BY ALISON DELLIT
"When I see Mr Ruddock talking on television about [refugees], he looks and sounds like somebody from One Nation" — David Oldfield, One Nation member of the New South Wales upper house.
Prime Minister John Howard's December 19 cabinet reshuffle came as no great surprise. Most governments make periodic changes to the faces who implement their policies, generally as a way of lessening the pressure from those suffering under them. Such games serve to hide the continuity of attacks by different ministers (and different governments).
However, instead of removing from sight the ministers responsible for the most blatant attacks on the poor, workers, migrants and women, Howard instead promoted them to portfolios central to the Coalition's "reform" agenda in the next few years.
Tony Abbott, of "job snobs" fame, moves into industrial relations and will have joint responsibility for welfare "reform" with Senator Amanda Vanstone. Peter Reith, former minister for the wholesale destruction of workers' rights and the unsuccessful attempt to destroy the Maritime Union of Australia, will be responsible for the implementation of the defence white paper.
The "Honourable" Philip Ruddock, the minister for immigration and multiculturalism responsible for labelling refugees "parasites", "queue-jumpers" and "double dippers" will now also be responsible for Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Affairs. Ruddock has been promoted to the post of Howard's minister for racism.
Ruling class unease
Ruddock's elevation has caused some unease amongst sections of the ruling class. A Sydney Morning Herald editorial on the day of the reshuffle urged Howard to move Ruddock "to a less sensitive area". The following day, the Australian Financial Review editorial urged Ruddock to "bring a better political touch [to indigenous affairs] than he has shown in dealing with refugee issues". At the same time, both newspapers portrayed the appointment as positive for Aboriginal people because it elevated the portfolio to cabinet status. The Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Commission (ATSIC) said Ruddock's appointment was "welcome".
Ruddock's record as minister assisting the prime minister on reconciliation has not been encouraging. Ruddock helped lead the government's refusal to admit that the stolen generations exist, claiming that they cannot be called generations unless every Aboriginal child was affected. It was Ruddock who went to the United Nations committee on the elimination of all forms of racial oppression to defend the Northern Territory's racist mandatory sentencing laws. And it is Ruddock who has continually blamed Aboriginal disadvantage on Aboriginal culture in the overseas media. Howard's appointment of Ruddock hardly indicates a new sensitivity towards indigenous peoples' rights.
Howard recognises, even if the AFR and SMH do not, that the rabid attacks on disadvantaged sections of the population that Ruddock has made his specialty are essential to the delivery of the federal government's economic restructuring policies. It is only by demonising and scapegoating those least able to resist that the Howard government have been able to pass with such little public opposition its startling array of cuts to social services over the last five years.
Inheriting a mandatory detention policy from the previous federal Labor government, Ruddock has overseen massive and unprecedented restrictions placed on refugees and asylum seekers.
Over the last five years, migrants have lost the right to all social security benefits for their first two years in the country. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission has had its budget cut by more than 40%, and local migrant resource centres have faced funding cuts of up to 100%.
While immigration levels have remained relatively stable, the family reunion program has been slashed and refugee places frozen at 12,000. The ability of skilled migrants to enter Australia, the numbers of whom have increased, has become increasingly dependent on their English language skills and their belonging to a tighter set of occupational categories.
The harshest attacks have been inflicted on asylum seekers who arrive in Australia without proper documentation. Ruddock has introduced legislation preventing human rights organisations from accessing the camps where refugees are detained. He has introduced regulations that ensure the immediate return of any arrivals who do not clearly ask for asylum. The powers of the coast guard to stop and board ships outside Australian waters and search for potential asylum seekers have been increased. Ruddock has ensured the passage of laws that deny asylum to anyone who may be able to get asylum in another country.
In an attempt to deter desperate refugees from attempting to come to Australia, Ruddock has toured the Middle East three times to show videos featuring Australia as the land of sharks, crocodiles and poisonous spiders. New videos in production are rumoured to feature claims that once refugees arrive in Australia, they will be forced into prostitution, drug abuse and will live in slums.
Ruddock has introduced legislation that prevents arrivals who manage to prove their refugee status from accessing English language classes and migrant resource centres. He has organised for devout Muslim refugees to be dumped with no support in hostels in areas of high drug use and requested that charities refrain from helping them.
Asylum seekers whose appeals for refugee status are rejected face heavy financial penalties for losing and are forbidden to work or receive any government payments while their cases are pending.
Ruddock's rabid attacks have not been merely excessive displays of bigotry. They have been the spearhead of a concerted ideological campaign to justify major changes in Australia's immigration policy.
The end result of the attacks has been a dramatic increase in the number of British and white South African migrants coming to Australia, and a dramatic decrease in migrants from the Third World. The land of opportunity has become fortress Australia. Such a dramatic shift would have been impossible without the ideological shift that the Liberals have worked hand in glove with One Nation to bring about.
It is no wonder that the number of people arriving in Australia without papers is increasing. As "lawful" immigration becomes harder, more people in desperate circumstances will arrive by whatever means they can. Ruddock's attacks on asylum seekers are a recognition of this and an attempt to stymie it.
There have been increasingly desperate protests in the detention centres, including mass breakouts from three centres when detainees decided to take their cause to nearby towns.
How different the situation could have been for these asylum seekers had these demonstrations resulted in widespread solidarity protests in Australia's major cities. If we had seen an outpouring of outrage, not against "greedy queue-jumpers", but against a government which locks up and abuses human beings who have been through the worst nightmare imaginable could have forced a realignment of Australia's immigration policy towards human needs. It is such a scenario that the government has sought to avert by encouraging and developing racism within the Australian population.
In the early years of the Howard government, the Coalition relied on One Nation to do the racist scapegoating of refugees for them. The emergence of One Nation from within the Liberal Party provided a perfect vehicle for the dissemination and propagation of racist ideas. By blaming the current economic misery on isolated sections of the population (in particular migrants and indigenous Australians) One Nation distracted attention from the growing gap between the wealthy and the rest of us.
Such racism had fertile ground to develop after 13 years of co-option of migrant community and Aboriginal leaderships by the federal Labor government. These cozy relationships bred cynicism and a feeling of powerlessness among their constituents and distrust from other sections of the working class. When One Nation exploited the ugly wound of working-class racism, it became clear how much damage had been done.
However, One Nation was only useful as long as it did not provoke a movement capable of challenging its racist ideas. As rallies in support of indigenous rights and multiculturalism grew larger, the Coalition and the Labor parties moved to limit and destroy One Nation. This did not extend to challenging to the racist ideas that it represented.
The Coalition merrily pinched many of One Nation's policies and racist rhetoric. Ruddock and Aboriginal affairs minister John Herron continued the scapegoating of migrants, indigenous Australians and the unemployed. This scapegoating went mostly unopposed by the Labor opposition, which has supported many of the worst attacks.
Howard's 'soft' turn
The Coalition ministers' racist rhetoric has had some negative consequences for the government. Last year, there were increasing protests against government attacks on indigenous Australians. In response, sections of the ruling class mass media have attempted to portray Howard as becoming "soft" on indigenous issues.
While that is an exaggeration, there has been some shifts in Howard's language. In his Menzies Lecture, delivered in Sydney on December 13, Howard described the treatment of indigenous people as "the most blemished chapter in our history". He spoke of the importance of the reconciliation bridge walk in Sydney last May.
However, the rest of the lecture dispelled any illusion that there had been a shift in the Howard government's policies. Howard's solution for ending indigenous people's disadvantages are stark: end "welfare dependency" by implementing the McClure report, which proposes more work for the dole and government harassment.
This time however, it is not right-wing ideologues that Howard quotes to support his arguments but Aboriginal "leaders" such as Noel Pearson. By shifting his language, and his reference points, Howard seeks to draw in a layer of black "leaders" to support his "practical reconciliation" — much as he has been able to with the Australian Council of Social Service in relation to welfare "reform".
The continued scapegoating of indigenous people and migrants for the social woes of most working-class whites is designed undermine the development of anti-racist social movements.
In this context, it is a disastrous decision for ATSIC not to publically condemn Ruddock's appointment. Rather than attempting to appear sympathetic to the federal government, ATSIC needs to seek urgently to build an anti-racist movement.
The Howard government and the Coalition parties have no intention of letting go of the racist One Nation constituency. While Howard might seek to make his rhetoric appropriate to placate ATSIC bureaucrats, the government, with minister for racism Ruddock in the lead, will continue its racist attacks.
By overtly blaming Aborigine's and Torres Strait Islanders' economic and social disadvantages on the indigenous people themselves and reinforcing racist conceptions of black people, Ruddock will seek to place maximum pressure on black communities to accept whatever they can get from the government.
Howard's appointment of Ruddock is a clear signal that racism will continue to be used by the Howard government to justify attacks on non-English speaking migrants and indigenous Australians.