Race to the bottom
The prime minister must call off the dogs
There are too few brave public servants nowadays. Outgoing race discrimination commissioner Tim Soutphommasane, who gives his farewell speech in Sydney tonight, certainly has been one of them. Soutphommasane defied the Abbott government’s marathon campaign to protect the rights of bigots by repealing section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, and prevailed. In an interview to mark the end of his five-year term, Soutphommasane called it his greatest achievement. Like his former colleague at the Australian Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, Soutphommasane was willing to cop incessant attacks from the government and certain segments of the media. This includes The Australian, which accused him of soliciting complaints over an infamous cartoon attacking Aboriginal fathers by the late Bill Leak, among countless other examples. The attacks only ennobled him. As dark clouds gather ahead of what threatens to become an ugly federal election, with the hate media already frothing in anticipation, Soutphommasane today warns that “race politics is back” and “right now, it feels like there has never been a more exciting time to be a dog-whistling politician or race-baiting commentator in Australia”.
This is not cheap alarmism. The potential for the re-emergence of virulent anti-immigrant, if not downright racist sentiments in Australian politics is very real at this moment. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s big business tax cuts are failing to attract electoral support, and the Coalition is hopelessly divided over energy and climate change. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has already hyped Melbourne’s “African gangs” as an issue for electoral advantage ahead of the Super Saturday by-elections and the looming Victorian poll, as Waleed Aly brought home in this blistering spray on The Project. And Turnbull, as always, will fall into line. Playing the race card has been a tried and true tactic for the Coalition in previous elections.
As Mike Seccombe wrote in The Saturday Paper, these recent attacks on “African gangs” mirror very similar attacks on Sudanese refugees by then immigration minister Kevin Andrews in 2007, as part of a desperate and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to save the Howard government. In extraordinary comments, former Liberal immigration minister Ian Macphee argued that John Howard had deliberately shattered the bipartisanship on race issues that had settled after the abolition of the White Australia policy. Macphee traced this back as far as 1988, when Howard decried the “Asianisation” of Australia and led the Opposition to vote against a Bob Hawke motion supporting a racially non-discriminatory immigration policy. Macphee told Seccombe: “I’d always known Howard was a racist, but he demonstrated that clearly in that motion.” Macphee described the continuing efforts of conservative politicians to exploit issues of race for political ends as “quite tragic”. Tony Abbott is the new standard-bearer, daring to ask what he called the “big question” last week on Sydney’s Radio 2GB: “why do we store up trouble for ourselves by letting in people who are going to be difficult, difficult to integrate?” For Seccombe, it was the first time “a significant political figure has advocated the complete exclusion of an ethnic group from this country”.
The alarm bells are ringing loud and clear, with Murdoch media setting new lows in the past few days. On Thursday Andrew Bolt penned an incendiary column for the Herald Sun, headlined “The foreign invasion”, which warned of a “tidal wave of immigrants” who were colonising Australia so there was “no ‘us’ any more”. A hateful spray at everyone from Chinese to Indian to Vietnamese to Muslims to Jews – apparently, anyone who wasn’t a white Christian – Bolt’s column is now the subject of complaints to the Press Council. Former senior journalist at The Australian George Megalogenis was appalled, tweeting: “A short history lesson for my old mates at News. The bigotry in your news and opinion pages would make Robert Menzies turn in his grave.”
Yesterday, former NT chief minister and now Sky News presenter Adam Giles went so far as to interview neo-Nazi Blair Cottrell on his program, describing him as an “activist”. Gutsy Sky News reporter Laura Jayes called out her own network, tweeting that Cottrell was a far right-wing fascist; Jayes was supported by senior colleague David Speers. Social media was aghast: Benjamin Law reminded Virgin Australia, broadcasting Sky News in its lounges, that Cottrell was “an anti-Semite who says Mein Kampf should be mandatory school reading, celebrates Hitler’s birth & promotes violence against women”. After such a heavy backlash, Sky News director Greg Byrnes posted that it was wrong to air an interview with Cottrell, but stopped short of an apology.
What is missing here, of course, is leadership from the top. The dogs are barking – will the prime minister bring them to heel? Not if his wilful rejection of an Indigenous voice to parliament is any guide. As author Richard Flanagan said in a powerful speech at the Garma Festival yesterday, the Uluru Statement from the Heart demanded too much of Canberra’s politicians: “It demanded [they] imagine their country anew, stronger, richer. It required people who knew a life of the mind and a life of the soul, a largeness and generosity of spirit, and all these things are not just absent in the Turnbull government but consistently attacked and destroyed by them whenever they appear in Australian life.”
Failing political leadership, the country depends on institutions like the Human Rights Commission to uphold the law and act as a check and balance on the government of the day. Like the ABC and CSIRO, the Australian Human Rights Commission is an independent statutory authority that has come under sustained attack by the Abbott and Turnbull governments. But where the ABC and CSIRO boards have too often kept their heads down, sniffing the political breeze, Soutphommassane and Triggs have been frank and fearless in fulfilling their statutory responsibilities. That’s why we pay them the big bucks, to be blunt.
Soutphommasane has not been replaced as race discrimination commissioner – a worry in itself – and only a few months ago there was a push [$] to rename or downgrade the role. Whoever eventually takes Soutphommasane’s place has big shoes to fill, but it is not up to them alone. It is going to take vigilance on all sides to stop Australia sliding into race hatred.
since this morning
The Australianreported [$] this morning that Victoria and Queensland were poised to scuttle the Turnbull government’s National Energy Guarantee, although Fairfax Media reports that Queensland remains undecided on the policy ahead of a crucial meeting of energy ministers on Friday.
A review [$] of Woolworths hotels and pokies operations undertaken by the former chief executive of the supermarket giant, Roger Corbett, has found that a number of venues “fell below acceptable standards”.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
The Australian has obtained [$] a “witness outline” for the financial services royal commission, which shows it has compelled superannuation funds to reveal their entire fee and cost structures for the first time, as well as detailing the appointment criteria for directors, ahead of an expected bruising two-week examination of the sector.
On a related note, in the AFR Adele Ferguson writes [$] that the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority needs to be held to account for the performance of superannuation funds, while the ABC’s Ian Verrender reports that a concerted campaign is quietly underway to ensure the inquiry is stopped in its tracks.
Fairfax Media reveals that My Health Record is capable of storing genomic information, such as a person’s genetic risk of developing cancer, which could advance medical research but has intensified privacy and security fears.
The Great Barrier Reef Foundation, a non-profit body granted almost half a billion dollars by the Turnbull government, appears to have overstated its past ability to raise funds, according to an analysis of its annual reports by Labor.
Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including a recently updated unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?
There are too few brave public servants nowadays. Outgoing race discrimination commissioner Tim Soutphommasane, who gives his farewell speech in Sydney tonight, certainly has been one of them. Soutphommasane defied the Abbott government’s marathon campaign to protect the rights of bigots by repealing section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, and prevailed. In an interview to mark the end of his five-year term, Soutphommasane called it his greatest achievement. Like his former colleague at the Australian Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, Soutphommasane was willing to cop incessant attacks from the government and certain segments of the media. This includes The Australian, which accused him of soliciting complaints over an...