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Is bipartisan bigotry the new normal?

Tseen Khoo |  15 May 2017


I grew up in Brisbane in the late 1970s and 80s. It was a very different Queensland and the suburbs of my youth were bright and very white. Asian families were relatively exotic in the western suburbs at that time, unlike now.

Labor's 'Employ Australians First' advertisementDuring the time I was in Brisbane we experienced the first emergence of One Nation and Pauline Hanson. It was confronting and, for some, that time involved being targets of racist abuse. It made many Asian Australians feel anxious about whether they belonged, or how they were seen as not-belonging.

I now live in Melbourne. It's a vastly different city to Brisbane and we're in substantially different social and political times. One Nation and Pauline Hanson are yet again in the news and actively in our government.

I have never felt as uneasy in Australia as I do now. It extends through many areas of my life, from listening to our politicians and the low level of our national debate about migration and refugees, to my long daily commute from the southeast to the northside and the many high-profile incidents of racist incidents on public transport.

The cyclic and enduring rhetoric in our nation about whether some groups are 'better' to have in our society than others is so often a cloak for sentiments that are more exclusionist — or out-and-out racist — than we'd like to admit.

This month, I was going to write about Labor's recent 'Employ Australians First' advertisement, which people outside of regional Queensland were never meant to see. The ad caused a furore. Many attacked the ad, which featured few racially diverse workers, for being unrepresentative of Australia's community. Others criticised the use of right-wing extremist language — 'Australians First' — and demanded that Labor please explain this transparent appeal to the highly xenophobic sentiments of certain groups.

The fact that 'micro parties' with overtly racist agendas are influencing major party messages is concerning because it points to these parties' success. These vocal, small political groups are not out to get elected; they're all about getting their issues and perspectives circulated more broadly (e.g. anti-Halal, anti-immigration, anti-multiculturalism).

What does it mean when mainstream parties adopt the rhetoric of extremist micro parties to attract a voter base? We've visited this question before, when Hanson's policies surfaced in various forms under John Howard's government. Now, not only are these alarmist attitudes being accommodated by the governing Coalition, but also by the Opposition.


"My uneasiness is not at anything that's new on the Australian political landscape and within its society. It's at the mundane nature of what used to be considered exclusionary, racist sentiments and policies."


One result of this active, bipartisan fear-mongering is that it alienates those who look to a nation's leaders for an inclusive vision that chimes with their own existence in the community. An unfortunate effect is the need that many different cultural communities feel that they must justify their presence and worth for the nation. I say it's unfortunate because being a part of the nation should not be dependent on your stated contribution. If it's contingent only for some, then it's unfair, not to mention hypocritical.

So, my uneasiness is not at anything that's new on the Australian political landscape and within its society. It's at the mundane nature of what used to be considered exclusionary, racist sentiments and policies.

For someone who is privileged enough to have felt at home in Australia, I am extremely uneasy about the pervasive political climate of pandering to those — such as One Nation — who have constantly demonised and scapegoated migrants and refugees. Is this level of bigotry and transparent anti-immigration and Islamaphobia our new national normal?


Tseen KhooTseen Khoo is a lecturer at La Trobe University and founder/convenor of the Asian Australian Studies Research Network (AASRN), a network for academics, community researchers, and cultural workers who are interested in the area of Asian Australian Studies. She tweets as @tseenster.



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Submitted comments

Racism is a very funny thing with many faces. What appears to be racist may be simply defence of the cultural identity of a people. Such drives the extremists like Hanson and her ilk who don't posses the maturity or understanding to express their concerns in any way other than by attacking a racial group different from their own as some sort of dangerous evil. During my working life I trained many surgeons from Asia in the new surgery of organ transplantation. A very good surgeon from China said to me one day, "If you came to work in China you would be no good and if I stayed here in Australia I would be no good". The reason, "Because we would not understand the language and the soul of the people. I couldn't talk to the patients in Australia like you do. And you couldn't talk to the patients in China as I do". I suspect the local reaction in both countries to the respective surgeons would be "racist".

john frawley 17 May 2017

I am a 64 year old white woman and I can assure you it's always been this racist, it's now just a whole lot more overt and acceptable. Both parties and most of the MSM advocate for it.

Marilyn 17 May 2017

Thankyou for raising this serious matter. I am an old white 6th Gen Australian and I too fear the poisonous racism gaining "respectability" in Australia. We cannot deny that racism has been part of the fabric of this country since white invasion but in the past there was a determined movement supported at a political level away from it - multiculturalism etc. But now this has stopped well before we reached the destination we so dreamed of and too many have turned back gathering the racist attitudes of the past and entrenching these as the "real Australia". Racism is becoming an acceptable norm In groups not hitherto afflicted. It is dangerous and sickening. Our political leadership from both major parties stand condemned for their role in this. We have to resist the dark force- our children's future depends on it. No one benefits when hate can be so easily racialised.

Pamela 18 May 2017

What you are talking about is: a) real b) opposed by many older and rural Australians. We are pandering to a fringe. Thanks for the post and the call to meet the challenge.

Robert Smith 18 May 2017

Thank you for a very thought-provoking, but concerning article, Tseen Khoo. I am a 74 year-old bloke who has witnessed many waves of new-comers and refugees to Australia during his life. I think that the multicultural society we have is an inspiration and everyday we can learn something new from those who come from other places. Sadly, the racism, hatred and bigotry of a minority is challenging what we have achieved. Australians of compassion and goodwill have an obligation to work harder to make our nation a friendlier and more accepting place. The treatment of asylum seekers by our two major political parties has been very unhelpful and needs to be strongly challenged. We must remember that we live in a multicultural world and many of the people who arrive on our shores do so because of the intervention of our ally, the US, in their lives. Many fail to see this connection.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock 18 May 2017

Thank you for your article Tseen. I am aware of a feeling of deep uneasiness about the cruelty of some of our government policies which pander to and foster the fears in our society.

Kerry Holland 18 May 2017

It is even more tragic if the rise of racist populism in Australia and elsewhere shows that resurgent racism is indeed the spirit of our times.

Ian Fraser 18 May 2017

While people focus on racism promoted by Hanson / Trump when you analyse where they have scored votes it is those areas where jobs, security have been taken away by major parties so 25% of voters looked for other parties who were listening, Where you had a strong Xenaphon candidate or Lambie , Hanson party did not score well. Recent northern parishes expo at Montmorency demonstrated that grass roots people are welcoming those in need . It is just the lack of courage and leadership from political leaders and silence of too many civic leaders combined with a media that have forgotten their responsibility as the fourth estate in a vibrant democracy. The Cardijn Community have come across many examples of where ordinary Australians continue our heritage of welcome for the less fortunate regardless of race, creed or colour.

WAYNE McGOUGH 18 May 2017

Thank you for very honest article. I too am an immigrant and very mcc enjoy living in Melbourne with what I see as its multi-ethnic vibrancy. I also am aware of national failures and cultural limitations, among them being the shallowness of politics. But, having visited many countries and lived in several, I honestly believe that Australia is relatively one of the least racist in the world and wonderfully easy to live in. But I have to admit that I am male, heterosexual and white skinned.

Eugene 18 May 2017

St Augustine recounted seeing twin babies at their mother’s breast, each in a rage, trying to drive the other away, by whatever means was available to them. It seems to be part of an immature survival instinct to try to eliminate competition. With maturity, cooperation can prove mutually beneficial. We all need such maturity. Unfortunately not everyone achieves it; especial when faced with newly-arrived competition for what we once took for granted was our God-given right to the natural resources around us. Earth is there to share; not to grab and hoard and deny to others. ‘A Fair Go for All’ is what we should embrace. Unfortunately this does not win the votes it should.

Robert Liddy 18 May 2017

Jobs for Australians first has always been Labour policy. It's protectionist but not racist--it doesn't matter where the "Australians"came from. And I also detest the most recent outbreak of xenophobia..but it is only a minority still.

Lenore Crocker 18 May 2017

There just isn't enough opportunity for everyone today, like there was. People are struggling to get and hold jobs and pay ever increasing bills. The standard of living is rapidly declining as wages don't keep up with the cost of living. Then when there is an announcement to take thousands of refugees, many from NESB, mixed with affirmative EEO policies in the workforce, your average Australian of Anglo Saxon heritage, thinks, this sucks!. I'm being disadvantaged!. Hence the popularity of political parties taking a racist bent. We need more jobs for all sectors of the community and everything will be fine!.

Cam BEAR 18 May 2017

i also agree with your sentiments. I returned to Australia last year after 8 years away and it was striking to see media, parliament, church leadership, even the Qantas safety video, basically all white anglo-saxon. It says that this is the hegemony and we all gave to fit in with it. We miss a huge opportunity of forging a positive cultural identity and remaining in our insecurity from which we cannot hope to be hospitable to refugees &c

David Holdcroft 18 May 2017

"Rural Australians" mentioned by Robert Smith are not the ones generally affected by excessive, unsustainable levels of immigration with all the enormous problems it is producing, including the social ones discussed here. And most commentators do not live in areas that are tending to become ghettos, and where tensions exist and divisions deepen and where "old Australians" feel powerless, and under threat from alien ways (and I could give specific examples from one of near ghetto suburban areas of Sydney with which I have long been familiar). I for one support the Government's increase in the number of refugees admitted (especially Christians since they are most neglected in the Middle East) and would wish to see the closing of what tend to be concentration camps overseas. And I am dismayed at the further reduction of already far too low levels of effective overseas aid. But I am strongly opposed both to "multiculturalism" and, as I say, to those very high levels of general immigration supported by the Coalition, Labor, and the Greens. It is not surprising that some will support parties that at least raise this matter without subscribing to all of their other policies.

John Bunyan 19 May 2017

It seems many people are confusing this stupid, racist ad with the actual policy of cutting down on unnecessary 457 visas - which are issued to foreign nationals of ALL races. Surely the racism rests in the presumption that this is a race issue at all. In a previous workplace, there were several UK and European 457 visa holders whose jobs could quite easily have been filled by Australian citizens of ANY colour.

AURELIUS 19 May 2017


Kathleen V Cudmore 20 May 2017

The level of support for refugees is high. In the 10 years to December 31, 2015,139,398 refugees were recognised or resettled by Australia. 185,000 by end of this year. The majority accept this as a good thing. Most Australians have an understanding of migration in them. An experience to draw upon, like yourself. The small parties are not popular. Not popular at all. Fear of decline, loss of confidence in the economy and political leadership, is driving support for small parties. This is a constant in Australian history, and many other countries, political history. Work underpinned Australia's successful migration program. Work is declining; living standards declining. Not fear of different races; fear of loss. Melbourne, where you live, is one of the most amazing multicultural cities in the world. Nothing like it. The statistics on Asian born is amazing. Walk the streets, have a look. You cannot conflate the issues of racism and refugees. I spoke to a Vietnamese community group recently. 100% support for policy of offshore detention by government. I failed to convince them offshore detention did not fit Australian values. These were the original 1970's boat people. Its more complex than what is portrayed. The issue is more complex, I believe, than what you suggest. I visit most schools to speak on various issues. Amazing multi cultural schools where young people are thriving. A visit to any of the far eastern, western or northern Melbourne suburb high schools is truly a humbling experience. And the face of the "posh" schools have been remade. You will be amazed, if you visited.

John Kilner 20 May 2017

I appreciated this article, especially the part where you spoke about yourself, your feelings and experience. That gelled with me far more than the comments of some other social commentators, such as Yasmin Abdul Magied, who often shoots herself in the foot, as with her recent, later deleted, Twitter post on Anzac Day. I came here as a migrant of European descent from India with my parents at the age of 10. We were 'relics of the Raj'. I remember growing up in a magic Bombay which was really mainly tolerant and extremely cosmopolitan. Sadly that cosmopolitanism has been tarnished by a nativist movement amongst the indigenous Mahratta community who regard anyone from outside there as being a 'foreigner' and a threat to them, economically, politically and otherwise. I can see this sort of nativist approach in Pauline Hanson and One Nation and the National Front in France. John Howard did attempt to use part of Hanson's platform and basically lost his seat because of that. I do not think Australia is a racist country nor do I think most Australians are racist but there is a small and anti-social element who think they can vilify others in public because of race. This is simply unacceptable and should be prosecuted.

Edward Fido 22 May 2017

Australia is like America where Japanese-Americans feel they are part of the furniture and very few people wish to make them feel differently. The fear of the bogeyman is a bigger problem than the bogeyman himself.

Roy Chen Yee 22 May 2017

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