John Howard, Prime Minister of Australia

Race and Politics in Australia

by Bernard Cohen

When John Howard's Liberal Party (the major conservative party in Australia) won the 1996 election, Howard promised that he would lead the government 'for all Australians'. This drew derisive laughter and cries of 'not us' at my election night party.

Obviously there are many, co-existent explanations for the previous Australian Labor Party government's loss. Nonetheless, the major campaign difference between the parties was that ALP leader (and then Prime Minister) Paul Keating was unequivocal in saying that there was no space for racism in the Labor Party.

The so-called "maverick" (read "racist") Graeme Campbell's expulsion from the Labor Party came years too late but, in the lead-up to the election, could clearly be read as a statement of Labor policy.

As self-noted political journalist Ray Martin commented, politics is as much about perception as substance. The Coalition's condemnations of racism were often equivocal. In a Coalition campaign run almost exclusively on the politics of perception -- the Liberal Party line was that Keating was arrogant -- perceived racist comments by its members were defended as 'taken out of context'.

When Bob Katter, another "maverick" member of parliament (and a member of the Liberal Party's coalition partners, the National Party), described the (as always) politically correct enemy as 'environazis', 'feminazis' and 'slanty-eyed ideologues', he was defended by both National Party leader Fischer and prime minister-elect Howard. They accepted Katter's explanation that he had meant to be poetic instead of racist -- that his substitution of 'slanty-eyed' for 'slit-eyed' was a slip of the tongue -- rather too easily for my liking.

Liberal Party candidate Pauline Hansen, who has now founded the so-called "One Nation Party" (stands for one nation, provided it's Anglo-Saxon) was disendorsed by the Liberals for stating that she would not be representing Aborigines in her electorate. But the ballot form nonetheless continued to label her as a Liberal. There was no mention in the press of whether she had also been expelled from the party, and the Nine Network omitted the disendorsement story from its Sydney news coverage at least.

Hansen and other 'mavericks' attracted large swings in this election. Katter's first-preference vote rose over twenty-three per cent. While Liberal Party candidate Warren Entsch was elected ahead of (maverick National) Bob Burgess, Burgess attracted a far greater swing on the primary vote -- over seven per cent compared with Entsch's one.

Aside from questionable views on race and social policy, what Hansen, Katter, Campbell and Burgess share is free use of the term 'political correctness'.

Characterising opponents as politically correct -- that is, incapable of individual thought -- has been a highly effective tactic, particularly for gaining media coverage.

The Labor Party -- and the Coalition parties if they, too, want to discard their racist apologists and the appearance of racist apologism -- must counter this taunt. Journalists should stop using the phrase as well. It forestalls serious analysis and real thought by celebrating mindless anti-intellectualism.

Rather than reflecting on candidates' maverick status, journalists ought to examine these people's beliefs and policies more closely, and should refuse them shortcut phrases such as 'maverick', 'rebel', 'politically incorrect' and 'forthright'.

Racists and sympathisers should not be permitted the fiction that only they are true free-thinkers while anti-racists are somehow in the thrall of 'lobbies' and other deterministic and dehumanising forces.

Along with the views of various candidates, one Liberal Party policy was equally important in sending equivocal messages on race to electors.

The Liberals promised to extend to two years the time social welfare is withheld from certain categories of new migrants. The harshness or fairness of this policy is, no doubt, a matter of opinion. (I believe it is unduly severe.)

More important in terms of perception, however, is that the policy seems to confirm the populist, talk-radio view about unfairly advantaged new migrants living off the sweat of hard-working ordinary Australians.

The Liberals, in effect, promised to clamp down on a vast number of imaginary bludgers.

This contributed to the impression that everyone but an exclusive Anglo 'us' has it easy.

The other troubling aspects of the election were the prominence of anti-immigrant parties -- some candidates attributed with a respectable, environmentalist veneer -- and the increasing vote of the redneck leisure grouping, Australian Shooters Party.

Such parties tend to concentrate redneck and racist votes and send them towards one or other of the major parties -- in this election, the 'winners' were predominately the Coalition. In every State where they fielded Senate candidates, the anti-immigrant and gun parties sent their preferences to the Coalition ahead of Labor.

In New South Wales, the parties between them drew over three and a half per cent of the primary Senate vote. In some lower house seats, this rose to around five and a half per cent.

The figures may sound insignificant, but the Coalition won government and around two-thirds of seats in the House of Representatives with a 'landslide' two-party preferred vote of only around fifty-four per cent.

It is probably impossible to quantify accurately the extent to which the Liberal victory was attributable to the racist vote, but all the circumstantial evidence is there.

The new government has a lot to do to prove that it is intolerant of racism.

As for me, I've joined the Labor Party.*




* This was written in 1996. I'm not a member of any party now.