Casual Racism

by Zoya Patel on Mar 13, 2012 • 12:30 PM

Zoya Patel

In my last column, I mentioned how I often forget that I’m Indian. I’ve always identified more strongly with Australian culture than my Indian heritage – I love pop culture, English literature, really bad American TV shows (let’s face it, Australian culture is actually just a mash-up of other Western cultures with a smattering of our very own quirks and customs). Bollywood is good for a laugh, but I never really engaged with Indian culture the way that I have with Western culture, and I doubt I ever will.

When you speak in an Australian accent, rarely spend time with Indians other than your family, and even think in English, it can be hard to remember that to other people, you may not look like you belong.

Luckily for me, there’s always a spot of casual racism to remind me what’s what.

I’ve written about casual racism a fair bit, and I think it’s important to distinguish between casual racism and racism proper. To me, casual racism is what happens when people base their actions and attitudes on assumptions about race that they may not be conscious of, or are not intended to be discriminatory, but that serve to propagate the same myths about other cultures that have caused levels of subjugation and oppression for centuries.

Racism proper is just prejudice in its most open and revolting form.

One thing that really gets me in general about racism is how little people are aware of it – and when I say ‘people’ I primarily mean white Australians. Like my many non-ethnic friends who often proclaim that ‘racism isn’t an issue’, based entirely on their own experiences.

I am in no way claiming that Caucasians can’t and don’t experience racism, but I do think that (particularly in Canberra, where I’m from), a sort of bubble exists that means that most Caucasians are unlikely to experience racism, or be present when someone else is.

It does exist though, and I’ve had plenty of firsthand experience with it.

One situation I often point to when it comes to casual racism is the conversation I regularly got stuck in when I used to work part-time at a pharmacy, run by a lovely Indian man who went by the Anglo-Saxon name of Bob.

The conversation went something like this:

Customer: “You’re Bob’s daughter, aren’t you?”
Me: “No, no I’m not.”
C: *look of deep surprise* “Really?!? I really thought he was your dad.”
M: “Nope, we’re both just Indian.”
C: *awkward silence*
M: “… Would you like a bag for that…?”

Now, you probably don’t think this is a big deal, and at first it didn’t bother me. Until the following started happening:

C: “You’re Bob’s daughter, aren’t you?”
M: “No.”
C: “Well, you can see why we would think that.”

Um, actually, no I can’t see why you would think that. Maybe because I’m being deliberately obtuse, or maybe because assuming that I am related to whatever Indian is in the closest vicinity makes the assumption that all Indians look the same, or that all Indians must be related.

This is factually incorrect, and culturally ignorant. Or, as I like to put it, casually racist.

I can safely say that at each of my various other jobs, none of the Caucasian employees have been asked if they were related to the multiple Caucasian bosses that we worked for. And before you protest that it’s ‘different’, or that it’s easier to tell the difference between two white people, let me point out a few reasons why I think this is an issue:

1. The assumption that I was related to my boss, simply because we’re both Indian is based on the idea that all Indians, and indeed all migrant groups, are homogenous entities with no individual traits to help discern them from each other.

2. It suggests that all Indians really do look the same. What, our skin colour makes us melt into a brown blob, identical to all the other blobs around us? Despite the fact that we have brown skin, we do still have completely different skin tones, features and individual looks. We are still human.

3. It ignores the fact that, much like Caucasians, south-east Asians can have similar physical features (i.e. skin colour), and still be from entirely different countries. I am from Fiji. Bob is from South Africa. We don’t even speak the same language.

4. Worst of all, the way in which people asked me suggests that they thought it was such an obvious assumption, that I was being deliberately difficult by getting offended.

I can pretty safely say that not all of the 1.21 billion people who are currently living in India are related to each other. Prreeetty sure about that.

This kind of casual racism is the worst kind, because it’s considered to be entirely reasonable, and it tends to slip under the radar. Yet, it is just as damaging and insidious as any other form of racism.

Viewing racial groups as homogenous entities is what leads to racial discrimination in the first place – and even though no one means anything nasty by asking if I’m related to Bob, the fact remains that people implicitly assume that all Indians, or Asians or Arabs in a two-block radius of each other are related – because we’re obviously the Other, and hence are more likely to be connected to each other than any of the Anglo-Saxons around us.

Maybe I’m blowing this out of proportion, or maybe people honestly aren’t aware of how offensive it is. But even if it is just a case of a storm in a chai cup, it still says a lot about our attitudes towards different races.

Casual racism will always fascinate me, because it’s so much more integrated into our psyches than overt displays of racism. When someone is actually just being openly racist, I assume that they’re quintessentially a dickhead and move on with my life.

But when someone makes an innocuous assumption, or asks a seemingly casual question, it raises a lot of questions about societal views of race and multiculturalism.

Because, although there certainly are more Caucasians than Indians in Australia, that’s just not a good enough reason to discriminate between us in what is a globalised world.

But I guess that’s just one ‘curry-munchers’ opinion.

The Coconut Chronicles


Things I Don’t Have to Think About Today (Australian version)

Originally published by John Scalzi


Today I don’t have to think about those who hear “terrorist” when I speak my faith.
Today I don’t have to think about men who don’t believe no means no.
Today I don’t have to think about how the world is made for people who move differently than I do.
Today I don’t have to think about whether I’m married or in a relationship, depending on what gender my spouse is
Today I don’t have to think about how I’m going to hail a cab after midnight.

Today I don’t have to think about whether store security is tailing me.
Today I don’t have to think about the look on the face of the person about to sit next to me on a plane.
Today I don’t have to think about eyes going to my chest first.
Today I don’t have to think about what people might think if they knew the medicines I took.
Today I don’t have to think about getting stared at in a shopping mall when I kiss my beloved hello.

Today I don’t have to think about if it’s safe to hold my beloved’s hand.
Today I don’t have to think about whether I’m being pulled over for anything other than speeding.
Today I don’t have to think about being classified as one of “those people.”
Today I don’t have to think about making less than someone else for the same job at the same place.
Today I don’t have to think about the people who stare, or the people who pretend I don’t exist.

Today I don’t have to think about managing pain that never goes away.
Today I don’t have to think about whether a stranger’s opinion of me would change if I showed them a picture of who I love.
Today I don’t have to think about the chance a shop assistant will ignore me to help someone else.
Today I don’t have to think about the people who’d consider torching my house of worship a patriotic act.
Today I don’t have to think about a pharmacist giving me a look of disapproval while filling my prescription.

Today I don’t have to think about being asked if I’m bleeding when I’m just having a bad day.
Today I don’t have to think about whether the one drug that lets me live my life will be taken off the market.
Today I don’t have to think about the odds of getting hit on at the pub I like to go to..
Today I don’t have to think about turning on the news to see people planning to burn my holy book.

Today I don’t have to think about others demanding I apologise for hateful people who have nothing to do with me.
Today I don’t have to think about my child being seen as a detriment to my career.
Today I don’t have to think about the irony of people thinking I’m lucky because I can park close to the door.
Today I don’t have to think about memories of being bullied in high school.
Today I don’t have to think about being told to relax, it was just a joke.

Today I don’t have to think about those who view me an unfit parent because of whom I love.
Today I don’t have to think about being told my kind don’t assimilate.
Today I don’t have to think about people blind to the intolerance of their belief lecturing me about my own.
Today I don’t have to think about my body as a political football.
Today I don’t have to think about how much my own needs wear on those I love.

Today I don’t have to think about explaining to others “what happened to me.”
Today I don’t have to think about politicians saying bigoted things about me to win votes.
Today I don’t have to think about those worried that one day people like me will be the majority.
Today I don’t have to think about someone using the name of my religion as a slur.
Today I don’t have to think about so many of the words for me controlling my own life being negatives.

Today I don’t have to think about still not being equal.
Today I don’t have to think about what it takes to keep going.
Today I don’t have to think about how much I still have to hide.
Today I don’t have to think about how much prejudice keeps hold.
Today I don’t have to think about how I’m meant to be grateful that people tolerate my kind.

Today I don’t have to think about all the things I don’t have to think about.

But today I will.

*If you are a young, white, able-bodied, straight Australian male of Christian background with no psychiatric illness or learning disabilities then you need not read this because it isn’t about you. But maybe you should, because it is about everyone else.

Conservatives all at sea over human rights


By Chris Graham, September 25, 2011

Asylum seekers

Asylum seekers arrive by boat on Christmas Island, July 8, 2011. (AAP Image/Josh Jerga)

NATIONAL: The greatest threat to our nation is not boat people – it’s been living here for the past 200 years, writes CHRIS GRAHAM*.

Australia, at least for me, is a paradox. As Dorothy McKellar famously wrote, ‘I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains, of rugged mountain ranges and droughts and flooding rains.’

The extremes in our landscape and our weather seem to have been etched into our national psyche as well, which is something I’ve never quite understood.

As a nation, we are capable of extraordinary acts of generosity. Australians donated more than $100 million to the victims of the Boxing Day tsunami that devastated Indonesia. John Howard, in one of his few genuinely decent acts while Prime Minister, topped up that individual largesse with a $1 billion government aide package.

And yet we don’t actually like Indonesia. In particular, we don’t like Indonesians, especially after what they did in Timor-Leste.

When Indonesian military backed a suppression of the East Timorese in the late 90s, Australians felt genuine outrage and demanded intervention. Howard, quite rightly, pointed out that sending troops into Indonesia uninvited could also be described as ‘an invasion’.

Pressure mounted, and Howard – to his administration’s great credit – got Australian troops in via the United Nations.

It is a matter of enduring national pride that Australia played such an active and important role in helping the East Timorese secure independence.

And having done so, we promptly set about trying to screw them out of their oil and gas reserves.

Timor-Leste, it’s worth noting is one of the poorest nations on the planet, ranking 120 out of 169 countries in the United Nation’s Human Development Index.

Australia is ranked third.

Of course, our national contradictions are not just international in nature. We have plenty of homegrown ones as well. We’ve built a multicultural utopia, a system where people of all races and creeds live together harmoniously.

I work in Parramatta, Sydney. Walk down the street of the CBD any given day and in the space of a few minutes you’ll have passed people from dozens of different countries and cultures.

There’s no suicide bombings. There’s no rampant violence. Everybody goes about their business. It just works.

Yet at the same time, the level of overt racism and hostility towards these very same immigrants can be staggering.

We hate the ‘curry munchers who drive our cabs’ because they smell funny… and are prepared to work harder than we are. We hate the ‘slopeheads who take all the best spots at university’ because they look funny… and are prepared to work harder than we are.

This white angst has its roots in one ugly personality trait: greed. We want it all, and we want it now. We want to be seen to be a sharing nation, without actually having to share it too much.

People talk about kids these days being part of the ‘Me generation’. I think the argument is horseshit. Children today are smarter, more educated and more compassionate than we ever were.

The fact is, the ‘Me generation’ is not a generation at all – it’s a nation of people. Australian people.

We spend our days worrying that someone else might get more than we do. I believe I know the cause.

I’m not talking about  all ‘conservatives’ – the capital ‘L’ Liberal, for example, who believes in small government and modest change, but also human rights.

I’m talking about the nutter , the loony right-wingers who populate both our major political parties (and beyond), and who dominate the airwaves and the pages of our mainstream papers.

I call them ‘Big C’ conservatives.

They live miserable lives, and they’re determined that you should as well.

Big C conservatives are the scowlers of our society. If they’re not whipping people into a frenzy on some radio station about ‘some PC nonsense’, then they’re the ones phoning in to some radio station to complain about ‘some PC nonsense’.

But if you really want to get to know the Big C conservative, it helps to look at the sorts of social issues that get their knickers in a knot.

They’re the people who predicted native title would threaten the backyards of all Australians. Never happened.

They’re the people who suggested in 2006, when the Single Noongar Claim was handed down, that access to our beaches might be under threat. Never happened.

When land rights was introduced in NSW in 1983, the Big C conservatives howled and screamed that it would be the ruination of a nation. Never happened.

The Big C’s railed against a national apology for the better part of a decade, claiming it would lead to a flood of compensation claims. Never happened.

These are the same people who told you that Italians wouldn’t assimilate; that the Greeks would overrun the country; that the Vietnamese would form ghettos and never assimilate.

They hate Muslims, want to ban the burqa and believe Islam is a threat, as though Christianity is free from extremism. And they’re the same ranters who oppose things like a treaty with our First Nations, or a Bill of Rights, both of which are mechanisms designed – shock horror – to protect basic human rights for all.

And it’s not only helpful to look at what the Big C conservatives oppose. It’s also about what they support.

The Northern Territory intervention has been a disastrous policy for the Howard, Rudd and Gillard governments. And yet it still draws widespread support among the Big C’s today.

They wail ‘Who will think of the children’, having sat and done precisely nothing for decades while the adults of today – once also children – grew up in third world poverty in a first world nation.

Aboriginal affairs is littered with the policy corpses of bone stupid ideas from bone stupid Big C conservatives.

They’re the creators of the odious ‘Shared Responsibility Agreements’ and welfare quarantining. Remember the COAG trials. Run by Big C’s. Hindmarsh Island affair. Big C’s again.

If they had a marketing phrase to promote membership to their ranks, it would be this: ‘The Big C’s: exploiting Australian ignorance since Federation’.

Aboriginal people, more than any other group, have been the targets of these misinformation campaigns. But the most spectacular recent example of Big C conservatives getting it wrong on an important social issue lies in the debate around asylum seekers, one of the few groups of people on earth who could seriously compete with the Australian blackfella for the mantle of ‘world’s most disadvantaged’.

If you’ve never seen the SBS series Go Back Where You Came From, you must. It should be required viewing for all Australians.

It is the most impacting television series I’ve ever watched. You can watch it online for no cost at

At the risk of spoiling the ending, six Australians embarked on a 25-day journey to challenge their preconceived notions about refugees and asylum seekers.

“Tracing in reverse the journeys that refugees have taken to reach Australia, they travel to some of the most dangerous and desperate corners of the world,” said the show’s creators.

Each of the participants was chosen not because they were rednecks, but because they were ordinary Australians.

They just happened to have (with one exception) very extreme views. That, I’d argue, is what makes them ordinary Australians in the first place. With emphasis on the ‘ordinary’.

One of the women from the show, Raye Colby, expressed the view at the start of the series that it was a good thing refugees died en-masse at Christmas Island last year.

“Serves them bloody right,” she sneered.

Colby’s primary objection? That asylum seekers get fed and cared for by the Australian taxpayer, and – wait for it – have access to big screen TVs while in detention. But the capitulation of Colby and the others as the show unfolds is stunning.

The most startling turnaround for me was from Adam Hartup, a Cronulla lifeguard who admits to being present during the Cronulla race riots. Hartup began the show referring to asylum seekers as “these criminals” who come to Australia illegally.

Later in the series there’s footage of Hartup in an Iraqi hospital, dancing with men and boys missing arms and other body parts, the inevitable result of an illegal and immoral war in which Australia was an active participant.

It makes for gut-wrenching viewing.

Unsurprisingly, confronted with the reasons why people get on boats to come to Australia, Hartup completely reverses his view. But he hadn’t even left the country before he began questioning the popular Australian narrative – the Big C conservative spin – on asylum seekers.

What got Hartup thinking was a trip just 30 kilometres from his home, to the Villawood Detention Centre.

There, after just two hours talking to detainees, Hartup and his ‘average Australian’ view of the world was knocked for six.

“It shook me up a bit. Bit of a reality check actually,” said Hartup immediately after the meeting.

He quickly came to the view that getting on a leaky boat to Australia was an entirely reasonable response to the circumstances facing many asylum seekers.

Now here’s the rub. On issues like native title and land rights, it can sometimes take a decade or more for the scare campaigns of the Big C’s to be exposed for what they are. Unadulterated rubbish.

But for Adam Hartup, it took just two hours for the whole Big C conservative story that he’d swallowed hook, line and sinker to collapse.

Which brings me to the central point of this column: If the Big C conservatives always get this stuff wrong – and the passage of time shows they do – then why do we continue to allow them space in public discussion on key social issues?

Why do we listen when they play politics with the lives of asylum seekers and Aboriginal people?

And why do average Australians keep looking to Big C conservatives for their policy revelations on Aboriginal affairs? Why does media promote them?

Why do we believe that the people who always get it wrong, might one day get it right? Isn’t that the very definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different outcome?

The fact is, it’s time to shut these people down, to ignore their shrieking on key social issues in public debate.

Dorothy McKellar’s poem about Australia is entitled ‘My Country’. It’s high time we took it back from the Big C’s.

* Chris Graham is the Managing Editor of Tracker magazine. He is a Walkley Award and Human Rights award winning journalist.


Andrew Bolt, racial vilification and ‘freedom of speech’

Magna est veritas et praevalet”: Great is Truth, and Mighty Above All Things.

Mark Bahnisch

I welcome the decision of Justice Bromberg in Eatock v Bolt, delivered in the Federal Court in Melbourne today. It is, to my mind, a just decision, and not just in law.

Predictably, of course, the decision has not been welcomed by many (and in this context it is very much worth reading the statement of one of the plaintiffs, Dr Anita Heiss). The noise machine has veritably exploded in angry fury, with absurd and risible claims being made that “it is now illegal to discuss racial identification”, to pick just one of the stupidities being touted in the lamentable revival of the hoary and false notion of ‘political correctness’.

Such claims do violence to the judgement, the text of which can be found here.

On Twitter, @Robcorr responded:

Nonsense. The case was lost because Andrew Bolt imputed that some people are too fair-skinned to be genuine Aboriginal people, that those people choose to falsely identify as Aboriginal for personal gain, and that fair-skinned Aboriginal people were likely to be “offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated”.

The entirety of his note should be read, but the conclusion demands citation:

So, what does this mean for free speech? Will it, as Chicken Little Dodd suggests, “silence debate on irksome and uncomfortable topics”?No.

What it will do is require journalists to conduct proper research, to present their arguments based on facts, and to tell the truth.

Andrew Bolt, also predictably, is presenting himself in the guise of some sort of martyr of free speech.

He can be nothing of the kind, because free speech is not at issue here, and nor are martyrs normally found among the privileged.

And that precise privilege, which Bolt precisely seeks to exercise almost as of right, is precisely the actual issue here.

Free speech, as the judgement in fact indicates, must be speech that is accountable to truth. That is to say, it is not the same concept as ‘freedom of expression’ (one that more properly belongs to artistic domains) or indeed ‘freedom of opinion’. Free speech ought to be both in service to the truth, and oriented to its discovery. That requires, as a very minimum condition of possibility of exercising such a right, a willingness to ground one’s views in ascertainable and verifiable fact.

Michel Foucault, in his short book Fearless Speech, points out that one of the concept’s earliest instantiations, the Greek idea of parrhesia, had its correlate in a proper noun: Parrhesiastes. ‘Free speech’ is a practice engaged in by ‘one who speaks the truth’.

I do not intend to canvass the whole gamut of reactions which gesture to the liberal or bourgeois notion of free speech, a notion people have indeed struggled and even died for (but not the sort of people who write columns in the Herald Sun). No doubt the names of Voltaire and J. S. Mill are going to be tossed around in coming days by people who have probably never read them.

I want to make three very specific points, before moving back to some general ones:

1. The Federal Court found that Andrew Bolt vilified specific named individuals on the basis of untruths, which he ought to have known or through his ‘research’, have been able to discover were untruths. It’s argued that they should more properly have taken action against him for defamation, in that he damaged their reputations on the basis of falsehoods.

2. But, very correctly, they chose rather not to personalise the issues, but to highlight the fact that Bolt’s discourse vilified them insofar as they are Indigenous Australians and identify as such, and had a broader effect of harm on Indigenous people.

3. That is true, and that effect is real. Bolt’s position of privilege derives not just from the fact that there is no attempt on the part of his monopolistic megaphone mouthpieces to counter any of his claims by the remotest vestige of ‘balance’ or accountability to fact. It also derives from the fact that his claims have the effect of offering permission to hold the views he espouses, and indeed empowering others to persist in them and reproduce them. These ‘opinions’ are not just abstract ones, but have actual effects in producing and reproducing social and racial inequality, and in fostering vilification of a whole host of unnamed and unprominent Australians, which not incidentally, silences them.

That, folks, is privilege, and it’s racial privilege, and it’s precisely how racial privilege works in a post-colonial society. It’s a daily, nay, a minute by minute re-enactment of the original Dispossession.

And it is vile.

Vile too was the way in which at least one of the plaintiffs, Larissa Behrendt, it could be reasonably inferred, was subjected to a vicious campaign in the press because she joined in taking this action.

Let me just make two other general points, which go to the risible idea of  ’political correctness’, and its correlate, which is the claim that people’s opinions are being silenced or prohibited:

1. This is related to another furphy, that Andrew Bolt “has been found to be a racist”. I, myself, care very little what his private views are, because they simply don’t matter. Nor do I see it as being remotely useful to try to discover or speculate on what they are. Andrew Bolt is very far from being an original thinker, and his opinions are very far from being interesting. The only point here is that he has massive access to public speech, to a point where the vilification the Court found he had been engaged in can be excused, argued away, or made the subject of ridiculous defences in the name of ‘freedom of speech’.

It is in the public effects of this discourse, and in particular the effects such discourses have in reproducing and in fact increasing the force and pervasiveness of racial tropes which do immense harm, for which he – and those who defend him – must be accountable.

2. Opinion is worthless unless it is groundable in fact, oriented towards a search for truth, and accountable to reason. Hence, there is no surprise, either, that Andrew Bolt is one of Australia’s most prominent ‘climate change skeptics’. In truth, none of these opinions, which it is Andrew Bolt’s business to shore up, are worth a penny.

I refrain from discussing Bolt’s opinions themselves, because their real effects are to be found in the way they reinforce received opinion.

The only point of holding such opinions is to shore up the threatened and endlessly collapsing boundaries of discourses such as that of race thus to re-enact Dispossession, precisely because such discourses can only function in opposition to truth, and always run the risk of collapsing because of their untruth.

Australian racism is one such truthless discourse. Those who articulate it, and those who contribute to its daily reproduction and its woefully pernicious effects, are far from fearless truth speakers. They are the opposite of the figure of the Parrhesiastes. They are, in fact, fearful cowards who persist in the realm of lies, and will do almost anything to avoid accountability to reason.

[I haven’t commented here on the substance of the controversy, in part because I refuse to engage in debate with Andrew Bolt’s ‘opinion’. But I think it is salient to note that his mode of opinionating (I will not say: argument) suggests that the question of identification is somehow an easy one, one that is subject purely to personal choice, and one where it is surprising, transgressive and terrible that anyone should ‘choose’ not to identify as hegemonically white. Both the claim that choice is key, and the implicit but necessarily related claim that to be white is desirable above all things, are absolutely central to the way racism is constituted, and the way it works, in this country. Bolt appears to want a situation where not-to-be-white is invisible and to simultaneously blind himself to the visibility of not-being-white. And he cannot understand why anyone, offered his false choice (which he himself instantly disables) would want to be visible, or would be rendered visible by others.]

Andrew Bolt can hold whatever opinion he chooses.  On the basis of his writing in the two columns which were the subject of the judgement in Eatock, however, he seems to be blind to truth. And to excuse himself from an accountability to truth and to the ethical and legal claims of racial civility negates any right he might otherwise enjoy to defend that opinion on grounds of its relation to truth.

Update: Cross-posted at the blog of the Overland Literary Journal.

Dr Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and social commentator. He blogs at Sed probate spiritus and Larvatus Prodeo

High Court Decision: opportunity not disaster


The Government, the Opposition and the media punditocracy are out in force analysing and dissecting the High Court decision made on 31st August in the case of


In summary the principles established in the High Court’s judgement are:

1. Malaysia cannot be used as a country where asylum seekers arriving in Australia can be processed. Nor is it the case that Malaysia is legally bound to provide the access and protections the Migration Act requires for a valid declaration. Malaysia is not a party to the Refugees Convention or its Protocol. The Arrangement which the Minister signed with the Malaysian Minister for Home Affairs on 25 July 2011 said expressly that it was not legally binding.

2. An unaccompanied asylum seeker under the age of 18 cannot be removed from Australia without the written consent of the Minister for Immigration.

3. Under s 198A of the Migration Act 1958 (Cth), the Minister cannot validly declare a country as a country to which asylum seekers can be taken for processing unless the country is bound either by domestic or international law to provide proper assessment of claims, proper protection while awaiting assessment and provide protection for persons given refugee status pending their voluntary return to their country of origin or their resettlement in another country.

4. The Court also held that the Minister has no other power under the Migration Act to remove from Australia asylum seekers whose claims for protection have not been determined unless the country fulfils the requirements outlined in (3).

In effect, the decision has also thrown the whole of the contentious Section 198 of the Migration Act into doubt. This section among other things enabled both the notion of off-shore processing of asylum seekers and specifically the so-called “Pacific Solution” used by the Howard Government.

Further, s198C (7)already states that decisions of the Refugee Review Tribunal are subject to potential challenges under Section 75 under the Constitution.

Ron Merkel, QC, in an opinion sought by the advocacy organisation GetUp! said there would be ”reasonably good prospects”of a successful legal challenge to any new attempt to use Nauru and Manus Island as third country processors

That such a fundamentally flawed section of an Act should have withstood challenge for so long has its origins in the elections of 1996, 1998 and 2001.

Howard set out to appeal to the millions of poor Australians whose futures had been
thrown into turmoil by the economic restructuring of the Hawke and Keating Governments… He and other conservatives supported that restructuring, but sought to mobilise the anger and resentment into racist nationalism and hostility towards welfare. Liberal Party pollster, Mark Textor, assiduously studied the racial outlook of Australian voters. His polling formed the basis for Howard’s notorious 2001 election campaign. In this way, some working class people were turned against their own interests. In 2000, when Labor politician Anthony Albanese, campaigned against the GST in northern NSW amongst some of the poorest people in Australia—those living in caravan parks—he found far more concern about the supposed threat of boat people, than about a tax that would make them even poorer.

However Labor was not free of responsibility either. Labor long had the White Australia Policy as a centrepiece of its own platform.

Since the Vietnam war, Labor has been identified with anti-racism. But Labor’s ability to fight the racism of Coalition governments has been compromised by its own history and ideology.

In a response to what at the time were changing and more enlightened community attitudes, by 1973 Labor had been confident enough to declare the end of the White Australia Policy.

The Liberals, firstly under Fraser then under Peacock and Hewson, had also moved away from the party’s former rabid bigotry and for a while there was effectively a bi-partisan approach to dealing with asylum seekers arriving in boats from conflicts in South-East Asia and later, East Timor. But then

It was an ALP government that began the cruel business of locking up asylum seekers in the late 1980s. Finally, Labor’s electoralism makes it hesitant about confronting racist hysteria. This cowardice saw the ALP back the Tampa kidnapping, the ‘Pacific solution’ of dumping refugees in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, the detention centres and then the draconian ‘security’ laws passed as part of the ‘war on terror’. Labor’s leader from late 2003, Mark Latham, shared most of the Coalition’s economic liberalism and much of John Howard’s hostility to welfare and refugees.

Hard on the heels of the mandatory detention decision came the Pauline Hanson “phenomenon”. The main driver of the Hanson campaign was the channelling of the focusless xenophobia of sections of the Australian electorate, never far from the surface when economic woes hit. The main pre-occupation of a resurgent Liberal Party was to maximise the damage to its own brand caused by the overwhelming popularity of Bob Hawke and the adoption by Paul Keating of what were effectively neo-liberal financial reforms. Howard’s strategy was to woo the “battlers”, often traditionally Labor voters, by parading a convenient scapegoat for the economic hardships brought about by both the transition to economic reform in this country and by the state of the world economy at the time.

So it seems that if either the Government or the Opposition want to revisit dumping asylum seekers in any third country in the name of chasing the votes of a noisy minority of Australians, that option is now blocked.

There is an opportunity here for both parties, along with the Greens and independents, to take the resettlement and processing of refugees out of the political sphere completely. At various times the idea of having an independent commission looking after the needs of refugees and asylum seekers has been proposed. This would effectively defuse the issue as an opportunistic occasion for the promotion of xenophobia. At the moment, extremist groups are using the race to the bottom of the two major parties as a signal that racism and bigotry are now “respectable” components of political discourse, while the leadership of major parties, whatever their personal views, have not hesitated to amplify these groundless fears in the name of clinging to marginal seats.

There is an opportunity too for major parties to take back the disillusioned voters who used to be the backbone of their organisations, but who will not involve themselves in parties which remain silent in the face of resurgent xenophobia – a resurgence which not only demonises new arrivals, but also older immigrant groups, Indigenous Australians and religious minorities.

Prime Minister Gillard needs to tough things out and to use the asylum seeker decision to revisit Labor policy on the issue, thus taking it out of the political arena. Trying to pander to the lowest of the low does not work in either Labor or the Coalition’s best interests.

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