Australia's political heartland: hate, fear, prejudice


By ABC's Jonathan Green The great Australian shame is that not only are there votes to be had in hate, fear and prejudice, but that this is the heartland in which our political game is lost and won, writes Jonathan Green.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard: "(The Government has a plan) to stop foreign workers being put at the front of the queue with Australian workers at the back".

Media/football identity Eddie McGuire: "Get Adam Goodes down for it do you reckon?"


So where does it come from, this simultaneous sense of shame and licence over racism in this country?


Our twin capacity to tolerate a political discussion that fixes on stopping the boats and Aussie jobs while generating storms of righteous indignation over high-profile instances of racial abuse and denigration?


In all the suddenly inward looking wonder since a single hurled syllable from an irate 13-year-old set off this latest pricking of the national racial conscience, the role of our leaders has been all but ignored, the critical mood set by those who would guide, inform and govern us.


How can we be so detached from what is one of the ugly realities of Australian democracy: that there are votes in a subtle dog whistle to racist sentiment, that an appeal to xenophobia or worse is at the very core of some our most significant and constant national discussions.


What else is at the heart of the bipartisan embrace of our cold-hearted policy aimed at resisting the arrival of refugees from war, hunger, poverty, oppression and simple fear? Policy that masks an appeal to a suburban distaste for an imagined invading mass of 'others' with pious mouthings over the safety of lives at sea and noble distaste for the 'evil trade' of people smugglers.


We value the assumed order, dignity and righteous process of 'the queue'.


We honour the now timeworn maxim: "we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come". But surely we also sense the darker truth at the heart of this discussion: that there are votes in pandering to xenophobia and outright racist loathing and fear.


It's the sentiment that lies in the populist pit Kevin Rudd feared when he warned of a "race to the bottom" in refugee policy. This issue in our politics is a comprehensive failure of vision, execution and communication … and has been prosecuted with an eye not to the realities of global human movement, but against the prejudices of a populist rump, voters whose preconceptions of asylum seekers as disease-laden, terror-tainted, queue jumpers have been pandered to by successive administrations.


Why? Because it has been a political convenience to do so.


Watch the recent parliamentary rhetoric, from Coalition spokesman Scott Morrison who railed against the ASIO "light touch" that has allowed the ready egress of boat-borne 'jihadists', to Werriwa MP Laurie Ferguson who challenged the PM on Tuesday to make plainer the ALP strategy for arresting the flow of refugees.


Without more sound and fury waged against the tide of boats and their fearsome cargo, the ALP would be 'dead' in western Sydney, clearly the heartland of national concern over questions of orderly migration.


And all of this dark heat around an issue that is essentially a fabrication created for purely political purpose. The trickle of boat-borne arrivals does not by any objective international measure constitute a crisis. What it does constitute is an opportunity to rake fear in a sometimes xenophobic and insular public.


And it's not just in migration that exploiting a sense of racial disquiet can be a political positive.


What else other than a subtle racist underlay could have enabled the quickly imposed apartheid of the NT intervention, policy at first carried out by our armed forces under the cover of a suspended race discrimination act and that years later still leaves citizens innocent of any offence other than their race with limited control over their own income and the most mundane details of their daily life.


We should think on this when we wonder how it is that somehow, weirdly, inexplicably, racism seems so ever present, such a purulent constant under a thin scab of well-cultivated, sometimes cynical, civility.


And it is of course too quick and easy to blame our politicians for the populism that uses the community’s darker instincts as an easy path to votes.


Politics is nothing if not a mirror of the society it serves … that it, in every sense, represents. We provide the clay they work with.


If there wasn't a vote in hate, fear and prejudice then there would be no gain in pandering to any of them. The great Australian shame is that not only are there votes to be had here, but that this is the heartland in which our political game is lost and won.


The likes of Eddie McGuire aren't even a pimple on its backside … and in many ways the star chambers that assemble around these public transgressions just blind us to the greater reality of a public whose blind-peeping anxieties breed an agenda that turns that suburban fear to populist political profit.

Jonathan Green is the presenter of Sunday Extra on Radio National and a former editor of The Drum. View his full profile here.