Playing the Race Card


I’ve always had a soft spot for Amanda Vanstone. She’s the fixer John Howard sends in when one of the boys has stuffed up. Vanstone’s performance as Immigration Minister, while still draconian, is considerably softer than that of her grey-faced, soulless predecessor, Phillip Ruddock. And, in a world of double-speak and non-core promises, Mandatory Mandy can be refreshingly candid who else was willing to state the bleeding obvious about airline security?

So, I was sympathetic when she went feral last week and attacked Kim Beazley for ‘playing the race card.’ Amanda obviously needed a cathartic release after quashing her liberal sensibilities for 10 years. When she said, ‘Beazley’s behaviour is not that of a national leader. The leader of a nation brings out the best in its people. A leader who brings out the worst in people is fit only to lead a lynch mob,’ she’d clearly been wanting to get it off her chest for a while. More fool Beazley for giving her the opportunity to do so, without attacking her own boss.



As one of the so-called ‘Howard haters’ who used last week’s 10th anniversary of Pauline Hanson’s maiden speech to point out Howard’s blatant appropriation of Hansonism in his culture wars, I was expecting a more spirited defence of Vanstone’s commander-in-chief. Instead, she never explicitly denied charges of racism, and placed Howard’s consistency and strength of resolve above his abhorrent racist views: ‘If you vote for John Howard, you know what you are getting.’

Conversely, her disappointment with Beazley was reminiscent of many of the comments from disenchanted former ALP voters in New Matilda‘s discussion forums. But her assertion that Beazley’s willingness to play the race card even though he is clearly not a racist somehow ‘makes his offence worse’ is breathtakingly hypocritical.

The fact is that the Howard Government has so lowered the tone of political debate in Australia that an intelligent, tolerant and reasonable man like Beazley has been convinced that he needs to enter this grubby, sordid territory in order to win the next election.

Once one got over the shock and read between the lines of Beazley’s comments, it was obvious he was trying to re-frame the ‘values debate,’ and return to the centre of the national conversation those Australian values such as egalitarianism, the fair go, and the rights of workers against the powerful elite that Howard has subverted and craftily suppressed. That Beazley and his advisors felt it was best to do this by trying to ‘out-Howard’ Howard was more than misguided; it was a display of the distasteful, old Labor, macho attitude that dominates the NSW Right of the ALP.

Beazley himself does not subscribe to this view, as even Vanstone acknowledges. But he’s been captive for too long to the Sydney bovver boys, who persist in thinking they have all the answers to the ALP’s future, despite 10 years in the (Federal) political wilderness and their inability to understand anything about Australia beyond the outer suburbs of Sydney. These blokes get their cues from Alan Jones’s core audience, and they’re totally out of touch with the reality and the future of Australian life.

Vanstone was spot on when she said ‘Australians are not racist.’ On the whole, we’re not. Sure, there are elements of intolerance and xenophobia, just as there are in any society. And, as in any society, those elements can be exploited for political gain, if a nation’s leader is willing to sink that low. Howard’s not only willing to play the racist; it’s his default setting. That Vanstone proclaims this as proof of his integrity shows her desperation to spin Beazley’s clumsy attempt at me-tooism into a positive for her Government as clearly as the attempt itself displays the desperation of the ALP.

And no wonder the ALP’s desperate after witnessing the success of Howard’s cynical appeals to the basest elements of human nature.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

The 1980s saw rapid and irreversible changes to the nature of work and trade, destroying forever the natural alliance between the ALP and its traditional supporter base. These changes were not unique to Australia, but the Accord between Industry and the Unions negotiated by Bob Hawke and Paul Keating certainly softened the blow for many Australian workers, compared to the fates of those living under Howard’s heroes, Thatcher and Reagan.

In 1996, Howard falsely conflated the hardships of the shift to a deregulated economy and globalised trade with the impact of immigration and multiculturalism. So, although jobs were actually being lost to the Chinese in China rather than to Chinese immigrants in Australia, Pauline Hanson accepted and promoted Howard’s version of events to the point that it’s become almost irrefutable especially by a gutless Opposition.

Since 1994, because of Keating’s bold economic reforms, Australia has been on the up and up. In times of seemingly endless economic growth and prosperity, it’s impossible to play the ‘be afraid for your future in the face of the faceless hordes’ card that Howard played in 1996. And you can’t rely on another Tampa sailing into view. Or (God forbid) another September 11. But Howard only knows how to win through fear. And so, he’s yet again busy stoking the fear of the other.

Beazley and his erstwhile measured and reasonable Immigration spokesman, Tony Burke, were nothing short of stupid for their inept attempt to fight Howard on his own dirty turf with their ‘Australian Values Visa’ idea. Howard is gearing up for his fourth election as incumbent PM with an even greater dearth of vision than ever, and is positioning the values debate as his trump card (his Tampa) for 2007. It will be about assimilation versus cultural diversity, and Beazley can’t win by trying to occupy the same ground as Howard. The racists are always going to vote for Howard, but the majority of Australians are desperately seeking an alternative.

If the suits advising Kim could get out of Sydney, and tune in to something other than Alan Jones, they might find a much more effective political position. Because, apart from a few backward-thinking souls living in Jonestown, Australians are sick of this racial and cultural division. Most of us are getting on with our lives, living in communities with Australians from many and varied backgrounds, ignoring the rants of the old blokes who never got over the end of the White Australia Policy.

Beazley’s not one of them, and he should stop accepting the advice of those who are.

You can read Andrew Robb’s Citizenship Testing Discussion Paper, and respond via a ‘Community Consultation Form.’ The consultation period closes on 17 November.

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.