During my 10 years in the NSW Liberal Party, I found many prominent people on the conservative side had a somewhat laissez-faire attitude toward racism.
I remember attending my first conservative factional meeting outside the Young Libs. It was held in Sydney’s CBD, from memory at a Spanish restaurant named ‘Don Quixote.’ Also attending was Lyenko Urbanchich. It was the first time I met him, and he was introduced to me after the meeting as ‘one of the champions of the Right.’
Urbanchich and I had the following conversation:
LU: So where are you from?
IY: I’m from North Ryde.
LU: No, you don’t understand. I mean what is your country.
LU: No, no. Where were your parents born?
LU: So that makes you Indian.
IY: Er, no. It makes me Australian, as a matter of fact.
LU: Do you support multiculturalism?
IY: Yes, I do.
LU: No wonder you speak this cosmopolitan nonsense. I am Slovenian. I am not an Indian. You are. But if I was an Indian, I would want to be re-incarnated and returned in my next life as a White man.
I found this kind of talk grossly offensive, and reported it to ‘Clarkey’ (the nickname we gave to factional heavy David Clarke). Clarkey dismissed my complaint, and told me to lighten up. ‘Lyenko was just engaging in good-hearted banter,’ Clarkey said.
It was around this time that Pauline Hanson was making a serious appearance on the political stage. A bright young man of Chinese heritage named Matt was active in the Parramatta Federal Electorate Conference and was helping the conservatives in a counter-stack to save the Macquarie Liberal Club from falling to The Group (as the liberal faction of the Liberal Party were called).
Later, Matt left the Party. He told me he’d had a long discussion with Ross Cameron (who was the Liberal Party member for Parramatta from 1996 to 2004) about Hanson’s anti-Asian comments. Matt believed backbenchers like Cameron should place pressure on John Howard to openly condemn Hanson’s comments. Cameron allegedly disagreed, even going to the extent (according to Matt) of suggesting he agreed with her views on multiculturalism.
I asked a factional colleague from a Southern Sydney branch about what happened to young Matt. I was told: ‘He was just a f*cking whingeing Asian. We don’t need any of his type in the Party.’
I always thought this laissez-faire attitude to racism was limited to the large-‘L’ Liberals I used to associate with. But it was during the 2001 election campaign that I discovered the extent to which this infected even relatively moderate conservatives.
It was just after September 11 that I was asked to nominate for the seat of Reid, the Sydney seat held by the ALP-Left stalwart Laurie Ferguson. It was a busy time. I had a legal practice to run and, like many people of my background, I suffered from Septemberelevenitus, an illness whose symptoms include:
· Being of nominally Muslim background or heritage;
· As a result of a terrorist attack on a Western target, suddenly feeling one must run around like a headless chook, doing as much as they can to allay other people’s fears;
· Feeling the need to take on the burden of multiple persons;
· Trying to compensate for all those years spent engaged in chronically suspicious behaviour such as just behaving like any other ordinary citizen;
· Hoping all this will somehow save him or her from impending incarceration in some prisoner-of-war camp as experienced during World War II by Italian and Japanese citizens.
All this might sound rather nutty. But many of us nominal ‘Aussie Mossies’ suddenly discovered our religious heritage in most cases, just an historical accident was under attack. We could see a serious shift in public perceptions.
I was no longer ‘Irfan the conservative Liberal lawyer of Indian heritage with God-knows how many other shades of identity.’ I was now just ‘Irfan the Muslim, one of hundreds of thousands of fifth-columnists allegedly out to destroy the Western democracy I grew up in and was a part of.’
In an environment where xenophobic nonsense like this was not limited to far-Right tabloid fruitloops but was fast becoming mainstream, we seriously believed that public opinion was such that a government could find support in rounding us all up and detaining us. My Federal election activities in Reid were perhaps a symptom of this fear.
Soon after nominating, I received a call from the State Director, Scott Morrison (now endorsed Liberal candidate for the safe southern Sydney seat of Cook). He gave me this wise advice:
The media will be trawling down our candidate list and your name will stick out like a sore thumb. Don’t be surprised if some journo or your ALP opponent tries to drag you into some messy ethnic or religious controversy. And before you publish anything, you must run it past me or someone else here at HQ.
When I wasn’t engrossed in my legal practice, I was out on the hustings. I simply didn’t have the time to watch the news and discover just how bloody awful both sides were behaving in relation to asylum seekers. Plus, when it came to foreign policy, it was easy to feel comfortable. Reid takes in the suburb of Auburn, with its large anti-Taliban Tajik and Hazara presence. Many were supportive of Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan, though some were still rather cold toward me. Still, my job was to work for the people of my electorate, not for particular interest groups.
Then, one afternoon in October, I received a call from a lady named Mahbooba who ran a small charity working among Afghan orphans in Pakistan. She wanted to introduce me to a Middle Eastern chap. We agreed to meet at a small mosque in Auburn.
I entered the mosque and saw Mahbooba sitting with a visibly distraught man whose reddened eyes betrayed days of mourning. The man continued to weep in my presence while Mahbooba showed me some photos of some young children. The man then spoke:
These are the children of my sister. She was killed by the government of our homeland. I’ve been an Australian citizen for 25 years. I run my own business. I pay my taxes. I have only ever asked one thing from my local member and that was to help me get my sister and her children out of there.
‘Who is your local member?’ I asked. ‘John Howard,’ was his answer.
He then told me about how he was informed by other relatives that the children had been placed on an unseaworthy boat. They were among some 350 others who had drowned.
This was the first time I had heard of the SIEV-X incident. I wasn’t sure what I could do. I was just a candidate in a hard-luck seat with little hope of winning. What could I hope to achieve for this man?
‘Some people in your Party are starting to tell lies about my sister’s children. They are saying my sister taught her children to be terrorists. You must speak out against them. Remember what the Prophet Mohammed said that the best jihad is to speak the truth to rulers. It is easy for you because you are in their Party’
I listened to the man’s story and looked at the photos of these young children who had barely reached their teens. After the meeting, I got onto the phone with campaign HQ. I told them about the conversation I’d had with the man, and how I wanted to make some statement about it.
‘No way, Irfan,’ said the voice from HQ. ‘You mustn’t talk about this topic. I’m warning you that if you say anything about it, you might find yourself disendorsed and expelled from the Party. We are running hard on security and terrorism.’
these are young kids,’ I objected. Then the HQ officer told me something that made me shudder.
‘Listen, I know how much you hate Pauline Hanson. You’ve got to understand that we have a deliberate strategy here. We want to destroy Hanson by sounding like her and attracting her voter base away from her. It’s part of a deliberate strategy, and it’s temporary.’
I believed that HQ officer. I said and wrote nothing in English. I made sure it was all said in Urdu, Turkish, Farsi, Arabic and Vietnamese instead. What HQ didn’t know wouldn’t harm them or me. Ignorance is bliss.
But now I wish I’d said it in English. Five years later, Howard Government ministers continued alienating asylum seekers or persons of Middle-Eastern appearance. Six years on, and the Howard Government are demonising African refugees. All this talk of integration, yet the government happily deals with non-integrated groups like the Exclusive Brethren. All this rhetoric about national security while a bunch of comics can breach security barriers costing millions of dollars.
There is something patently illiberal and unconservative about despising individuals due to factors beyond their control. To despise an individual due to the colour of their skin or their ethno-religious background requires a suspension of one’s reason.
I always thought Liberals believed individuals should be given every opportunity to reach their full potential regardless of their background.
All of which raises the question is John Howard’s Party still a Liberal Party? And if it isn’t, who should real Liberals be voting for in the upcoming election?
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