The government’s rhetoric on race takes it into territory that is uglier and more targeted than even John Howard’s campaigns. By Mike Seccombe.

The politics of racism

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton (left) and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton (left) and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Credit: AAP Image / Lukas Coch

The year was 2007 and, just as now, a conservative federal government was staring down the barrel of electoral defeat.

Then, as now, the tabloid press and the shock jocks fulminated about the problem of “African crime gangs”. Then, as now, a Liberal immigration minister pointed to the apparent failure of some people to successfully integrate into Australian society and by his commentary added fuel to a racist fire.

In October that year Kevin Andrews, a pillar of the party’s right wing, pointed specifically to Sudanese refugees, lamenting that they “don’t seem to be settling and adjusting into the Australian way of life as quickly as we would hope”.

Andrews at least had the decency to acknowledge the difficulties faced by the refugees. Speaking to reporters in Melbourne, where the largest number of Sudanese had resettled, he said: “We know that there is a large number of people who are young. We know that they have on average low levels of education, lower levels of education than almost any other group of refugees that have come to Australia. We know that many of them, if not most of them, have spent up to a decade in refugee camps and they’ve spent much of their lives in very much a war-torn, conflicted situation.

“And on top of that they have the challenges of resettling in a culture which is vastly different from the one which they came from.”

But there was a problem with crime, Andrews said, and simply “putting our head in the sand and pretending it’s not there is not going to help the people concerned, and it’s not going to help Australia”.

That, he said, was why the government had decided, just a month out from an election, to slash the number of African refugees – who had made up 70 per cent of the humanitarian program just two years earlier – to 30 per cent. Furthermore, as Australia already had taken in 3900 Africans that year, the government would accept no more until July the following year, when they would take even fewer.

And though the Howard government fell shortly thereafter, its hard-hearted policy prescription lived on. From 2007, there has been a steady decline in the proportion of black Africans resettled in Australia – down to about 6 per cent of the total humanitarian intake, according to the most recent figures, even though roughly a third of all the world’s refugees are African, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees identifies the continent as having the greatest resettlement needs.

Andrews and his prime minister, John Howard, denied they were playing politics with race issues. “Absolutely not,” said Howard, calling any such suggestion “contemptible”.

But he was widely disbelieved, and he had form. In 1988, Howard breached a tacit bipartisan agreement not to exploit issues of race for political ends. At that time, he began his campaign against the “Asianisation” of Australia and launched his “One Australia” policy.

The then Labor prime minister Bob Hawke responded by introducing a motion to parliament specifically supporting a racially non-discriminatory policy. The Howard opposition, with the exception of three members who crossed the floor, voted against the motion, essentially supporting racial discrimination.

One of the three who defied their party leader was a former Liberal immigration minister, Ian Macphee. He recalls that day as the moment race was formally reintroduced into partisan politics, after a long period of agreement not to go there following the abolishment of the White Australia policy more than a decade before.

“I’d always known Howard was a racist, but he demonstrated that clearly in that motion, the first motion of the new Parliament House,” Macphee told The Saturday Paper.

Ahead of the vote on the Hawke motion, Macphee says, “I spoke to Kim Beazley, who was the manager of government business, and told him I wanted to support it. He organised for me to be the last speaker. I spoke from the heart.”

As he tells it, Macphee had “no choice” but to take a stand against his party leader, given that he and others on both sides of politics had worked so hard over the years to expunge the last vestiges of the White Australia policy.

“When I was minister for immigration and Mick Young was the Labor spokesman, we became dear friends and travelled the whole of Australia with John Menadue,” he says, referring to the then secretary of the Department of Immigration. “To little towns and to cities, speaking at town hall meetings, explaining why we had a non-discriminatory policy. We worked so carefully together.”

Howard’s abandonment of this laboriously constructed bipartisanship – and the continuing efforts of conservative politicians to exploit issues of race for political ends – have been “quite tragic”, Macphee says.

Tragic for Australia’s international reputation, tragic because they facilitated the rise of the likes of Pauline Hanson and above all tragic for the subsets of Australia’s immigrant population chosen as subjects of opprobrium.

Australian business – and the Liberal Party is first and foremost the party of business – supports a big migration program. One mistake Howard made in 1988 was to pick on too big a cohort: “Asians” in general, at a time when Asian migrants were becoming increasingly important to our labour force. Indeed, under Howard’s prime ministership, Australia’s net intake of migrants more than doubled to almost 150,000 a year, and the proportion of non-European migrants increased even faster.

Howard’s dark genius was finding a way to satisfy the demands of industry while stirring hostility towards certain subsets of migrants at the same time. He and his successors have tightened their targeting – to asylum seekers, though only those who come by boat rather than plane; to Muslims; and to black Africans.

And now, more than a decade on from Kevin Andrews’ declaration that he would help African refugees by taking fewer of them, they are once again the unhappy focus of an immigration debate.

Even by previous standards, though, it is exceptionally ugly this time. Never before has a significant political figure advocated the complete exclusion of an ethnic group from this country. But that is what former prime minister Tony Abbott did last week.

Speaking on Sydney’s Radio 2GB, he dared ask what he called “the big question … why do we store up trouble for ourselves by letting in people who are going to be difficult, difficult to integrate?”

Abbott’s comments took the issue into darker territory than any other, but not by much. Numbers of his Coalition colleagues, both federal and Victorian, aided and abetted by the radio shock jocks, tabloid TV and the Murdoch media, have long been working to beat up fears of “African crime gangs” rampaging across Melbourne.

Back at the start of this year, Peter Dutton famously took the scare campaign to a new rhetorical level, claiming Melburnians were “scared to go out to restaurants” because of “African gang violence”.

He sheeted home blame to the Labor state government of Daniel Andrews, alleging a lack of deterrence, claiming the state’s bail laws were too lax, that the Labor government had installed “civil libertarians” as magistrates, who imposed “jokes of sentences” due to “political correctness that’s taken hold”.

Data from Victoria’s Crime Statistics Agency shows Sudanese were over-represented in crime statistics, by a factor of 10. They made up about only 0.1 per cent of the Victorian population, but about 1 per cent of alleged offenders.

In the year to September 2017 – among offenders aged between 10 and 18 – Sudanese-born Victorians were involved in 3 per cent of serious assaults, 2 per cent of non-aggravated burglaries, 5 per cent of motor vehicle thefts and 8.6 per cent of aggravated burglaries.

But much else that Dutton claimed is questionable, if not outright false. For one, the allegation about lax laws doesn’t hold water.

“What Peter Dutton is saying is palpable nonsense. Victoria has some of the toughest bail laws in the country,” says barrister Greg Barns. “And I speak not just as the criminal justice spokesman for the Australian Lawyers Alliance, and also a practitioner at the Victorian bar.

“They have toughened the laws to the point where it’s very difficult for anyone to get bail if they have any prior conviction, to the point where prison overcrowding is a serious problem now in Victoria.

“You have to view this in the context of a state election [coming up in November]. It’s part of this absurd law and order auction that seems to be in the DNA of Victorian politics.”

Dutton’s comments might also be viewed in the context of his past as a Queensland police officer who has a long history of railing against the judicial system. The Administrative Appeals Tribunal, despite the government’s efforts to stack it with hardline appointees, has regularly frustrated him on matters relating to asylum seekers, as have the courts. Only in the past week, the Federal Court – for the 12th time, according to the count of Guardian Australia – ordered the transfer of a dangerously ill child from Nauru to Australia, despite the objections of his department. Dutton’s authoritarianism does not sit comfortably with the rule of law.

Nor is he alone in his attitude to the legal system. Last June three of his ministerial colleagues – Greg Hunt, Alan Tudge and Michael Sukkar, all from Victoria, all right-wingers – were forced to make abject apologies to avoid possible contempt charges, after they made inflammatory comments to The Australian attacking the sentencing practices of the state’s Supreme Court in a couple of terrorism cases.

Law and order campaigns are standard fare for conservative politicians, but as the above examples indicate, the right is increasingly prone to mount them in the context of ethnic and religious minorities.

Nor does Dutton’s claim that the “socialist Andrews government” has allowed crime to flourish stand up to logic, given the same agency that produced the concerning figures about Sudanese crime also records that overall crime rates fell by about 6 per cent, the biggest drop in 12 years. Youth crime also was down sharply.

Yet Dutton, various state and federal colleagues and tabloid media have continued to offer every new instance of ethnic criminal activity as evidence of a failing by the state government. Dutton even exploited the recent murder of 19-year-old African–Australian woman Laa Chol, echoing tabloid media claims that it was gang related.

Her grieving family were appalled by the suggestion that the sporty, law-abiding teenager was involved in gang activity. Equally damningly, investigating police have categorically denied the tragedy was gang related.

Dutton, however, was insistent her death was evidence of “a major law and order problem in Victoria”. He said “more people are going to be hurt until the rule of law is enforced by the Victorian government”.

“We don’t have these problems with Sudanese gangs in New South Wales or Queensland,” he said.

The question is: How would he know? As far as The Saturday Paper is able to determine, those states, both of which also have substantial Sudanese populations, do not collect statistics on the ethnicity of alleged offenders, comparable with Victoria’s. We approached the offices of both Dutton and his junior minister for citizenship and multicultural affairs Alan Tudge, seeking data to support the allegation that ethnic crime was a specifically Victorian problem.

Dutton’s office did not respond, but a spokeswoman for Tudge conceded they had no comparable figures, and she believed they did not exist. Instead, she said, the claim was based on “anecdotal evidence and what has been in the media”.

They say that when the only tool you have is a hammer you are apt to treat everything as a nail, and to date Dutton and co have offered only blunt-force solutions. Tougher laws, harsher sentences, even deportation.

“If people haven’t integrated, if they’re not abiding by our laws, if they’re not adhering to our culture, then they’re not welcome here,” Dutton told one interviewer. He continued, “… frankly they don’t belong in Australian society”.

But what about applying subtler tools to the problem? What about providing more assistance to integrate?

Behind the issue of crime, says Dr Louise Olliff, senior adviser for policy and community engagement for the Refugee Council of Australia, “there is a broader question about disadvantage, because those young people who are getting into trouble, in many cases are born here or came when very young, so it’s not as much a settlement issue as it is an issue of disadvantage”.

“The question is what sorts of support would be more useful in helping people get into education and work.”

Instead of offering more assistance, though, the government has offered less.

“There has been a progressive mainstreaming of services, which has not helped,” Olliff says. “For example, there used to be targeted Jobactive services for culturally/linguistically diverse groups. You would have specialist providers who understood some of the challenges people from a refuge background were having, like disrupted education. But they withdrew those targeted programs.

“And those young people do have needs for specialist support, for they face additional barriers [to integration], including racism, which is very real.”

Her criticisms go to the states as well as the federal government, particularly when it comes to education.

“If you came here aged 10 or 12 and had missed most of your primary school education, you get here in adolescence and are expected to go into an age-level education system without targeted support, you will struggle.

“You are kind of setting that person up to fail.”

Olliff is particularly annoyed by the inconsistency of the federal government’s rhetoric on refugees.

“In the past the government denigrated boat arrivals as queue jumpers. Well, these African refugees have patiently waited in the queue.”

Yet the government fails to address the trauma suffered during those years of waiting.

Back in March, in a speech to the Liberal-aligned Menzies Research Centre, Alan Tudge spoke of what he called the “integration challenge” to Australian multiculturalism.

He said there was “emerging evidence that we are not integrating as well as what we have done in the past”.

He focused in particular on two threats to “social cohesion” – greater concentrations of particular ethnic groups in certain areas, and declining English language skills among immigrants.

“The 2016 census,” said Tudge, “shows that 24 per cent of the people who arrived between January and August 2016 reported that they did not speak English well or at all. This compared with 18 and 19 per cent respectively in the 2006 and 2011 census.”

This “general deterioration in English” was bad for the employment prospects of these immigrants and is bad for social cohesion.

Ethnic enclaving also was becoming more pronounced, he said.

Tudge did not mention particular ethnicities. Had he done so, he would have had to acknowledge that Chinese migrants were the group shown by the data to be the stand-out group in both categories.

“In Sydney,” he said, “there are 67 suburbs with more than 50 per cent born overseas. Of these, 28 suburbs have 60 per cent or more born overseas.”

But he cited only one place specifically. No, it wasn’t Sydney’s Haymarket, where 90 per cent of the population was born overseas. Nor was it one of the scores of other suburbs in Australia’s two largest cities where migrants make up more than three-quarters of residents.

It was Dandenong in Melbourne, where “of the population of 152,000, 61.7 per cent were born overseas with almost 17 per cent speaking no English or speaking English ‘not well’ ”.

It just happens that, among Victorian local government areas, Dandenong ranked first in 2006 for Sudanese-born residents, and second in 2011.

Coincidence, perhaps? Whatever, Tudge went on to outline five measures to address the “challenges” to integration.

These were: to place greater emphasis on English language skills, although he offered no policy ideas to assist in this; to “actively encourage new arrivals to take positive steps to integrate”, although he did not suggest how; to place greater emphasis on commitment to “Australian values” via “a stronger values statement which a person agrees to upon entry”; and, to improve security vetting of people before they come.

“Finally,” he said, “we need to stop talking our country down – be it on Australia Day, in schools, or in our public discourse. Rather we need to talk about and think about our nation and community as a place that people will want to integrate into.”

He apparently saw no irony in his words.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 4, 2018 as "The politics of racism".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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