WORLD

A crisis of identity

The rise of racism highlights a growing sense of insecurity

MICHAEL ROSE April 14 1997
WORLD

A crisis of identity

The rise of racism highlights a growing sense of insecurity

MICHAEL ROSE April 14 1997

A crisis of identity

The rise of racism highlights a growing sense of insecurity

WORLD

AUSTRALIA

There is no doubting what independent Australian MP Pauline Hanson stands for. She wants to freeze immigration, reduce the proportion of Asians in Australia, and end any special treatment for Aboriginal people. Nor does she

show much mercy. Last December, four Aboriginal boys walked into her office in the blue-collar Queensland riding of Oxley to shout abuse and spit at her. Hanson insisted that three of the boys,

all under 12, be formally charged with aggravated assault and remanded in custody over Christmas. “I am speaking for the community out there also,” she declared. “We have a right to feel safe.”

Despite the firestorm of criticism her campaign has touched off, Hanson has no plans to let up. This week she intends to launch her own political party, and she maintains that she could be prime minister “down the track.” Although even some of her own supporters have rebelled at her dictatorial ways, Hanson, 42, has clearly struck a chord with voters. A recent opinion poll showed that 62 per cent of respondents backed her call for an immigration freeze and more than half want to scale back on Asian migrants. To many mainstream commentators, Hanson’s emergence is a worrying sign both of the

grave racial tensions just below the surface of Australian society— and of the country’s growing identity crisis. ‘We are clearly a very insecure society right now,” says prominent social researcher Hugh Mackay, “and therefore quite vulnerable to prejudice and demagoguery. This is a pivotal period in Australia’s history.”

Canadians are all too familiar with some of the factors that have transformed Australia from its long-held status as “The lucky

country”, where the living was easy, to a place with a deepening sense of unease about its future. One is the controversial effort by conservative Prime Minister John Howard, elected a year ago, to remake Australia through major changes in such areas as social programs, health care, deficit reduction, labor relations, education and Aboriginal issues. Another is the fallout from the recession of the early 1990s, which wiped out middleclass job security in the public sector as well as banking, insurance and other white-collar industries. Despite recent strong economic growth, unemployment is still high—never far below nine per cent—and retail sales are stagnant. And though, like Canadians, Australians rate their general satisfaction with life highly in the Angus Reid Group’s Canada

and the World poll this week, many remain pessimistic about their career prospects.

Beyond economics, moreover, the furor over immigration has cast a shadow on Australia’s attempts to decide whether it is truly a part of Asia or simply a European outpost on the fringes of a booming region. And all of this plays out against a continuing debate over whether Australia should sever all constitutional ties with Britain and declare itself a republic before the Olympic Games in Sydney in the year 2000.

When Howard was campaigning last year to end 13 years of Labor government, he promised to create a “comfortable and relaxed Australia.” His right-leaning platform clearly appealed to many Australians nostalgic for simpler times, and his coalition swept in with

a 45-seat majority. In fact, the previous Labor administration of Paul Keating had already realized the need for fundamental restructuring of such hallowed practices as centralized wage bargaining and protection for Australian industries, says Gerard Henderson, executive director of The Sydney Institute think-tank. “A lot of the changes are taking place because they have to in an internationalizing economy, not just because they are directed by politicians with ideological concerns,” says Henderson.

But Howard’s moves have led to furious debate, and even violence. Some union members were so incensed by a new law that reduced the power of labor federations, outlawed “closed shops” and promoted local bargaining that they stormed the

doors of Parliament House in Canberra last August with battering rams. The ensuing riot left more than 100 people injured. Since then there have been other, more peaceful protests by low income earners, public housing tenants, nurses and doctors, university students and Aboriginal people, all essentially angry about reductions in state aid and protection.

Mackay points out that the uncertainty about job prospects for middle-class Australians has come as a profound shock to many. In the 1950s and ’60s, there was virtually full employment for nativeborn Australians and for the thousands of new immigrants encouraged to come over from Italy, Greece, Malta and elsewhere in Europe. “This was a land of milk and honey after the War,” Mackay says. “Only hopeless misfits could not get work and build a comfortable life here in that period, so you have to understand how unsettling it is for a generation of people, and their children, who had very high expectations to now be facing an insecure future.”

Hanson’s supporters have clearly decided that the root of the difficulty lies in the wave of Asian immigration that began in the 1970s after the end of the notorious, Europeans-only “white Australia” policy. Then, there were fewer than 40,000 non-Europeans in Australia. Now, the proportion is around five per cent of the population, and Asians make up approximately 40 per cent of the yearly intake of new residents. Hanson argues that Asians have “swamped” Australia. Supposedly, they are changing the fabric of Australian culture and taking jobs away from those her supporters call “real Australians,” although demographers have consistently proved this to be fallacious. Tensions between some whites and the large, highly visible and increasingly affluent Asian minority in places like Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane continue to rise.

The Prime Minister's moves led to furious debate— and even violence

Hanson’s racist message, explicitly stated in her maiden speech to a hushed Parliament in Canberra last September, has unleashed a torrent of negative comment inside Australia and in influential media throughout Asia. The overseas criticism of Hanson—and of Howard’s reluctance to unequivocally condemn her—raised fears for Australia’s multibillion-dollar trade with Asia, as well as a lucrative tourism industry and efforts to attract thousands of feepaying overseas university students. But the undaunted Hanson, who says she formed her political views first as a barmaid and then as the owner of a fish-and-chips shop, pledges to field a full slate of federal candidates under her new party, called Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.

The debate over the place of Asians in Australia is occurring at the same time as the one over Australia’s place in Asia. Despite the country’s historic links with Britain and Europe, former prime min-

ister Keating decided to make engagement with the region to the north a key part of his foreign policy. While Howard has not completely disowned Keating’s Asian thrust, he does not appear as enamored of it as his predecessor and has demonstrated that relations with Europe and the United States are still a major priority. “We do not claim to be Asian,” Howard said in a speech during a closely watched first visit to Indonesia late last year. “I do not believe that Australia faces a choice between our history and our geography, between our links with European and North American societies on the one hand and those with the nations of Asia on the other.” Last week, Howard made his first visit to China, where

he promoted trade intensively and stressed “a balanced, commonsense approach” to relations. Regional suspicions about the true extent of Canberra’s commitment to Asia once prompted Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, a man never hesitant to attack Australian missteps, to tell an interviewer: ‘When you were rich, you Australians were Europeans. Then you became Americans when America was rich. When Asia gets rich, you become Asian.”

Some argue that at least part of the uncertainty about Australia’s identity, in Europe as well as Asia, could be eliminated if the nation were to dump Queen Elizabeth II as head of state and declare itself a fully independent republic. Australian diplomats have long argued that Asian neighbors are confused by complex explanations for Australia’s allegiance to a foreign monarch, and for new citizens having to swear an oath to the Queen. “Australia, like other settler nations, needs a clearer focus for its national identity,” Richard Woolcott, a distinguished former diplomat, told an Australian Republican Movement rally in Sydney. “I believe that the declaration of an Australian republic will be welcomed throughout East Asia and seen as a step to strengthen our identity and involvement with the region.” Republicans believe the move could also inspire people to begin the work of rebuilding the social cohesion and confidence now so clearly lacking at home. “That, and some clear reconciliation with the Aboriginal people of this country, would give a sense of a fresh start,” says John Rickard, an Australian studies professor at Melbourne’s Monash University. But with Pauline Hanson spitting fire, the country is anything but One Nation.

MICHAEL ROSE

in Sydney