Ten years too long – or What is Racism 102
This week, John Howard celebrated ten years in power as Prime Minister of Australia. It is ten years too long. Amidst the celebrations, $7,000 a plate fund-raising dinners, backslapping and down-right smug gloating amongst the neo-conservatives, I was pleased to see in the news a mob of protesters outside one of these parties.
They were making life difficult for those attending Howard’s anniversary party, and noisily showing their displeasure at what ten years of Howard’s regime has meant to Australia. It was heart-warming to see people still wanting to remind us that Howard isn’t the bees’ knees and life is not peaches under the coalition. This was good because so much has happened in this past ten years, and it is hard to remember it all!
But the most profound reminder for me of what Howard’s decade has meant for Australia was a textbook on racism in Australia that I picked up at a friend’s place. Published in 1998, I was immediately struck at how a book can so quickly be out of date.
Despite its emphasis on the history of colonial Australia, its impact on the Aboriginal communities, and the trends in race relations and racial disadvantage in Australia since Federation, I knew the book wouldn’t have covered how much the last ten years has set back anti-racism and the struggle for self-determination for Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people.
Think of it. Since 1996, we have witnessed the significant years of the Pauline Hanson years and the re-legitimisation of political racism; Howard’s denial of the Stolen Generations and refusal to apologise officially; the dismantling of Reconciliation by Howard; and the mainstream retreat from ‘land rights’ as protracted, uneasy battles over ‘Native Title’ devour our energies and scatter our attention.
And don’t forget that mortality rates and childhood disadvantage amongst Aboriginal and Islander communities are still worse despite 50 years of post-war industrialisation and currently unprecedented personal, corporate and government wealth.
Also in this time, we have seen asylum seekers and refugees, especially those from the Middle East and Afghanistan, derided and demonised as un-worthy ‘queue jumpers’, locked up in our most un-hospitable desert concentration camps or barbed-wire urban prisons, and/or deported to uncertainty, danger or death in the countries they fled in terror. Remember too SIEVE X, the Tampa, and the children overboard!
The war on terror is now escalating into alienating the Muslim community in Australia, and as has spilled into a debate over multiculturalism, citizenship and that old Howard favourite: Australian culture and nationhood. In short, racist politics has stood Howard in good stead. Some would say it has even kept him in power.
Ten years is a very long time in these days of shorter attention spans, poorer historical knowledge, whittled social memory, and short-term, quick fix perspectives on everything from business to fashion trends to policy making to social issues.
It is also a very long time in politics, especially here in Australia. When John Howard and the Liberal-National coalition took government on a wave of dissatisfaction with Keating’s Labor government ten years ago, some saw it coming, but most people (like me) just went ‘huh?’.
Before long, ‘huh’ turned to ‘ohmigod’ turned to ‘I can’t believe this’, then to ‘we have to do something’, which turned to ‘what do we do now’ and then to despair as – with one thing after another – the social, industrial, environmental and cultural vandalism of John Howard and the neo-conservatives re-shaped this country so profoundly.
As the accumulative affect of the Howard years pounds our national social conscience and consciousness to the verge of senselessness, and we forget how much has happened, it is probably a good thing that this little anniversary has come up.
It gives us the opportunity for reflection, the chance to take stock, remember what has gone before and where we’ve come from, and hopefully wake-up from our slumber and figure out where we are going.
And, as the protesters noisily reminded us a few nights ago, this is a time to remember Howard’s shame and reaffirm our capacity to do something about it!