Howard On the Beach


It is absurd that, despite the overwhelming evidence, Prime Minister John Howard can still deny that these riots were motivated by racial prejudice. Howard’s belated comments that ‘I do not accept there is underlying racism in this country,’ are out of place and out of step. He further muddied the waters by stating, ‘I don’t think we should over-complicate this.’

These comments are not only irresponsible, but also deeply offensive to the Australian Arab and Muslim communities. Our experience over the last decade has shown us that there certainly is a fringe element, perhaps a large minority, of Australians who are extremely prejudiced against us.

Arab Australians have had to cope with vilification, racism, abuse and fear of a racial backlash for a number of years. This fear has stemmed from real experiences graffiti, attacks on public transport, abusive phone calls and radio talkback comments, to name a few.

The NSW Premier, Morris Iemma, named the riots at Cronulla for what they were: ‘ugly racism.’ But our Federal leaders, both Howard and Beazley, have been more coy in tackling the issue.

Thanks to Paul Batey

The Federal leadership’s silence on the issue is comparable to Howard’s refusal to either condemn or call Pauline Hanson what she was: a racist and xenophobe. Unfortunately, as with the rise of Hansonism, many will see this silence as an endorsement of the rioters’ actions.

With the threat of this violence spreading nationally as text messages calling for attacks on wogs and Arabs move interstate the lack of leadership shown at the Commonwealth level must be challenged.

How far are they willing to let the growth in Anti-Arab sentiment go? At some point, one does have to wonder if populist scapegoating is really going to assist the political agendas of the power elites.

There is certainly a real sense that Howard has dropped the ball by not recognising the racist nature of the riots last Sunday. A recent AC Nielsen poll shows that 75 per cent of people disagree with his claim that there is no underlying racism in Australia. But will this mean anything in reality? The Prime Minister will likely be able to ride this storm out, just as he has so many in the past.

What is more significant than the lack of acknowledgement of racism on the Prime Minister’s part, is his choice of words before travelling to Malaysia for the East Asia Summit last week. In response to questioning on our international reputation as a result of the riots, he replied

You have outbreaks of domestic discord that happens to every country and when it occurs there’s publicity, but people make a judgment about this country over a longer term. They don’t make judgments about Australia on incidents that occur over a period of a few days.

His comments are spot on! But, atypically for Howard, he misjudged his audience and message. He sentiment is right, but the logic is flawed.

The White Australia policy, One Nation and the rise of Pauline Hanson, Australian refugee policies and the Tampa crisis, comments about being the ‘deputy sheriff’ to Washington in Asia and racist attacks after 9/11 and the Bali bombings, have all tainted our image overseas.

The international media are already making these connections, as they wonder about the future of Australian multiculturalism, and what it has to teach the rest of the world.

The real question that everybody will be asking is ‘which came first, the chicken or the egg?’ Is the Prime Minister responsible for building a culture of suspicion and prejudice, or is he merely tapping into underlying sentiments?

Both locally and internationally, there is quite a sophisticated understanding of John Howard and his ability to manipulate domestic politics. Nobody underestimates the Prime Minister’s political adeptness or tenacity.

However, perhaps like other leaders in the past, we are now seeing a sign of over-confidence in his efforts to manipulate public opinion.

Time will tell!

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.