Asia-Pacific, Headlines

AUSTRALIA-ASIA: Ethnic Fissures in a Eurasian Future

Kunda Dixit

CANBERRA, Nov 20 1996 (IPS) - Australia has always suffered a bit of an identity problem: it is located in the South but has always been seen as a part of the North, it is in the East but is regarded as Western country.

Today, as this vast nation-continent seeks to make the transition from its British settler heritage to be a part of an East Asian neighbourhood, there are signs of ethnic fissures and xenophobia.

Australia’s northern coast lies only 400 kms across a narrow strait from Indonesia and, even if white Australians may not admit it openly, many are concerned they may one day become a minority if citizens of the populous Asian countries to the north are allowed to emigrate freely.

And when a newly-elected politician used her maiden speech in parliament two months ago to declare that Australia was in danger of “being swamped by Asians” it unleashed a media firestorm that is still smouldering.

Pauline Hanson owns a fish-and-chip shop in an outback town in Queensland. In elections earlier this year, Hanson used a xenophobic platform to catapult herself to the federal parliament in Canberra. And when she got here the first thing she did was to give a speech calling for a halt to Asian immigration and a reduction in subsidies to Australian aboriginal groups.

The ensuing row has polarised Australians between populist and liberal opinion, ruffled newly-elected politicians, strained Canberra’s ties with Asian countries and rattled the country’s tourism industry which depends on Asian visitors.

A stray remark by a novice legislator could perhaps have gone unnoticed, but the reluctance of Prime Minister John Howard to immediately denounce the remark added fuel to the fire.

The international media reported on the spreading racial bushfire. This was picked up by newspapers in Jakarta, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong, triggering angry editorials.

In a stinging commentary, the Bangkok Post wrote: “How the Australian government, opposition and people handle this debate from here on remains to be seen (but) Asian eyes will be watching.”

In Australia itself, not a day has gone by without newspapers, radio talk-back shows or television news reporting on the aftershocks of the Hanson bombshell.

Although most coverage has been critical of Hanson and accuses her of being racist, radio and television talk-backs have been predominantly pro-Hanson. One Sydney talkshow host reported 71 per cent of its callers supporting Hanson and echoing her anti-Asian sentiments.

In Canberra, senior foreign ministry officials seemed to be in damage-control mode when they met a group of Asian editors last week: they blamed the media for blowing the Hanson remark “out of context” and “fanning the flames” of racism.

Citing the virulent anti-Australian editorials in Asian newspapers one ministry official pointed out: “If an Australian newspaper had written even half of what is in some of these papers, all hell would have broken loose.”

He has a point. Australia’s whites-only immigration policy which was scrapped 30 years ago had earned the country the label “Asia’s South Africa”.

But since then Canberra’s strong stand on multi-culturalism and open immigration has made it one of the most racially-tolerant countries in the world. Some Asian countries, on the other hand, have official policies that are blatantly racist or favour ethnic majorities.

Only 4.6 per cent of Australia’s 18 million people are of Asian origin. In 1995, Asians made up 40 per cent of the 110,000 foreigners who emigrated to Australia. At present rates, Asians will still make up less than eight per cent of the country’s population in the next 35 years.

Still, more than half of Australians polled by a Sydney newspaper after the Hanson remark said they wanted Asian immigration reduced.

The reason for this could be that though they still make up a small portion of the population, the number of Asian immigrants in Australia more than doubled in the past 10 years to 700,000. Asians also tend to congregate in preferred city neighbourhoods instead of dispersing throughout the country, thus making them more visible.

Some Asian-Australians, like Ramesh Thakur who is head of the Peace Research Centre at the Australian National University, admit that Hanson’s remarks fed racism because they were based on ignorance. But governments can legitimately reduce migration when multicultural peace is fragile, he says.

“No government policy can afford to move too far ahead of community attitudes. On balance, it is more important to ensure fair and equitable treatment to those already in than to insist on enlarging their proportion in the face of hostile opposition, even if racist and ignorant,” Thakur wrote in a commentary.

Even so, what has shocked many Asian Australians is the rise in racial abuse after the Hanson debate flared up. A survey by the Chinese Australian Forum showed that the incidence of racially motivated attacks and harassment had doubled after the Hanson speech.

Vietnamese Australian Dai Le, who works as a television researcher in Sydney, was walking with her sisters recently when men in a car shouted “Asians get out” as they raced past. She says this had never happened to her before.

“In the 17 years that I have spent growing up in Australia, I’ve never witnessed so much fear and loathing against migrants, Asians particularly,” she adds.

Racism and xenophobia are always the first symptoms of economic bad times. Australia is just coming out of recession and one in every three young Australians of working age does not have a job. In this situation, race becomes the easy scapegoat.

Another reason is ignorance. Many Australians simply do not know that despite what Pauline Hanson said, only five in every hundred Australians is of Asian descent.

At the end of the October, when the Australian parliament passed a bipartisan motion rejecting the Hanson line the number of racist calls on talk-back radio programmes dropped by half.

Media analysts saw this as a good sign that once politicians made a statement denouncing racism, it resulted in an immediate shift in public opinion.

If that is true, then part of the blame for the xenophobia getting out of hand was the reluctance of the Australian government to come out early and strong against the Hanson remarks.

Media analyst Mike Seccombe summed up the lessons: “Public opinion is very fluid and can be modified by reasoned argument from political leaders and by reasoned argument in the media …phenomena like Hanson can only survive in the factual dark.”

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