Our Government Fosters Racism


You’ve all seen the video: three angry white Australians — one with a pram — abusing a French woman on a suburban bus, apparently because she had the temerity to sing in her own language.

"Speak English or die, motherfucker," one yells, a cry that then unleashes a barrage of taunts and threats.

The clip has gone viral, provoking understandable anguish about the prevalence of casual racism.

But, really, it’s not surprising there’s foul-mouthed yobs out there monstering foreigners. The real wonder is that there’s not more.

For even as the video circulated, Chris Bowen announced the ALP’s latest finessing of refugee policy. Under the new approach, asylum seekers who can’t be imprisoned offshore will be released in the community but prevented from working for up to five years, even if they’re assessed as refugees. In that time, they’ll be entirely reliant on dole payments of about $220 a week, substantially less than the poverty line.

That’s right: it’s now official policy that those fleeing persecution — even if their fears are well founded — should be forced into destitution.

What’s that got to do with goons on a bus?

In formal terms, ever since the Whitlam era Australia’s immigration policy has been non-racial.

But everyone knows, in reality, the increasingly overt callousness to asylum seekers never affects white people. The rhetoric about the "invasion", the "human tide", the speeches about securing our borders against "illegals", inevitably takes on a racial hue, since the desperate families we cram into camps come overwhelmingly from places like Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Despite the ritualistic distinctions between economic migrants and "genuine" refugees, poverty and persecution inevitably go together. That’s why the boats fill up with brown people from poor countries, not with whitebread families from Britain or the US.

We know from past experience that refugees working in the community quickly make friends, even in socially conservative rural areas. Everyday interaction builds empathy, transforming asylum seekers from an abstract threat into an aggregation of ordinary people, deserving of support and solidarity.

That’s why the government now does everything it can to isolate refugees from the general population. Take the facility at Nauru, described by Amnesty International as "appalling". After his requests to visit were repeatedly rejected, The Age’s Michael Gordon recently hiked to the outside of the camp, where he was greeted by asylum seekers waving home-made banners and crying for freedom. But precisely because the facility’s so isolated, it’s very difficult for the pleas of those inside to reach ordinary people.

When the Irish political prisoner Bobby Sands starved himself to death, his case provoked an international outcry against the British government. On Nauru, right now, an Iranian asylum seeker named Omid is suffering organ failure after a hunger strike of more than forty days — and his imminent death has barely been reported.

"We’re not losing much sleep over it," a senior government source told Fairfax, when asked about the widespread despair in the camp.

Writing in the 1930s, Hannah Arendt noted how the displaced and refugees were seen to carry the mark of the very authoritarian regimes they fled. What’s more, those regimes knew it. She quotes a 1938 memo from the German minister of foreign affairs circulated to staff overseas:

"The influx of Jews in all parts of the world invokes the opposition of the native population and thereby forms the best propaganda for the German Jewish policy… The poorer and therefore more burdensome the immigrating Jew is to the country absorbing him, the stronger is the reaction of the country."

Something similar is happening today. The Hazara minority are demonised and oppressed throughout the Afpak region. Under Bowen’s scheme, those Hazara fleeing here will (if they’re not locked up in a camp) be condemned to semi-permanent poverty; a persecuted underclass from Afghanistan gets reconstructed as a persecuted underclass in Australia.

A recent survey asking Australians how they’d manage the minimum dole found that most would eschew fresh food and not visit a doctor even when sick. Basically, you can’t feed a dog on $220 a week. Bowen’s scheme seems calculated to force refugees (remember, they’re not allowed to work) into petty crime, thus a legitimising a fresh bout of nativist demagoguery.

The government knows precisely what it’s doing, going so far as to canvass church groups for suggestions as to how to make life harder for asylum seekers. Thus the Sydney Morning Herald’s Lenore Taylor can casually explain that, "a reputation for cruelty is — to some degree — exactly what [the ALP]needs to achieve".

When the political elite openly advocate cruelty as an admirable trait, when the government consciously seeks advice on how to make refugees suffer, should we really be surprised that bored commuters get their kicks from bullying a foreigner? Aren’t those thugs on the bus simply replicating, in their own crude fashion, the meanness that’s now the accepted consensus about asylum seekers?

So, yes, that video’s appalling. But with bipartisan support for the politics of cruelty, expect a lot more "speak Engish or die" rhetoric to come. For let’s be frank, the government is not pandering to anti-immigrant sentiment. It’s fostering it.

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.