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How racist were Australians when Hanson was flying high and what has changed?

By Andrew Jakubowicz - posted Friday, 16 December 2011

As the first national consultation on the Anti-Racism strategy, announced by Immigration Minister Chris Bowen and Multicultural Affairs Secretary Kate Lundy in February, got underway last week, a long-suppressed report of a study on Australian racism during the Hanson heyday has come to light.

The research, by Eureka (Ipsos), was carried out in 1998, under instructions from Prime Minister John Howard's Immigration Minister Phillip Ruddock. The Report was deemed too hot to release, and was kept suppressed through the whole Howard period, through Kevin Rudd's Prime Ministerial period (under Secretary Laurie Ferguson), and under the first year of Secretary Lundy. However with changes to Government policy on freedom of information, I was able to secure a copy of the report under Freedom of Information legislation, in October.

It is apposite to consider these words by Andrew Bolt, from just after the 2001 Federal poll, one that is widely recognised as the Tampa election, and one in which the "dog whistling" on racism allegedly played a key role in securing Howard's victory, and decimating the ALP under Kim Beasley.


He wrote of Australia that it was, "a land of heartless racists … we need a Republic because we're ashamed of our racist past … Howard won the election because he's a racist who got millions of racists to vote for him. Nasty country. Nasty voters."

Bolt, of course, didn't mean what he wrote in these selectively extracted comments. In fact, he was warning the Labor Party not to succumb to a self-serving and misguided view of the electorate. Even so he may have said what he secretly, unwillingly, realised. Or he may have recognized, (or been told by Howard's office), what the results of the 1998 survey showed, that in fact this was an accurate description of Australia's angry hard-line racists - about 25 per cent - and when driven or led there, the position of at least another 33 per cent of the voters.

This is not to suggest that only racists supported the Coalition or that all the racists went to the Coalition, but rather that opposition towards immigrants, and even more heavily towards Indigenous Australians, were deeply felt. And when rendered salient by events such as 9/11 and Tampa, became a determining factor in political behaviour. We can conclude that the majority of Australians see the world through racially framed glasses, and some can be very nasty about it. If that's the reality, do we succumb or resist?

The Government used 1998 research - in which Asians and especially Vietnamese were the target for hatred - to establish the "Living in Harmony" program, and to create "Harmony Day" to replace the UN Day for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

Accepting the Ipsos advice that most racists don't respond well to being identified as racists, and discovering that harmonious assimilation of immigrants was the desire of the majority of Australians, the Government removed the concept of racism from its vocabulary. It stressed once more the importance of core Australian values and the wider expectation that immigrants would sign on to them if they wished to stay.

The focus of Living in Harmony funding after 2005 and the Cronulla riots of that year, turned to the "counter-radicalisation" of young Muslim men. The October 2011 Attorney General Department's Resilient Communities program appears almost fully focused on the re-integration of young Muslims, including youth leadership training.

Meanwhile DIAC's Diversity and Social Cohesion offers these two aims in a program that opened in August and closed to applications in September 2011.


Aim 1: To promote respect, fairness and a sense of belonging for Australians of every race, culture and religion. The aim primarily focuses on promoting inter-community harmony and understanding.

Aim 2: Develop the community capacity building skills of specific community groups under significant pressure due to their cultural, religious or racial diversity. This aim primarily focuses on supporting specific communities with the purpose of building their social cohesion capacity and/or to promote their positive contribution to Australia.

The long-term influence of the Eureka research on the aims, reflect each of the elements that Eureka had identified as the critical projected components of successful attitude change and social integration. Whether together they will actually achieve those goals remains to be seen. As without an evidence base to do other than document activities, rather than track social change, the outcomes of Diversity and Social Cohesion may not be any more attributable to the program interventions than the last decade proved with previous attempts.

The Eureka research does raise some valuable questions about the characteristics of an anti-racism campaign and the multiple faces it will need to present to the many constituencies it will need to win over. The hard kernel of emotion about race relations remains locked into a "desire for harmony," complemented by a denial of personal responsibility for racism, and an edge of inter-communal intolerance and distrust.

Over a decade later the issues are far from resolved. The new SBS2/Web Forum CQ(Cultural Intelligence) launching on December 22, 2011 brings together media, academic, political, activist, and community representatives to explore the role of the media in the debates on asylum seekers, immigration and multiculturalism. While the group was vehemently divided over whether the media advanced a racist agenda or merely reported the reality of society, one thing was unanimous: The media as contributors to cultural intelligence do play critical roles in communicating facts and opinions, interpretations and information to the Australian people in all their diversity.

The central challenge for the new round of anti-racism rhetoric will be how it engages with the culture that gave us Tampa and still produces rather too much inter-group hostility, and has yet to deliver "equitable social justice" for all - a goal of another former multicultural policy long lost to the ravages of time and harmony.

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About the Author

Andrew Jakubowicz is a professor of sociology at the University of Technology Sydney. He blogs for the SBS program CQ:

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