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Is bipartisan bigotry the new normal?

  • 16 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.

During 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.