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Election 2001: race and xenophobia.

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Wednesday 31 October 2001

Mick Dodson, former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner


Good evening 


There is a not so silent aspect to this Federal election campaign that causes me deep concern. Both major political parties led by Mr Howard’s Coalition are exploiting fear and ignorance. There seems to be a deliberate appeal to the worst of the prejudices, bigotry and ignorance of some. This is the politics of difference and intolerance. The contest of ideas is nowhere to be seen. 


It is a campaign that is elusive, almost sneaky on the question of race. Xenophobic fear of the other is being invoked in the most despicable way as a rallying call to security of national borders and nationalism itself. 


Asylum seekers in boats have replaced indigenous Australians as the scapegoats for this fear and hate. Prejudice takes over from reason; humanity gives way to hysteria.  


Our poorest Pacific neighbours are called upon to return or accept favours in a makeshift solution to the desperation of the desperate. Compassion and humanity take a back seat, for we are told we have already been far too generous and enough is enough. Small Pacific nations now need that money and more to act as surrogates for our humanity - our compassion - our concern. 


We pass laws that alter our borders. We send in the navy and the SAS, we spend more money, we talk tough, we lambast the people smugglers, we heighten the fears, but still the boats with their desperate human cargo come and Megawati refuses to answer John’s calls.  


One Nation must scarcely believe their luck. 


It is not just the call to xen-o-phobic and racist sentiment that deeply concerns me about John Howard’s campaign (particularly) and the deep inhumanity it represents, but it is no solution. It will have a cost to us as a nation. This will be a heavy cost, not only in terms of dollars but also in how people elsewhere perceive us. It has already done us damage and will continue to do so. 


What truly bewilders me is when and why did the Australian Labor Party turn. John Howard’s attitude can be explained; he has the track record. We heard his views on Asian immigration loud and clear in the 1980’s. We Indigenous Australians live with his racially discriminatory Native Title law. We are witnesses to his incapacity to say sorry to the stolen generations. We well know his wishy washy commitment to Reconciliation. But what of Kim Beazley and Labor? When it comes to race issues in this campaign forgive me if I cannot spot the difference. Also please forgive me if I think I have no choice in the major parties. It presents a difficult decision for me when it comes to marking my ballot paper. It is not only GST being rolled back here, its solid national leadership and vision, multiculturalism and reconciliation as well. 


Perhaps I should have cause for relief because the campaign is not attacking indigenous Australians for a change - but attacking those scary 'others'. So, where I ask, does my vote seek asylum? 


And what of after the election? Can the damage be undone? Will the winner account to us the electors?  


Regardless of whoever wins the election there are many things that will stay the same. We will still have the GST. The education and health problems will not have magically vanished. Indigenous Australians will still be massively over-represented in our prisons and our kids will still be dying at 3 to 6 times the national rate. The bombs will still be raining down on Afghanistan and terrified people on leaky boats will still be arriving. 


Thank you 


I hope your vote is a happy one!