The 60s and 70s were times of great change in Australia. Women were throwing off the shackles of domestic servitude, Aborigines were demanding civil rights, and the end of the White Australia policy saw us embracing a new era of multiculturalism where discrimination on the basis of race or gender was no longer acceptable.
But not all were happy and opposition leader John Howard saw a formula for political success in racist rhetoric and policies which could draw on and reinforce long and deeply entrenched feelings of racial superiority and traditions of attributing people’s problems to racial scapegoats.
In his paper ‘Xenophobic racism and class during the Howard years’ Rick Kuhn noted that “Howard understood that economic liberalism on its own would not win elections’ and complemented the politics of privatisations, cutting the welfare state and deregulating markets, especially the labour market, with ‘a conservative social politics focused on the traditional nuclear family, individual responsibility and chauvinistic nationalism.”
“The intensification of racism in Australia that Howard promoted became an aspect of a ruling class agenda, the core of which remained neo-liberal economic policies designed to restore profit rates. In this way, he provided a distinctive answer to an important question: how do politicians and parties attract or maintain mass support, even though their policies do not serve the interests of most of the middle class, let alone the working class people (a large majority of the population) who vote for them?”
“During the 1996 election campaign, immigration was not an issue, but the conservatives claimed that there was an ‘Aboriginal industry’, that Aboriginal land rights were a threat to ordinary Australians and that the Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Commission (ATSIC), a government agency providing policy advice on and services for Indigenous people, was corrupt.”
“The new conservative administration curtailed ATSIC’s activities and, in 2004, finally abolished the Commission. Separate programs for Aboriginal health, education and welfare were ‘mainstreamed’ away from organisations controlled by Aborigines into government departments. In the area of education, a consequence of this transition was that $181 million allocated to Aboriginal education in 2004-2005 was not spent.”
“On coming to office, Howard expressed ‘understanding’ for the right-wing populist Pauline Hanson and her supporters, as her following grew between 1996 and 1998. Her popularity demonstrated that there was a substantial constituency that could be tapped by the kind of racist messages that the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s had, for a period, pushed to the edges of political common sense.”
“Hanson’s racism appealed to and reinforced prejudices and diverted attention away from the fundamental processes that had given rise to neo-liberalism and stressed many small businesses and workers.”
“When Pauline Hanson vilified Aborigines and Asian immigrants John Howard let her rip, defending her right to attack them. Whilst leaving the more outrageous statements to Pauline, Howard legitimised her views and his Government began a campaign against ‘political correctness’, a concerted effort to make racism and sexism respectable again by trivialising and demonising anti-racist arguments, verbal conventions and behaviour.”
“In Australia, racism has served capitalist class interests in several ways. From the very start of the colonial period, racism justified the appropriation of Indigenous land and the super-exploitation of Indigenous labour, which remained crucial for the profitability of the pastoral industry well after World War II.”
“The wider capitalist class did not initiate the shift toward anti-Muslim racism but it was a major beneficiary. This racist campaign and its predecessors helped maintain the popularity and electoral viability of a government that acted in capitalist interests by privatising, restricting Aboriginal land rights, narrowing welfare eligibility, introducing the regressive Goods and Services Tax, restricting environmental action and attacking trade unionism.”
“Private media proprietors gained audiences through sensationalist racist headlines and through enthusiastic reporting of government policy. The campaign against Muslims was reinforced by and added to the legitimacy of Australian participation in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, which in turn consolidated the alliance with the United States that served the interests of Australian capital.”
“Politicians use racism to mobilise support around issues that advantage their own parties or capitulate to it in order to neutralise issues which they think will damage them. Those at the top of the police, armed forces and judiciary who are sensitive to politicians and the media use similar language and take complementary actions. By playing up racist threats, the senior officers of various police forces and military units justify their existence, the expansion of their organisations and the extension of their own power.”
“Racism can also fulfil a red herring function not only for particular politicians and parties, but also for the capitalist class as a whole. If terrorism and racial issues are occupying headlines then there is less space for articles that have greater potential to raise doubts about the wonders of capitalism, like unemployment, wages and conditions, profit rates, executive salaries, tax avoidance or the profits versus the wages share of national income.”
“A decline in the appeal of xenophobic racism in Australia was an important element in the outcome of the November 2007 federal election, but a spike in the numbers of asylum seekers and the rise of IS set the scene for a belligerent, ambitious Tony Abbott to revive the ugly underbelly that had served his party’s interests so well in the past.”
So here we go again. Round two with Hanson and her ratpack, quietly encouraged by the capitalists, fighting the same battles we thought we had won 50 years ago.