Monday, October 08, 2007

Mr Andrews, Racism and our Sudanese Refugees - put the man out of his misery

I was not going to comment further on this issue, I suppose because I felt that nothing that I could say would make any difference to what I saw as a twisted discussion. Then I got a comment from Dylan Nicholson.

Now the thing that I liked about Dylan's comment is that while he had strong views, he expressed them in a courteous fashion and did mount a case to support them. So I thought that I would pay Dylan the compliment of treating his comments very seriously as the entry point for a new post. In doing so, I was not going to attack his views. Rather, I wanted to use them to continue the process of disentangling issues.

I always try to check my facts. This time I looked at the later interview transcripts. I have now put a line through the entire post plus four hours careful work.

Both Mr Andrews and the media who started all this need to be taken up the back paddock and shot. The media for starting the trouble, Mr Andrews for mishandling it. I do not resile from my conclusions and will repeat them in a moment. But I have lost patience with Mr Andrews.

Again so that you can make your own judgements, you will find the various transcripts here. Look especially at the John Laws interview, by far the toughest of them all.

Looking at the material, I have no doubt that the original decision to alter the refugee mix, a decision taken some time ago, was based on sound or at least defensible public policy reasons. But the way Mr Andrews has handled this matter has given us all a huge black-eye.

Look, first, at the fact that the decision was taken some time ago. I wonder how many overseas people, or for that matter Australians, think that this was a decision (a racist decision) just taken in the context of the current controversy?

Now look at Mr Andrew's later words. He simply did not need to bring in some of the factors he did. When Mr Laws queried him on crime issues, he was forced back to reliance on unspecified reports. And this does not wash after the Haneef matter, if indeed it ever did.

So why did he mishandle it all so badly? I do not think that it had anything to do with the race card.

One of the things that has always puzzled me with some of the discussion on "the race card" is that I know of no evidence that racist views as such attract votes. With the exception of One Nation which tapped a deeper sense of alienation within certain groups in Australia, those groups with explicitly racist over-lays do not attract votes. Even Pauline Hanson and One Nation itself felt the need to back off the more explicitly racist comments of some of its supporters, to deny that it was a racist party, in its efforts to attract a broader vote.

Things become a little easier to understand if we put aside the racist tag for the moment and look instead at other threads in Australian political life that reflect the bundle of views held by many Australia voters.

I have long complained about the political obsession with "law and order". This is not new, it existed and made me very uncomfortable when I ran for preselection all those years ago. But it, has I think, got far worse in recent years.

This links to a second strong trend, aversion to risk, a desire for security, a belief that life can and should be controlled. We can see this way that Governments respond on issues, in the ever growing web of regulations and controls.

Then there is a third thread, xenophobia. Xenophobia is not racism, although it may manifest itself in this way. In simplest terms, it is fear of outsiders. In my view, and it is only an opinion that is subject to test, Australians do appear to have become more xenophobic, more inward looking, over the last thirty years.

The media plays to these concerns.

If we look at some of the reporting on the Sudanese issue we can see all these threads, the law and order focus, the emphasis on threats to personal security, the attribution of behaviour patterns to particular groups. Fear sells papers, increases ratings. In doing so, it plays to and reinforces, even creates, prejudices within the Australian community. Because in this case the target is an unidentifiable racial group, the reporting itself in my view becomes racist.

Mr Andrews was caught in all this and handled it very badly, getting defensive when he should have been in control. I also cannot rid myself of the feeling that Mr Andrew's response linked to the need to play to the law and order and security issues.

Now in all this I said that I had not altered my conclusions. Just to restate them.

First, the way we have to come to use the racist and racism epithets is not only outside the original definitions of the words, but is also twisting discussion because of the emotional content attached to the words themselves.

Secondly, we need to be far more sensitive about the way the rest of the world interprets domestic discussions on things such as racist and racism. They interpret it as confirming that all Australians are racist, when the opposite is closer to the reality.

Finally, the big losers out of this are the Sudanese along with the broader Australian community, both of whom have been vilified.

The winner? Our media who have gained circulation (viewers).

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