November last year, pigs' heads were placed on poles and draped in the Australian flag on the proposed site. Text messages were circulated in the town, rallying people to have their say at a December 19 meeting that featured far-right politician Fred Nile from the Christian Democratic Party. Nile has a long history of inciting racism, and has recently targeted Muslims most of all.
In the 2007 federal election, he called for a ban on all Muslim immigration and the closure of all Muslim schools. As he opened the December 19 meeting in Camden, the crowd of 800 reportedly chanted "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi!".
As a country founded on the disposession of the Aboriginal population, Australia is no stranger to racism. The Howard years, however, have left a particular legacy that will be hard to shift.
In its first years of government, the Liberal-National Coalition of John Howard had a great deal of difficulty selling its "new" vision for Australia. Its initial attempts to alter Native Title laws and change immigration were met with stiff opposition in the Senate but also on the streets. The Coalition had to contend with a consciousness, however mixed, that this was not the "fair go" Australia that many people supported.
Then came Pauline Hanson.
Hanson was an independent candidate in the federal election of 1996 who stood on the basis of opposition to what she called "political correctness". She blamed migrants and Aborigines for the economic hardships facing Australia and accused them of receiving too many government "handouts". As workers felt the impacts of neoliberal policies begin to bite, Hanson tapped into deep-seated racist sentiments among a section of the population to divert anger towards migrants who "refused to assimilate", and supposedly took jobs from "Australians".
These arguments were never seriously combatted by either of the main parties, instead the Coalition defended her right to free speech — in a way that tacitly approved of what she said.
Hanson's racist One Nation party became the stalking horse for Coalition policy: she was able to voice more stridently, and with more obvious racist overtones, what Coalition policy was pushing for.
By the time One Nation had eventually crashed upon the shores of electoral irrelevance, the Coalition had been able to implement its racist agenda in the areas of Aboriginal policy — which saw almost all Aboriginal institutions defunded or destroyed — and immigration, with a dramatic drop in Australia's humanitarian refugee intake and the establishment of offshore refugee detention centres, which resembled nothing so much as penal colonies.
Using what turned out to be false evidence of asylum seekers throwing their children overboard off the north coast of Australia, Howard was able to justify the "Tampa affair". He sent the navy to board and drive out of Australian waters the Norwegian ship Tampa, which had rescued a boatload of asylum seekers.
By demonising this boatload of people attempting to exercise their legal right to enter a country and apply for asylum, with support from the ALP "opposition", Howard deftly converted growing economic insecurity into a fear of "boat people" who threatened national security.
Directly after the Tampa affair, the September 11 terrorist attacks gave another free kick to the racism of the Howard government. In addition to "boat people", a new threat had emerged: Muslims and "people of Middle Eastern appearance". Howard was in his element: the Coalition won the November, 2001.
From then on, the morality plays of terror trials and detention centres were sold to us on a daily basis as necessary to defend the country. On July 2, 2007, Dr Mohamed Haneef was charged with terrorism offences. He had lent a SIM card to someone who may have been involved in something that may have been a terrorist attack. His arrest, detention and release without charge was a piece of political theatre that failed due to lack of credibility. Lack of evidence, however, didn't stop Howard's immigration minister, Kevin Andrews, revoking Haneef's visa and deporting him on "character grounds".
On June 4, at a New Delhi anti-terrorism conference, Haneef stated: "I am a living example of how the menace of terrorism has affected innocent lives and the phenomenon of how Muslims are stereotyped as being terrorists or sympathisers of terrorists whether they are guilty or not."
This racist stereotyping had found dramatic and vicious expression two years earlier, on December 11, 2005. After an alleged beach-side brawl between Lebanese-Australian swimmers and Anglo-Australian lifesavers on Cronulla beach, Australian-flag-draped drunken yobbos went on a rampage through the streets of Cronulla. The image that stays most in my mind is a pack of these hoons shouting at and threatening an elderly woman — "of Middle Eastern appearance" — who was defensively curled up in ball against a wall. They called her "un-Australian".
Like the recent Islamophobia in Camden, the Cronulla riots said something about Australian racism. Often it's related to a sense of change and dispossession. Economic pressure is blamed on — and comes to be associated with — changes in ethnic diversity. Cronulla is one of the many areas missed by the great economic boom, as is Camden. Rising oil prices hit these areas particularly hard, as their public transport is poor and the distance to travel to work is often quite large. People in these areas — as in many others — are hurting. It is easier for demagogues and politicians to misdirect this anger to "people of Middle Eastern appearance" than come up with solutions.
With the election of the Labor government there was hope that there would be a real break from the racist past. PM Kevin Rudd's February 13 apology to the Stolen Generations seemed to support this. When asked about the Camden closure, however, Rudd gave his support to Camden council without mentioning the racist opposition to the Islamic school.
While Rudd's electoral success had to do with a rejection of Howard's racist policies by large sections of the electorate — a growing sense that no-one wanted to live in that sort of Australia — it's worth noting that the Rudd government has not directly challenged many of these ideas and, in almost all cases, continues the same racist policies of the previous Howard government.
The racist intervention in the Northern Territory, which blames in particular Aboriginal men for poverty and abuse and the neglect of Aboriginal children, continues almost unchanged despite the change in government. "Terror" trials continue to demonise people "of Middle Eastern appearance", with the so-called "Barwon 12\" languishing for over two years in a high-security prison for the charge of allegedly thinking about the possibility of committing a terrorist offence. The policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers also continues unaltered — despite the release of some high-profile refugees, the new immigration minister is rejecting three appeals against deportation for every one he supports.
Rudd's attempts to "heal the nation" with the apology to the Stolen Generations will fall flat unless his government alters its policies to match its rhetoric. If the racist underbelly of Australian society is not challenged, Hanson-like arguments will continue to get a hearing. But it seems we cannot expect that challenge to come from government: Rudd's support for the Camden council's ban of the new Islamic school is a worrying sign of Labor's unwillingness to do so.