The AHRC and pic­ture of white oth­ers paint a spu­ri­ous priv­i­lege in Aus­tralia

The Weekend Australian - - COMMENTARY - GERARD HEN­DER­SON Gerard Hen­der­son is ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Syd­ney In­sti­tute. His Me­dia Watch Dog blog can be found at theaus­tralian.com.au.

Yes­ter­day, a fe­male friend of In­dian back­ground had the lift door held open for her by a hand­some An­glo-Celtic male in a Syd­ney CBD of­fice tower. She tells me that this is not an un­usual event.

How­ever, you would not get this im­pres­sion if you learned about con­tem­po­rary Aus­tralia by view­ing the Aus­tralian Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion’s “Racism: It Stops With Me” cam­paign show­ing on free-to-air tele­vi­sion.

There are two tax­payer-funded AHRC ad­ver­tise­ments. One fea­tures a hand­some An­glo-Celtic male who is happy to share a lift with an at­trac­tive wo­man of sim­i­lar eth­nic­ity, but not with an at­trac­tive fe­male of colour. The sec­ond de­picts a taxi driver re­fus­ing to pick up a coloured man who is first in the queue in pref­er­ence to a white pas­sen­ger. The eth­nic­ity of the driver is un­clear.

This is pony­tailed, ad-land talk­ing. The AHRC cam­paign was launched by Tim Sout­phom­masane, Aus­tralia’s Race Dis­crim­i­na­tion Com­mis­sioner.

He main­tains “racism fre­quently oc­curs at work and while peo­ple are do­ing ev­ery­day things such as catch­ing a bus, rid­ing a train or flag­ging a taxi”.

But Sout­phom­masane pro­vides no ev­i­dence that the racism-in-the-lift sce­nario ever oc­curred. More­over, it is my ex­pe­ri­ence from catch­ing cabs in Syd­ney and Mel­bourne that many driv­ers are from Asian, African or Mid­dle East­ern back­grounds. Which raises the ques­tion: is it racist for a Chi­nese-Aus­tralian taxi driver to refuse to pick up a Su­danese-Aus­tralian pas­sen­ger? Or just un­pro­fes­sional and rude?

Writ­ing in Fair­fax Me­dia news­pa­pers on Oc­to­ber 5, Sout­phom­masane saw a po­lit­i­cal ex­pla­na­tion for what he re­gards as in­creas­ing racism in Western so­ci­eties.

He de­clared that a “xeno­pho­bia and in­tol­er­ance are on the rise, fu­elled by far-right po­lit­i­cal move­ments”.

Now the Race Dis­crim­i­na­tion Com­mis­sioner is a man of the left and it’s con­ve­nient for him to blame in­tol­er­ance on the far right.

This over­looks the fact, in Aus­tralia and else­where, sec­tions of the far left want to close down de­bate. And then there is the fact some Is­lamists in our midst are in­tent on de­stroy­ing Western democ­racy and es­tab­lish­ing a caliphate in its place.

Nei­ther stance is com­pat­i­ble with tol­er­ance. Cer­tainly there is xeno­pho­bia and in­tol­er­ance within sec­tions of all so­ci­eties. But this has lit­tle ef­fect on Aus­tralia.

A na­tion is best judged by em­pir­i­cal ob­ser­va­tion, not by data col­lected by re­searchers and pro­mul­gated by bu­reau­crats and aca­demics. This is the re­al­ity. Aus­tralia has a rel­a­tively low level of eth­ni­cally mo­ti­vated crime and a rel­a­tively high level of in­ter­mar­riage (or in­ter-part­ner­ship) between var­i­ous eth­nic groups.

Thirty years ago there was a de­bate about how “Asian” Aus­tralia would be by 2000. The topic was dropped since the off­spring of so many Aus­tralian ci­ti­zens had some Asian blood that they could be de­scribed only as “Aus­tralian”, not “Asian”.

The AHRC has pro­duced ev­i­dence about racism ex­pe­ri­enced by Aus­tralians of in­dige­nous and African back­ground. There is no rea­son to doubt this.

How­ever, as for­mer AHRC pres­i­dent Gil­lian Triggs told me some years ago, many of the ver­bal and phys­i­cal racial at­tacks that take place in Aus­tralia are com- mit­ted by in­di­vid­u­als with men­tal health problems.

Ob­vi­ously, such at­tacks are un­pleas­ant for the re­cip­i­ent. But they are not ev­i­dence of en­demic ca­sual racism. And they will not be elim­i­nated by TV ad­ver­tise­ments. Par­tic­u­larly ones that fo­cus on a life that few Aus­tralians ex­pe­ri­ence — such as be­ing em­ployed in CBD of­fice tow­ers.

Right now the de­bate on race and re­lated top­ics is be­com­ing quite un­hinged in Aus­tralia. Take, for ex­am­ple, the per­for­mance by Erik Jensen, edi­tor of The Satur­day Pa­per, on ABC TV’s The Drum on Oc­to­ber 6. Re­spond­ing to a point by News Corp Aus­tralia jour­nal­ist James Morrow that, on the AHRC’s own fig­ures, com­plaints of racial dis­crim­i­na­tion are de­clin- ing in Aus­tralia, Jensen ver­i­ta­bly ex­ploded. He de­clared that the fact The Drum’s panel was white pro­vided an ex­am­ple of ca­sual racism. By the way, Jensen’s fel­low panellists were Ju­lia Baird (pre­sen­ter), Alan Kirk­land, Morrow and Alice Work­man.

Jensen went on to make the ex­tra­or­di­nary claim that “ev­ery­one on this panel has a job be­cause they ben­e­fit from some kind of racism”. He even said that he was edi­tor of The Satur­day Pa­per on ac­count of racism. In any event, he is not re­sign­ing any­time soon.

A sim­i­lar con­tri­bu­tion to the de­bate was made re­cently by Monash Univer­sity aca­demic and ABC and Ten Net­work pre­sen­ter Waleed Aly.

Writ­ing in The New York Times on July 27, Aly took ex­cep­tion to Malcolm Turn­bull’s de­ci­sion to cre­ate a min­istry of home af­fairs that would sub­sume the Depart­ment of Im­mi­gra­tion and Border Pro­tec­tion.

Aly told an in­ter­na­tional read­er­ship that the Prime Min­is­ter’s de­ci­sion was “shock­ing” since he had (al­legedly) fol­lowed Tony Ab­bott’s (al­leged) “ten­dency to over­hype the threat of ter­ror­ism” by cre­at­ing an over­ar­ch­ing na­tional se­cu­rity depart­ment.

Note that, fol­low­ing the Bos­ton Marathon at­tack in April 2013, Aly de­scribed ter­ror­ism as a “per­pet­ual ir­ri­tant”.

There was more. Aly ac­cused Turn­bull of hav­ing “de­based im­mi­gra­tion in the Aus­tralian po­lit­i­cal imag­i­na­tion”. This was be­cause we now “can chart Aus­tralia’s pub­lic con­cep­tion of mi­gra­tion from be­ing a cel­e­brated as­pect of its mul­ti­cul­tural char­ac­ter … to a threat to be man­aged”.

What Aly failed to tell New York Times read­ers was that net mi­gra­tion to Aus­tralia was run­ning at more than 200,000 a year — one of the high­est rates in Aus­tralian his­tory. Yet Aly reck­ons that the con­cept of im­mi­gra­tion is be­ing de­based be­cause the Turn­bull govern­ment is chang­ing the name of the en­tity in which the im­mi­gra­tion depart­ment re­sides.

Im­mi­gra­tion, like other so­cial changes, in­vari­ably causes some ten­sions. But on any rea­son­able anal­y­sis, Aus­tralia has han­dled im­mi­gra­tion as suc­cess­fully as any sim­i­lar coun­try un­der both Coali­tion and La­bor gov­ern­ments.

In a sense, Sout­phom­masane and his col­leagues at the AHRC have a vested in­ter­est in ex­ag­ger­at­ing the ex­tent of racism. How­ever, if the prob­lem were as se­ri­ous as the ad­ver­tise­ments make out, then the Race Dis­crim­i­na­tion Com­mis­sioner should be able to run a more com­pelling case than one that rails against (al­leged) racial prej­u­dice at the en­try to the CBD of­fice lift.

Is it racist for a Chi­nese-Aus­tralian taxi driver to refuse to pick up a Su­danese-Aus­tralian pas­sen­ger? Or just un­pro­fes­sional and rude?

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