Running race

Australia First is a racist fringe political group led by a man who was once jailed for his role in a shotgun attack on the house of an African National Congress representative. The party vows to end all immigration and has a policy to “recognise that multiculturalism is genocidal white population replacement”.

It is possible Bill Shorten didn’t know this. Certainly, this would not have been on his mind when he appeared in Labor’s “Australians First” advertisement.

It’s possible, too, that Shorten never saw the ad – that someone in his office did and thought nothing of it. It’s possible the largely white faces that feature in the commercial were chosen only because of the professions in which they work, not because of the jingoistic message they sent.

It’s possible the ad was shown in regional Queensland because there was a cheap media buy there, not because the state polls highly for racist anxieties or because a number of Labor-held marginal seats there are under threat from One Nation.

It is possible, even, that Bill Shorten only realised the ad was completely scrubbed of diversity after it was pointed out to him.

“I’ve said on social media that whilst I’m not in the ad business, when people pointed out that there was an insufficient amount of diversity, I think people are right,” he said after concerns were raised in the media.

“So I’ve said, fair cop. I think in future the execution of these ads needs to be done a lot more carefully and I’ve had that discussion with the party administration already.”

It is possible that all this is true, but it does not matter. You cannot make an ad with the slogan “Australians First” and not be dog-whistling at racist anxiety. Irrespective of who was cast in it and who saw it before it was screened, this was its intention. This racist anxiety was the only reason it was made.

Craven attempts to explain the ad after its broadcast only underscore the cynicism with which it was made – the thought that you could say in private to the voters of rural Queensland what you would not dare say to people in Sydney or Melbourne.

The politics of race are being played in this country in ways not seen for almost a decade. They are braided through this week’s budget, in new measures that whistle at a mistrust of foreigners or cast them as exploitative. They are there in the new debate on citizenship, and the implicit casting of new migrants as criminals.

They are there in Labor’s rhetoric, which matches the Coalition’s. Of course, they are there in One Nation and other minor parties.

Good leadership is about showing a country how it might be better. In this parliament, however, it is about exploiting opportunity.

Perhaps the airtime in rural Queensland was cheap. Perhaps the casting agency could only find white tradesmen. Perhaps Bill Shorten is so innocent of racism that the message projected by a phalanx of white faces in an ad about Australian values was totally mysterious to him.

It’s doubtful that all this could be true. More doubtful still is the thought of a politics in this country that was above exploiting race for pyrrhic gain, that didn’t believe it could quietly play to various fears in the same electorate, to the people who were meant to see the ad and to the others who were not.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 13, 2017 as "Running race".

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