Howard fuels racism: harassment on the rise

Issue 

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By Jorge Andres

"Why should we, the taxpayer, pay for them to maintain their own language? They're coming out here to Australia. Our language is English. That's that", says Pauline Hanson. How long, I wonder, before those t-shirts gain popularity again: A Union Jack on the front and on the back "Speak English or die".

This month, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) released figures showing that the number of racial hatred complaints in the July to September quarter doubled from the previous quarter. It was a small increase in absolute terms, from 18 to 39, but a sign of things to come.

There are many alarming stories: Asians being told to "go back where you came from", a revival of racist graffiti, and kids being abused at school. In Brisbane, the commission was contacted when two Aboriginal men were refused entry to a nightclub because they were "over-dressed". When a bystander suggested this was discriminatory, the bouncer replied: "Haven't you read the newspapers over the last six weeks?"

The last big wave of racist violence in Australia came courtesy of a campaign sparked off by Melbourne University history professor Geoffrey Blainey's remarks to the Warrnambool Rotary Club on March 20, 1984. He was reported as saying that immigration policy was facilitating an Asian takeover of Australia and that Asians already here could be persuaded with $1000 to go back to where they came from.

With economic insecurity on the rise and big business and the media keen to distract people from the real causes, the always present (if not unleashed) racist mouthpieces were let out of the bag. Neo-fascist organisations like the Big Brother Movement received a lot of publicity for its surveys suggesting that more than 50% of Australians wanted more "Englishmen and Europeans here". More "respectable" racists like Newcastle University's Professor Alan Barcan suggested that multicultural and Aboriginal education were "wrecking the humanist curriculum based on literature, language, history and science".

What followed is what must be prevented this time round. The real extent of violent racist attacks on ordinary people will never be known, but those on high profile individuals indicated a large wave of racist harassment.

First, the Japanese wife of Hobart's Lord Mayor was forced to seek police protection after racist threats. Then the Freedom From Hunger Campaign in Brisbane began receiving abusive material, including two live bullets "to kill the Asians" with. On July 22, the Sydney home of a Community Aid Abroad convenor was bombed by a group of fanatics opposed to fund raising for black South Africans. In August, the vice-president of Sydney University Students' Representative Council was physically attacked by two thugs who called him a "chong lover".

Unfortunately, racist harassment is not the exclusive terrain of the far right. It is given wider legitimacy by media, police and politicians who need to keep the wool over people's eyes.

The media promotion of racist stereotypes and its consequences seems too obvious to comment on. In news, as much as in advertising, Asians and Italians are "linked" to mafias, refugee minors are "sponsored" to Australia by ethnic gangs, Asian women are stereotyped as mail-order brides or prostitutes, women from non-English speaking backgrounds are portrayed exclusively as mothers, wives, domestic cleaners and sex objects.

In 1989, the Australian Institute of Criminology reported on media accounts of Vietnamese youth criminal activity. "The gangs are portrayed as pseudo-mafiosa like, complete with Godfathers who induct parentless refugee minors into their 'families' and force then to commit extortion, robbery, car theft and gambling/drug offences", it said. In fact, this report revealed, Vietnamese youth offenders had a significantly lower crime rate than their non-Vietnamese counterparts.

Then there's the media "polling", like Richard Carlton in an ABC Nationwide report in mid-1984 claiming that, of 62 calls made to the program, 100% agreed with racist policies in migration and settlement.

Yet after six-year-old Aboriginal Tjandumurra O'Shane was doused with petrol and set alight last week, the media immediately reported that in no way was the crime racially motivated. Having unashamedly promoted this wave of racism, the big business media want to wash their hands of the many likely incidents of racial violence on the horizon.

If the corporate media is often the promoter of racist views, the police often "enforce" them. The Australian police force has a record of turning a blind eye to racist violence and, on occasion, doing some of the perpetrating itself. The 1991 HREOC National Inquiry into Racist Violence noted that: "In almost all these cases the victims have consistently reported that authorities, including the police ... have appeared disinterested, and have taken no action".

The politicians of big business never let go of the racist card either — who better to blame for unemployment and every other economic woe? Howard certainly doesn't want to rule out this scapegoat.

But not everyone in the corporate world is so sure. Some want to get on with the economic restructuring and criticise Howard for being too busy building a social base around a new Australian chauvinism. For the corporate world, unlike Howard, the ability of the Liberal Party to win the next election isn't crucial — they always have their "second-party" of government in waiting.

Howard knows, however, that internationally the right wing is increasingly relying on national chauvinism and racism for political success. So despite the criticisms, Howard continues to leave the racist card on the table. "You can argue a racist position without necessarily being a racist", he said last week. Hanson's speech wasn't racist just "simplistic", he says. Hanson couldn't agree more: "I like Howard. He's basically a very compassionate man. I think he wants to do the right thing by the people."

During the racist campaign of the 1980s a great piece of graffiti appeared on a Perth street wall. A racist had sprayed up "Asians out". Underneath it someone else had sprayed "England 4 for 28". With humour, anger and most importantly, solidarity, we must begin to take it up to the racist media and corporate politicians.

Labor's legacy left Aboriginal and ethnic communities dependent on service-centred, politically servile peak organisations. Community solidarity and political independence were compromised and these people are now isolated.

We must not wait for some poor Japanese tourist to be beaten to death, or a kid at school hospitalised and hope that the government will then step in. By then it's too late. The challenge is not simply to stop the racist harassment and violence, but to try to win all Australian working people to the understanding that this is a divide and rule tactic, age old and very effective in demobilising popular opposition to government austerity drives.

By doing this we don't just "put the lid" back on the racist pot, which will only cause a bigger explosion after the pressure builds further. We need to stir up the pot, but in the opposite direction to the racists. Anti-racist graffiti, posters, stickers, marches and pickets would be a good start. Let's exercise our freedom of speech with great vigour.