Opinion

Ruby Hamad
Fraser Anning and racist politics

Oh, but doesn’t Australia have a lot of them? These watershed moments of lines crossed and politics forever changed, where the bar set for public discourse is not so much lowered but dispensed with altogether.

This week it was crossbench senator Fraser Anning, formerly of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and now of Katter’s Australian Party, out-Hansoning his old boss by using his maiden speech as an opportunity to extol the virtues of the White Australia policy and call for a “final solution” to the Muslim immigration “problem”.

Terrifying stuff. Except… we were already primed for this. Cast your mind back to just two weeks ago, when a certain syndicated columnist, lamenting the “colonisation” of Australia, by which he meant plain old immigration, decided one of the problem invaders was Melbourne’s Jewish community. So much for Australia’s “Judaeo–Christian values”. Openly seducing the burgeoning neo-Nazi movement seemed a bold move even for Andrew Bolt, but that column provided the first gentle nudge towards this new public discourse, a discourse that uncritically catapulted a neo-Nazi – whose hitherto greatest achievement was a remarkable skill for self-owns on Twitter – onto television screens and that created the space for Anning’s carefully selected words to unravel one of the most sacred social contracts of the modern world: Never Again.

There were other hints, of course. Television host Sonia Kruger defending her call in 2016 for an end to Muslim immigration. The letter to the editor of The Australian, suggesting that perhaps – and the writer was only asking a question mind you, just putting it out there – the answer – to what, exactly? – was to round up all Muslims and put them in internment camps.

You could argue those last examples are not quite the same thing; that a television personality and a letter to the editor, though published in the national broadsheet, is not the same as a member of parliament channelling his inner Adolf Eichmann.

But hold on, was it only a year ago that Hanson bravely announced her intention to never let a burqa be worn on the floor of parliament … by being the first person to wear a burqa into parliament? Was it only 22 years ago she made her own explosive and roundly condemned maiden speech, shortly after being bundled out of the Liberal Party, before being bundled out of politics altogether, only to cha-cha-cha and foxtrot her way onto our television screens and back into our national consciousness like a grotesque parody of a national sweetheart.

Or perhaps it was John Howard who set us on this course, with his infamously false provocation, “I don’t want in Australia people who would throw their own children into the sea.” Or it could be his protégé Peter Dutton, and his infamous speech in late 2016, proclaiming Lebanese immigration to be a mistake. That could have been a teachable moment, if only we could have found the gumption to decide, “No, this is not who we are.”

Except, of course, this is who we are.

And this is the underlying issue Australia refuses to address. We claim to reject racism even as we reject any notion of Indigenous sovereignty. The only settler-colonial nation in the world to refuse Treaty with the land’s Indigenous population, we incarcerate Indigenous children at the world’s highest rates. While we jealously debate our own freedom of speech, in the background, hidden from view, are those other children – detained and bloodstained in indefinite detention, so traumatised they are refusing food and water, preparing themselves to die before they have even begun to fully live.

This, Australia, is exactly who we are.

We discuss Anning as if he emerged suddenly, a fully formed aberration, untouched by the society that produced him. But these moments are no surprise to Indigenous and PoC writers, artists and activists. If anything, there is a palpable deja vu with each one of these racist eruptions, which have a knack for exploding every time it seems we are getting somewhere in our advocacy. How often we may be poised on the precipice of a breakthrough – where Australia seems capable of finally acknowledging the deeply embedded racial structures that ensure the Indigenous wealth and health gap, that discriminate against Arab and Chinese jobseekers, relegating their résumé to the pile of instant rejection, and that allow columnists and politicians to fearmonger about non-existent African criminal gangs terrorising Melbourne diners – and then along comes a political speech or a column or a cartoon, and before you know it we are, once again, debating the merits of being nice to Nazis.

Of all the debates we had thought to be settled, you’d think it would be that one.

Of all the conceits afforded to that portion of the population that qualifies as white in a Western society, perhaps the most peculiar and most dangerous is the one that lets them believe that the concept of race can be separated from the rest of everyday life. That racism is just another inconvenient event or unpleasant obstacle, like a late-running bus or a swooping magpie, that once caught or swatted can be forgotten and life resumed as normal. If we, as a country, are ever to get somewhere, this is a nonsense of which we must divest ourselves. There is no separating racism from the rest of Australian society. Exasperated as white people may be to hear about race, again, your frustration pales next to those forced to live it and fight it. As Labor MP Anne Aly tearfully admitted this week, we are tired of fighting. Tired of claiming our humanity. Tired of waiting for white people to change. Tired of reminding you of our worth. Tired of wondering what is wrong with you and why you still make excuses for this on your watch.

What more can people of colour do? More than unionist and writer Celeste Liddle, who drew 50,000 Melburnians to an Invasion Day rally two years ago, attracting a bigger turnout than the official “Australia Day” celebrations? More than journalists such as Amy McQuire? More than Louise Taylor, who has just been appointed the ACT’s first Indigenous judicial officer?

Can we do more than highlight, year after year, the lack of representation afforded to people of colour in parliament, in business, in the media? More than that recent spate of Aboriginal and Arab and South-Asian women who have somehow overcome unimaginable odds to get elected to parliament? Or more than women of colour journalists such as Bhakthi Puvanenthiran and Sarah Malik, who have found a way into the white-dominated editorial spaces in important and influential mastheads like Crikey and SBS? Just when it seems women and men of colour are levelling the playing field, not just in visible positions but in decision-making positions, along comes another “aberration” to take us right back to the debate over whether or not it’s actually okay to be racist. Progress is so slow, yet regression happens in an instant.

It’s frightening rhetoric but it’s also a distraction. Racism is not just these eruptions; racism is the entire system that makes every facet of life easier for a white person – not necessarily always easy, but easier than not being a white person.

White supremacy – by which I do not mean the Ku Klux Klan or indeed neo-Nazis, but simply the system we live in, constructed on the attempted destruction of the First Nations, which “privileges white people at every conceivable opportunity”, as comedian Aamer Rahman notes in his famous stand-up routine – needs these extremists to keep functioning. It needs these supposed outliers, the truly unconscionable voices to press those limits of what can be and what is said, so that the others may look reasonable by comparison. Anning may have been elected to the senate with just 19 votes, but the political system our country built has a habit of elevating these allegedly marginal figures to positions of unearned power. Steve Fielding, anyone?

It’s hard to see all of this as anything other than a game – a way of shifting the centre, edging it ever towards the right until anything short of an actual “final solution” is up for debate. And so, even as the ghosts of all the horror of the past 230 years silently haunt us, taunting us to reckon with them, we choose instead to fabricate the easiest test for deciding what makes a “good” and non-racist person: do you condemn Anning’s words? Very well then, you pass.

And, suddenly, racism becomes a white people’s issue again; something to be solved by merely denouncing the most genocidal of racist intentions, without having to actually do anything about the societal conditions that create space for such statements and policies. And so, we are treated to the spectacle of political figures such as Hanson and Malcolm Turnbull assuming the role of Good Cop in contrast with Anning and Katter’s Bad Cop.

It is an absurd state of affairs that Hanson – herself castigated by George “people have a right to be bigots” Brandis – now gets to occupy a moral high ground by denouncing Anning’s “appalling” comments. Likewise Turnbull, who still presides over those refugee torture camps where children are wasting away even as I write this, and who himself not so long ago scolded the Muslim population of western Sydney for its high “No” votes in the laughable postal survey that his government foisted on us after years of dragging its feet on marriage equality, but who now gets to claim pride in Australia’s “successful” multiculturalism.

What a sight to behold as these politicians fall over themselves to pass the most basic of moral tests. In these endless culture wars, race is a cherished weapon, each side playing to its base, trading barbs in parliament and in the media, each presenting themselves as the real benefactor of the baffled “coloureds” consigned to the sidelines. But here is the thing about the good cop/bad cop trope – at the end of the day, they are all cops.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 18, 2018 as "Racism is not a moment, it’s who we are". Subscribe here.

Ruby Hamad
writes about race, media, and culture for SBS.

Continue reading your one free article for the week