Yesterday, a female friend of Indian background had the lift door held open for her by a handsome Anglo-Celtic male in a Sydney CBD office tower. She tells me that this is not an unusual event.
However, you would not get this impression if you learned about contemporary Australia by viewing the Australian Human Rights Commission’s “Racism: It Stops With Me” campaign showing on free-to-air television.
There are two taxpayer-funded AHRC advertisements. One features a handsome Anglo-Celtic male who is happy to share a lift with an attractive woman of similar ethnicity, but not with an attractive female of colour. The second depicts a taxi driver refusing to pick up a coloured man who is first in the queue in preference to a white passenger. The ethnicity of the driver is unclear.
This is ponytailed, ad-land talking. The AHRC campaign was launched by Tim Soutphommasane, Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner.
He maintains “racism frequently occurs at work and while people are doing everyday things such as catching a bus, riding a train or flagging a taxi”.
But Soutphommasane provides no evidence that the racism-in-the-lift scenario ever occurred. Moreover, it is my experience from catching cabs in Sydney and Melbourne that many drivers are from Asian, African or Middle Eastern backgrounds. Which raises the question: is it racist for a Chinese-Australian taxi driver to refuse to pick up a Sudanese-Australian passenger? Or just unprofessional and rude?
Writing in Fairfax Media newspapers on October 5, Soutphommasane saw a political explanation for what he regards as increasing racism in Western societies.
He declared that a “xenophobia and intolerance are on the rise, fuelled by far-right political movements”.
Now the Race Discrimination Commissioner is a man of the left and it’s convenient for him to blame intolerance on the far right.
This overlooks the fact, in Australia and elsewhere, sections of the far left want to close down debate. And then there is the fact some Islamists in our midst are intent on destroying Western democracy and establishing a caliphate in its place.
Neither stance is compatible with tolerance. Certainly there is xenophobia and intolerance within sections of all societies. But this has little effect on Australia.
A nation is best judged by empirical observation, not by data collected by researchers and promulgated by bureaucrats and academics. This is the reality. Australia has a relatively low level of ethnically motivated crime and a relatively high level of intermarriage (or inter-partnership) between various ethnic groups.
Thirty years ago there was a debate about how “Asian” Australia would be by 2000. The topic was dropped since the offspring of so many Australian citizens had some Asian blood that they could be described only as “Australian”, not “Asian”.
The AHRC has produced evidence about racism experienced by Australians of indigenous and African background. There is no reason to doubt this.
However, as former AHRC president Gillian Triggs told me some years ago, many of the verbal and physical racial attacks that take place in Australia are committed by individuals with mental health problems.
Obviously, such attacks are unpleasant for the recipient. But they are not evidence of endemic casual racism. And they will not be eliminated by TV advertisements. Particularly ones that focus on a life that few Australians experience — such as being employed in CBD office towers.
Right now the debate on race and related topics is becoming quite unhinged in Australia. Take, for example, the performance by Erik Jensen, editor of The Saturday Paper, on ABC TV’s The Drum on October 6. Responding to a point by News Corp Australia journalist James Morrow that, on the AHRC’s own figures, complaints of racial discrimination are declining in Australia, Jensen veritably exploded. He declared that the fact The Drum’s panel was white provided an example of casual racism. By the way, Jensen’s fellow panellists were Julia Baird (presenter), Alan Kirkland, Morrow and Alice Workman.
Jensen went on to make the extraordinary claim that “everyone on this panel has a job because they benefit from some kind of racism”. He even said that he was editor of The Saturday Paper on account of racism. In any event, he is not resigning anytime soon.
A similar contribution to the debate was made recently by Monash University academic and ABC and Ten Network presenter Waleed Aly.
Writing in The New York Times on July 27, Aly took exception to Malcolm Turnbull’s decision to create a ministry of home affairs that would subsume the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.
Aly told an international readership that the Prime Minister’s decision was “shocking” since he had (allegedly) followed Tony Abbott’s (alleged) “tendency to overhype the threat of terrorism” by creating an overarching national security department.
Note that, following the Boston Marathon attack in April 2013, Aly described terrorism as a “perpetual irritant”.
There was more. Aly accused Turnbull of having “debased immigration in the Australian political imagination”. This was because we now “can chart Australia’s public conception of migration from being a celebrated aspect of its multicultural character … to a threat to be managed”.
What Aly failed to tell New York Times readers was that net migration to Australia was running at more than 200,000 a year — one of the highest rates in Australian history. Yet Aly reckons that the concept of immigration is being debased because the Turnbull government is changing the name of the entity in which the immigration department resides.
Immigration, like other social changes, invariably causes some tensions. But on any reasonable analysis, Australia has handled immigration as successfully as any similar country under both Coalition and Labor governments.
In a sense, Soutphommasane and his colleagues at the AHRC have a vested interest in exaggerating the extent of racism. However, if the problem were as serious as the advertisements make out, then the Race Discrimination Commissioner should be able to run a more compelling case than one that rails against (alleged) racial prejudice at the entry to the CBD office lift.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute. His Media Watch Dog blog can be found at theaustralian.com.au.