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Published: Online Opinion

Recent attacks on Indian students have thrust the issue of racism in Australia into the mainstream news bulletins. The Indian Government has protested, the Indian media has expressed concern and Kevin Rudd has made one of his grave and concerned statements.

The Australian media toyed with the notion that perhaps there are elements of racism in this country.

Of course Australia is racist. It is still viewed by mainstream Australia as wrong, so it is practised with some guilt and in polite company circumspection. Quiet soundings at social gatherings of what appear to be like- minded people, eventually leading to, once credentials seem to have been established, “I have nothing against them but …”

Polite and sometimes not-so-polite racism is the underbelly of conservative politics and conservative attitudes. Racism weaves its way through Australian sport with varying degrees of official tolerance, but in some codes it has equal billing with misogyny. It was there for all to see with the crude sledging engaged in during the last Australian cricket tour of India.

In not-so-polite society racism is blatant. Have you seen the ugly text messages relating to Aboriginals, Muslims, Jews, Indians and refugees?

Australians from the dominant Anglo-Celtic culture expect new Australians from other cultural backgrounds to show some respect, perhaps even a small cringe and obsequiousness, forelock tugging, until such time as they know the ropes, cut their cultural ties and enter the main stream.

Temporary settlers and long term visitors are expected to absorb main stream culture more quickly and to show a suitable degree of deference. Some individuals and national groups are better at this than others. Maybe Indians have a problem with deference.

Of course racism is a fact of life in Australia. The treatment of Aborigines is the most glaring example and is there for the world to see. Aborigines are not equal before the law in Australia; they die in the back of prison vans. White fellahs speak, plan and make decisions on their behalf. Rehabilitation programs in prison are minimal and many prison guards display racial prejudice including toward visiting relatives. White decision makers are currently in the process of denying outstations to aboriginals.

Since the time of white settlement racism has been part of the weft and weave of this country.
The first identified threat by white settlers was from thieving, dispossessed, Aborigines, who were placed in the same category as Australian fauna, and then Asians, who apparently constituted a threat to the wage structure and racial purity. The Union Movement and The Bulletin magazine urged maintenance of a White Australia policy and it was not difficult to bring the squatters and members of the professional middle class along with them. Keeping Australia free for the white man was one of the catch cries for recruitment to the First AIF (Australian Imperial Force).

The White Australia policy “officially” died with the election of the Labor Whitlam government in 1972; but in reality it didn’t. Attitudes in the white macho middle class didn’t change. It was a badge of honour among the emotionally and intellectually beleaguered (and challenged) conservatives in the middle class to oppose anything the Whitlam government instituted.

Expecting big things from Malcolm Fraser when he was elected Prime Minister in 1976, they were disappointed, if not shocked with his attitude and policies toward Aborigines, refugees arriving by boat and by his opposition to apartheid. He was a class and party traitor.

Hawke and Keating maintained, and in some areas increased, policies of public decency toward Aborigines, minority groups and refugees. Under them both there was even a week-long celebration of the worth and value of refugees known as Refugee Week. It died under Howard.

John Howard brought his class and race warfare to government. He was a champion of the marginalised white middle class. His anger at the direction of policy over the preceding 24 years seethed and festered. WorkChoices and the detention and vilification of refugees were the resulting policies.

Howard’s treatment of refugees arriving by boat was state sponsored and sanctioned racism. It sent a powerful message, not to desperate refugees but to other Australians, some of whom saw it as encouragement to develop and express their own racism. Haneef was a victim. The unwillingness of the Australian Federal Police to admit mistakes or apologise also sent a powerful message both overseas and to those within this country who put the AFP on a higher pedestal than they do tolerance and human rights.

The Rudd Government has kept in place the fundamentals of the Howard government’s intolerant policies toward Aborigines and refugees. As an example to others it leaves much to be desired, as does Rudd’s recent intemperate attack on people smugglers. Does Rudd believe that government policies reinforcing and backing racist actions and attitudes would not have a negative impact at street level?

The Rudd Government has been gutless in reversing and attempting to heal the damage done by Howard. His government needs to implement a schools and university program promoting human rights and combating racism.