For a brief moment last week, members of the Coalition government came clean on the racist sentiments which are simmering so close to the surface amongst their ranks that it’s hard to claim they’re even trying to conceal them.
A motion moved by One Nation’s Pauline Hanson declaring “it’s OK to be white” was narrowly defeated in the Senate on 15 October. The motion also sought to acknowledge “the deplorable rise of anti-white racism and attacks on western civilisation” in this country.
The motion that blatantly professed a slogan that’s recently been popularised by white supremacists around the globe was voted down 31 to 28. The reason why it almost passed in the Senate was 23 Coalition members voted in favour of it.
Later that evening, as the backlash kicked in, attorney general Christian Porter took to Twitter defending the support of the motion, which the Senate government leader Mathias Cormann swiftly backed him on.
Oops, we didn’t know it was racist
However, by Tuesday morning, the fallout caused by the support of the Coalition senators was too much. Scott Morrison basically washed his hands of the issue. And it was time for those involved to backtrack.
Cormann claimed that supporting the motion was “an administrative error”, while Porter explained that someone in his office suggested the senators support it because they’d confused the Hanson-produced proposal containing the racist slogan with a motion that actually opposed racism.
However, the claims that Coalition senators were somehow in the dark about the racist connotations were hard to take, as Greens leader Richard Di Natale and crossbench senator Derryn Hinch both stood before them right before the vote and explained the racist implications.
The motion was then recommitted on Tuesday, following a challenge by Labor Senate leader Penny Wong, and all senators present voted against it.
But, it was too late. The broader ramifications caused by the ministers’ support of the motion was already apparent. And considering other racist proclamations that Coalition ministers have made over recent years, no one quite believed the government’s retraction.
Sure you did…
Outgoing Australian race discrimination commissioner Dr Tim Soutphommasane asserted in a speech in August that there’s been a rise in race politics in this country, and Coalition ministers have been playing a prominent role in stoking its flames.
At a New Year’s Day press conference this year, then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, with accompanying health minister Greg Hunt, started off 2018 by condemning the so-called African gang crisis in Victoria, despite local police denying there was anything of the sort going on.
The next day, home affairs minister Peter Dutton got on the radio and declared that Victorians were too afraid to go out to dinner at night for fear of this “African gang violence”.
Dutton was back playing the race card in March when he stated that Australia ought to be giving white South African farmers “special attention” for immigration, as they would “abide by our laws, integrate into our society, work hard” and “not lead a life on welfare”.
And then citizenship and multicultural affairs minister Alan Tudge told a London forum in July that Australia is “veering towards a European separatist multicultural model”. He further stated that “social cohesion” was being threatened by “ethnic segregation and liberal values being challenged”.
But wait, there’s more
Though fuelling racial tensions is nothing new for the Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison government. During the failed push to have section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act amended, then attorney general George Brandis said back in 2014 that changes were needed as people “have a right to be bigots”.
So, given these slim pickings amongst a much broader range race-baiting moments the Coalition has been a party to over the last five years, it’s hardly surprising that the Liberal and National senators decided to initially back the racially divisive Senate motion.
The very real fallout
But, while the Coalition senators in Canberra issued a vote and then quickly retracted it, the consequences from supporting a motion containing a slogan that has been espoused by neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan over the last year has very real consequences.
Melbourne lawyer Nyadol Nyuon pointed out on the Drum that 95 percent of the Australian parliament is made up of Anglo Australians. And this figure is comparable with the executives of the top 200 companies listed on the Australian Stock Exchange, as well as those of the public sector.
“So, the idea that somehow white people are experiencing a level of racism that deserves to be condemned and recognised at the national parliament diminishes the real experiences of other people that experience day-to-day racism,” Ms Nyuon made clear.
And as Goori writer Jack Latimore explained in the Guardian the health of those who are subjected to racism is affected by it. He added that racism can lead to emotional and physiological conditions, including hypertension, heart attacks and cancer.
Reinforcing fringe sentiments
Over recent years, there’s been an upsurge in white nationalist sentiments in Australia. And the rise of groups, such as Reclaim Australia, the United Patriots Front and now The Lads Society, has been emboldened by the rhetoric of certain politicians, like Pauline Hanson, Bob Katter and Cory Bernardi.
But, when it comes to key members of the governing party throwing their weight behind ideas that imply white Australians are somehow under threat, it can only serve to further legitimise and bolster the popularity of your Blair Cottrells, who’ve been pushing this very same sentiment.
And this minority within the community isn’t going to remember the government’s “administrative error”. They’re going to recall the time the Coalition senators spoke out about their true feelings and were made to withdraw them because of the backlash from the “left-wing extremists”.
A paternalist condemned
Amongst the 23 Coalition Senators who raised their hands in support of it being OK to be white were small business minister Michaelia Cash, trade minister Simon Birmingham and deputy Nationals leader Bridget McKenzie.
However, the minister that seemed to cop the harshest backlash was Nigel Scullion. And rightly so. He’s the white politician who’s been charged with dealing with Indigenous affairs. And First Nations peoples suffer some of the highest levels of racism in the community.
Scullion’s vote in support of the motion brought him widespread condemnation from Indigenous leaders, who called for his resignation. In an apology on Tuesday, he acknowledged that the motion downplayed “racism and historic injustices against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander” peoples.
And yet it seems that one day prior to his apology, Mr Scullion and many of his fellow senators were unable to appreciate how voting for the “it’s OK to be white” motion was going to flame racial divisions.
Although, one would think, the fact that Hanson was pushing it might have been a wake up call, regardless of whether the senators were intimately aware of the history of the slogan.
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Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.