The increasing weirdness of Melbourne’s ‘race debate’

Yesterday in Drum, I noted the extraordinary comments by the Australian’s foreign editor Greg Sheridan and the contrast they made with the reaction from both the Victorian and Federal ALP.

Sheridan, a man usually only roused by the prospect of a fresh war, wrote in the Oz that ‘through the widely publicised assaults, murders and arson attacks on Indians and Indian houses of worship, Melbourne has become the racist-violence capital of Australia’.

Compare that with John Brumby’s preoccupation with attacking the Indian media and you can think that suddenly Sheridan’s speaking truth to power.

Moreoever, the weird dynamic in which the hard Right denounces racism more fervently than the soft Left continues today, with Liberal leader Ted Baillieu’s sudden intervention. Here’s the Age:

VICTORIA has a serious and increasing problem with racist attacks on Indian students, but the state government is in denial and blaming the victims, Opposition Leader Ted Baillieu said last night.

In a provocative speech to Australian and Indian business leaders, Mr Baillieu said many of the assaults were the result of “racist violence” and Premier John Brumby had failed to confront the problem.

Mr Baillieu also took aim at police Chief Commissioner Simon Overland, condemning his weekend advice to international students that they should “look poor” by not displaying expensive items such as laptops and iPods.

Mr Baillieu said the problem of racial violence had been allowed to escalate while the government provided excuses, attracting international condemnation.
“Leadership is not … this government’s continued attempt to blame the victim by suggesting he or she had brought it upon themselves through their conduct or the provocative carrying of iPods, computers and other such nonsense,” he said.

Passing strange, n’est ce pas?

Certainly, it’s true that, even during the Howard years, big business was somewhat toey about the populist response to immigration and associated issues. The Australian economy needs immigrants; Australian businesses want, by and large, to trade with Asia, and so they – and their mouthpieces – don’t necessarily thrill to the revival of boneheaded nativism. India, after all, is an emerging economic powerhouse. Wha’’s the profit in picking fights there?

That’s where Baillieu’s coming from: less a concern for the students per se as a recognition that buggering up Australia’s third largest export industry is not a great plan for the traditional party of big business.

The more difficult thing is explaining the behaviour of the ALP. After all, in power, Labor generally does its best to portray itself as a sound economic manager. So why didn’t Brumby and co. use their political wiles to defuse the tension with India when it first emerged, with, say, fervent expressions of remorse, promises of greater protection, increased penalties for racial violence, etc? Why did they so consciously and deliberately engage in a tit-for-tat row with the Indian press, when they surely knew that it would only escalate the situation?

In Drum, I put it like this:

Economically, it makes no sense but perhaps there’s a kind of political logic. That is, Labor’s determination not to admit a problem but instead turn the conversation back, over and over again, to assertions of local virtue suggests a recognition of the electoral power of crass nativism. The business attitude to India is colour blind– or, rather, the only hue it sees is green. But in an increasingly jingoistic society, politicians sense that they poll better if they’re seen standing up for Australia rather than kow-towing to foreigners, no matter the long-term consequences. The Victorian economy might need Indian dollars but there’s still a psychological resistance to the logic of a service industry– namely, that Australians should actually serve foreigners, rather than regarding them as inherently privileged simply to be allowed on Aussie soil. And it’s that nationalist psychology to which Labor’s been pandering.

I still think that argument’s right but I’m open to other suggestions. Has there been, for instance, any polling suggesting that talking tough against Indians is a vote winner?

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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  1. call me simple-minded, but once racism is admitted, this leads to the question of “why is there a problem?” which turns (as opposed to looking toward the Australian psyche)all faces towards the masses of ‘illegal immigrants’ arriving.

  2. Sure, but that doesn’t explain why Ted Baillieu feels able to come out and say it while Labor can’t.

    Today, this from Bronwyn Pike:
    “Ted Baillieu has called Victorians racist,” Education Minister Bronwyn Pike said. ”I’d like to ask Ted Baillieu to name those racist people, maybe it’s my next door neighbour, maybe it’s someone’s mum and dad, maybe it’s somebody’s friends.”

    If you accept that there are some racists in Victoria, well, presumably they are someone’s mum, somebody’s friend. Pike’s comments thus only make any kind of sense on the basis that there’s no racists in Victoria. None. Not one.

  3. Victoria’s welcome to keep their title of Racist Capitol of Australia so long as they don’t our title of Serial Killer Capitol of Australia.

    Anyways, jokes aside – asking someone to “name the racists” is just stupid wouldn’t you think? What the hell sort of defence is that?

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