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Corby highlights our lingering 'White Australia' sentiment

By Chek Ling - posted Tuesday, 5 July 2005

“How dare they …!” Schapelle Corby’s sister reacted truculently when the judge handed down the 20-year sentence in a Bali Court. Her eyes were fixed on the bench, her mouth stretched sideways, as she punched out her words.

That says it all for me: How dare these Indonesians do this to us, Australians? These unrefined, uncivilised, and unreasonable Asiatics! Did they take no notice of the strong feelings we had about them in the weeks leading up to the sentencing? Didn’t they know that we expected them to do the right thing by us, on our terms?

The irony is the Indonesian judges might even have done just that. Twenty years was probably the shortest sentence they could have imposed, without compromising their recently acquired judicial independence. I just hope that the appeal will not turn out to be a folly, resulting in a life sentence for Corby.


For weeks before the sentencing, we mobilised a “hate-the-Indonesians” crusade - led by some scurrilous hosts of talkback radio, and reinforced by the editorial lapses or duplicity of our daily newspapers. Towards the end, some contrary views for a sane assessment of the situation were published. Alas, too late. The harm was done, just like the Pauline Hanson wagon half a dozen years ago.

When the white powder letter sent to the Indonesian Embassy was sensationalised in the media, our PM went on television and sanctimoniously chided the letter’s perpetrator. That did the trick. Overnight the crusade came to a standstill.

Why did John Howard not get on to the TV earlier, when the crusade was in its infancy? He is said to be one of the most astute readers of the mood of the electorate.

My guess is that he did the same as he did in 1996 when Pauline Hanson used parliament to vilify Asians and Aboriginals by turning it to his political advantage. He defended Hanson’s right to speak her mind, knowing that Hanson had accidentally commandeered the lightning rod for the growing band of the economically disenfranchised. No doubt other strategic considerations on his political agenda also counted. But the anguish Hanson caused the Aboriginals and Asians seemed incidental, and the harm done to our nation’s nobler instincts paled against the imperatives of his own destiny. He was sure to have known that Hanson had rubbed the racist scar on our national psyche.

Some three years later, in 1998, Pauline Hanson’s nascent One Nation Party attracted a million voters, largely from conservative moorings, with poor educational background and low socio-economic status. Has Howard unleashed a political tidal wave? For a while things were looking grim for him. Then the Tampa came, just before the 2001 Federal Elections, and Howard unashamedly appropriated Hanson’s mouthings on boat people and asylum seekers, and crafted the border security ruse to win back the Hanson voters for himself. In the process he vilified all asylum seekers on boats, culminating in his televised crescendo: “I don’t want that kind of people in Australia. I really don’t!” In one orchestrated performance, Howard shoved Pauline Hanson off stage, and made himself “the father” of our nation.

There is a big difference this time in the Corby case. Howard is in a very relaxed position, with an opposition utterly self-emasculated through the antics of their factional mafias, and Pauline Hanson just a memory. And I guess he might have his eye on history too - how he will be remembered.


(Think of the Lynton Crosby survey in early 2002 which featured prominently in The Australian - just after the senate inquiry exposed the lie of the children overboard affair - that Australians voted on the economic record of Howard’s Government and not on the border security issue. Why?)

So he waited for the right moment. To weigh in at the beginning would have been tantamount to provoking those on the crusade, particularly those voters won back from Hanson. As well, he would have been putting offside those opinion leaders on talkback radio whom he had cultivated for his own political ends in the past decade or so.

Howard could not have played the race card so successfully all on his own. The populace must have been ready to hear his “dog whistles”.

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About the Author

Chek Ling arrived in Melbourne in 1962 to study engineering, under the Colombo Plan, from the then British Colony of Sarawak, now part of Malaysia. Decades later, the anti-Asian episodes fomented by Blainey and later Hanson turned him into a mature age activist.

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