In this month’s Research Spotlight column, Associate Professor Peter Gale reflects on racism in Australia in light of recent events, including the Reclaim Australia rallies. Based at the David Unaipon College of Indigenous Education and Research, Assoc Prof Gale’s areas of research include nationalism and racism, and the sociology of 'race' and ethnicity.
I’m often asked about what really defines racism and when I travel beyond Australia, many people ask me if Australia is a racist country.
Debates on racism usually become a discussion about whom or what is racist.
But as with many research questions, the concepts are complex and can’t be reduced to a straight forward yes or no response. Racism cannot be understood as a simple binary of being racist or not racist.
The all too common refrain, ‘I am not a racist but…’ is often used to engender support for political policies that are superficially represented as being in the national interest, but which in practice pursue popular politics at the expense of vulnerable minority groups.
Such policies attract popular appeal but are positioned at one end of the spectrum of what I would describe as patriot perception disorder (PPD).
This is arguably the case in the ongoing political debate on asylum seeker policy, the contentious Northern Territory Intervention or the proposed closure of remote Indigenous communities.
All are examples of difficult policy decisions that are more reflective of PPD than inclusive politics.
At the high end of the spectrum of PPD, perspectives are shaped by a focus on short-term politics and electoral gain rather than by what is good policy.
Sometimes PPD is very visible; the recent Reclaim Australia rallies are a prime example of patriot politics. The TV and press coverage of the associated instances of violence have been disturbing. Friends and colleagues outside of Australia have asked me anxiously: “What is happening down there?”
So what is happening when we see violence on the streets? The 2005 Cronulla Riots and the recent violence associated with Reclaim Australia are disturbing examples of the extreme end of the PPD spectrum acted out on our streets.
But perhaps the most important and uncomfortable question for all of us is where do we fall on the spectrum of racism.
The Reclaim Australia rallies attract young and old – from grandma and granddad, to students and office workers.
Rather than the uniformity that typified the Cronulla riots, every strata of Australian society was represented, proving PPD is evident across the diversity of Australian society.
What is important to understand is why Reclaim Australia has had such broad appeal.
If PPD occurs as a racism spectrum, the sentiments of Reclaim Australia lie at the far end and are a symptom of the failure in political leadership to educate, legislate and lead society in a better path. That vacuum in leadership, coupled with other factors, such as the role of the traditional media and the growth and accessibility of social media, encourage the extreme.
While it can be argued that everything is political, these extremes are not all about politics.
Two important areas where political leadership is vitally influential are in providing accurate and realistic perspectives and context; and secondly, in shaping perceptions about patriotism, or in particular, what is in the national interest.
The stated raison d’etre of Reclaim Australia is the drive to keep Australia ‘Australian’ and to eliminate the threat of terrorism.
Analysed carefully, it is a strange marriage of ideas, but when we look at how political leaders and media commentators have built careers on conflating the threat of terrorism with the practice of Islam since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre, we can see that given sustenance, the idea has taken seed.
Interestingly, it is often these same politicians and commentators who make loud appeals to respect the democratic rights to ‘free speech’ of groups such as the Reclaim movement, but remain silent on these rights in other contexts.
What is more disturbing is when political leaders and commentators capitalise on PPD for personal advantage – for better ratings or a few more points in the polls.
These gains come at a deep cost – to Australia’s strong record on human rights; to the daily lives of Islamic women; to Indigenous people, especially those living in remote communities; to our general capacity for peaceful living; and, to a less tangible extent, to the national psyche – to the very things we believe make us Australian.
Many political leaders and media commentators, with more access to factual information that shows the actual risk of terrorism, or the perceived threat to the Australian nation, or national values, is minimal, still raise the terrorism scarecrow.
In recent months, we’ve seen a marked increase in mentions of thwarted terrorist attacks, midnight suburban raids on suspects, as well as unspecific threats of attack from some nebulous ‘other’.
Contrast, the very real and recorded instances of domestic violence and domestic murder statistics with those of terrorism in Australia and the result is salutary.
Domestic violence is an endemic problem in society – on Australian soil; two women a week are murdered by a partner or former partner. The problem until very recently has rarely been a rallying call for politicians of any persuasion and spending on solving the problem of terror in the home, proudly announced as a $16.7 million package over three years, lags far behind the billions and billions that are being spent on anti-terrorism.
Similarly, the common perception, that asylum seekers arriving by boat are economic refugees rather than people just like you and me, who largely, as a result of circumstances beyond their control, are rendered stateless people, has been encouraged by politicians and commentators alike.
As Australians, are our leaders playing us for fools? The question we need to ask is, what is good politics? And it is a thorny one – it sets up that divide between playing politics – doing whatever it takes to get elected – and developing and presenting good policy.
At one end of this spectrum, a difficult policy decision is made and public support is sought. At the other end of the spectrum, short-term popularity is sought for minimal long-term gain. All too often people make a political career out of the latter.
What many Australians crave is political leadership in contrast to increasing populist politics founded on Patriot Perception Disorder.