“He was a remarkably effective prime minister for a while. The most difficult time was in 1997 and, to give credit to the government, they tightened the supervision over the banking system. The thing I recall (however) is the introduction of race and racist attitude into the body politic, especially over refugees.”
Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, commenting about one his successors, John Howard, The Australian, 20 April 2013.
Malcolm Fraser may himself be a controversial figure, but the sentiment he expresses has unfortunately been given a spotlight over the past fortnight with the spate of very public racist airings by people in various settings, not the least being Tony Abbott’s staffer Dr. Mark Roberts, Western Australia MP Denis Jensen and a woman on a Melbourne train wearing a Department of Justice lanyard.
In A Fish Rots From the Head, I reviewed the discussion by Waleed Aly in which the journalist expressed his opinion that #racism in Australia is a matter of attitude among the hoi polloi, rather than governing bodies. Mr. Aly would perhaps have a crisp perception of racial intolerance and the xenophobia are inherent in Sydney’s suburbs. I have no idea whether this journalist practices any faith, I have no idea of his heritage, but I can tell you that many, many assumptions that can be made can be wrong and in those assumptions lies the seed of marginalization.
My argument in that earlier post was that genuine leadership, a genuine desire for a culturally accepting and welcoming society would be led – and reflected by – the governing leaders. Western Australian MP Denis Jensen took to Twitter to publicly attack @TheKooriWoman about colonialism and playing the victim. Jensen’s comment when this Aboriginal woman asked if she should simply forget 213 years of oppression was:
“So have you personally lived 213 years? Work out ways to maximize your own life experiences, you can’t for deceased ancestors.”
Even this one statement demonstrates this MP’s lack of comprehension of indigenous history and culture, let alone the mechanisms of oppression, which are played out over generations, a product of policy and leadership. As a naturalized Australian of South African heritage, Jensen should be abundantly aware of the mechanisms of oppression and the difficulties in compensating for centuries of exploitation and paternalism.
But what Jensen’s comment about personally experiencing 213 years of oppression fails to further demonstrate is the absolute lack of comprehension of the continuity of the soul between planes of existence that many indigenous Australians believe in. In fact, @TheKooriWoman may well be able to affect the experiences of her ancestors by fighting for justice and recognition of past wrong doings now. The attitude of such a leader in a state with one of the highest rates of indigenous representation and incarceration in the country leaves me to wonder about the people he represents. Is this really what the people of Tangney believe and want expressed on their behalf?
Then we have Tony Abbott’s Director of Policy Dr. Mark Roberts and the threat made to CEO Mr. Andrew Penfold that his cause, the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation, would have its funding cut when the Liberal Party won government. Apparently Roberts had been imbibing a little of the good stuff and his inebriation, in the words of an old friend, “creates no new thoughts.” What’s more, he even demonstrated his true colours when he offered to leak material to media commenter Peter van Onselen, who overheard and reported the unsavoury interaction. And so the good doctor placed a pall over the Opposition Leader’s office and in the company of Denis Jensen, gave the Liberal Party just the sort of anti-indigenous stench that their leader has fought against for the past several years.
Behind government are the political advisors and department public servants that are the reality of government. Politicians may sit in parliament passing legislation, but the actual implementation of legislation and carriage of justice that goes in hand with it is the responsibility of every public servant. That is what makes the most recent vocal opinions and superior attitude of the woman on the Melbourne train on her way home from work so abhorrent. As a Department of Justice employee, how can an Asian person ever expect to be treated with any level of respect, to receive fair and unbiased service from this staffer? What about another staffer in the same department who may be of Asian heritage, could they expect to be fed similar abuse in their workplace, in the tearoom or perhaps an office?
The Protective Service Officers who took the complaint of the passengers from the train laid no charges because they did not believe an offence had been committed.
Despite the victim claiming to have replayed the footage to the PSOs, no action has been taken over the attack.
“I screamed … I thought I didn’t make a good case to the police,” the victim said.
But a Victoria Police spokeswoman said the two PSOs denied the woman presented the footage or told them she had been racially abused, assaulted or personally threatened.
“The PSOs advised her they were not in a position to take action as based on her account of events to them, no offences had occurred,” the statement said.
These last two sentences in this article interest me, but I’ll leave you to mull over them. The point is, what Mark Roberts, the Department of Justice worker on the train and perhaps Denis Jensen all expressed was behaviour “… likely to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or group of people … because of the race, color or national ethnic origin of the other person …”. The act was public because it caused “… words, sounds, images or writing to be communicated to the public … in a public place … in the sight or hearing of people who are in a public place.” (Part IIA – Prohibitions of Offensive Behaviour Based on Racial Hatred: Racial Discrimination Act 1975, Section 18C).
An opinion piece in The Australian by Dr. Colin Rubenstein, executive director of the Australia Israel Jewish Affairs Council on 3 September 2012 enumerated the reasons why race hate laws are still needed. Referring to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Dr. Rubenstein noted that as a signatory, Australia is bound to ensure the protection against racial hatred through legislation. And yet, since it’s inception in 1995, the Act had only been tested once in Bryant v. Queensland Newspapers Pty Ltd 1997 … that was until Eatock V Bolt 2011. Notably, only the latter case proved the validity of the Act. It seems “public” must be broadcast via mainstream media and expressed by a journalist, before the Act is tested. It is the limitation on the individual to live life free from harassment due to stereotypical bias that is supposedly protected, and yet Blak and Black reports time and again, racial discrimination and hatred are common themes in many areas of Australian life, from the public transport systems to the lockups, the public service to our elected leaders.
The experience of some people is simply not to fight the #racism. In some cases, highly educated people with degrees from internationally renowned institutions such as MIT decide that Australia is not what it presents itself to be, denounce their avowed citizenship and return to a land many think would have greater contradictions in human rights. If ever there is an indictment of a western ideal, it is in the quiet objective sanity of a man who chooses to leave what he found to be a mirage, a counterpoint I find particularly poignant after the horrors of Boston last week.
On Friday, Malcom Fraser took his comments a step further warning that Muslims are the equivalent of Catholics just 65 years ago. My parents will recount tales of brawls between Catholic and Protestant children after school, so much so, that the local schools staggered end of day by 30 minutes to help alleviate clashes.
We all bury our heads and pretend that nothing much has changed, as yet to many, including me, it is blatantly obvious that our leaders peddle an ideology of fear, fear of the non-Christian or non-white immigrant. Such fear was extolled in the “Be alert, not alarmed” catch cry post 9/11, driven by a Prime Minister who some years earlier, had been perplexed by an indigenous man offering to assist him and instead, felt it safer to make a hasty exit.
Fear and loathing … it’s like something out of Monty Python, only not anywhere near as funny. And the fear and loathing have been perpetuated from the top for twenty years, with the public service following suit. Malcolm Fraser is entirely correct:
“You only need one person in a position of authority to exploit fear of the unknown, fear of somebody or a person, a people, or of a religion, that can be depicted as different. And if a person is in a position of authority, if a person is a prime minister, a lot of people are going to listen to that. And once that genie comes out of the bottle … it’s easy to get it out of the bottle, it’s much, much harder to put it back in the bottle. And that, unfortunately, is the task now ahead of Australia. But where can you find one active leader who’s speaking in those terms?”