I love it when a privileged white man tells the rest of us that our experiences can’t be true because they have never experienced it. That lack of Theory of Mind is almost bordering on being autistic. Jacqueline Maley, one of my favourite Australian journalists, dares to shine the light on Mr Ian MacDonald’s absurdity. Mr MacDonald, I invite you to engage with anyone of colour and ask ‘Has racism impacted on your daily activities of living in Australia? ‘ then I’d like you to sit and LISTEN. Yes, LISTEN.
Senator Ian Macdonald is the Father of the Parliament, which is a nice way of saying he has been there longer than anyone else.
With experience, allegedly comes wisdom, and this week the Queensland senator shared some of his when he declared that racism doesn’t really exist in Australia.
Not since Bob Katter asserted there were no homosexuals in his electorate has such a bold claim been made by a Queenslander.
But, lest you think such a general assertion might be spurious, or at least open to conjecture, consider the evidence Macdonald offered to back it up: two senior ministers in the government are not “white Australian males”, and also, the Aboriginal rugby league player Jonathan Thurston is extremely popular in North Queensland.
Thurston is like a “king”, said Macdonald, and everyone would like to recruit him to their political parties. That’s how un-racist we are: we venerate black sportsmen.
“I might live in a bubble perhaps, but I find it very difficult to find any but rare cases of racism in Australia,” Macdonald told the Senate committee hearing.
And then: “There are obviously isolated aspects of racism in Australia but I would think across the board they’re very isolated.”
Macdonald was arguing that there is no need to appoint a new race discrimination commissioner, and, although unkind observers might say that Macdonald’s best political days are behind him, on this subject he is right on the zeitgeist.
The current commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane, will step down in August after a five-year stint and Attorney-General Christian Porter will soon assess applicants to appoint as his replacement. He has dismissed calls not to appoint a successor to Soutphommasane.
Soutphommasane’s tenure was marked by some controversy. He campaigned strongly (and ultimately successfully) against proposed changes to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which makes it unlawful to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” on the basis of race.
In doing so, Soutphommasane lined himself up against then prime minister Tony Abbott, many Liberal MPs, the Murdoch press and conservative think-tank the Institute of Public Affairs, which took out full-page newspaper advertisements to lobby for the anti-18C cause.
The Murdoch press was particularly opposed to the section because its star columnist, Andrew Bolt, famously fell foul of it.
Later, so did its star cartoonist, Bill Leak. In 2016, Leak drew a cartoon for The Australian depicting a drunken Aboriginal father who had forgotten his child’s name. A complaint of race discrimination was made, and later withdrawn, with one of the complainants saying she felt bullied by The Australian’s coverage of her.
When Leak died of a heart attack in 2017, some of his supporters reportedly blamed the stress of the complaint as a contributing factor.
Soutphommasane’s critics say he tweeted “soliciting” complaints following the cartoon’s publication, and that he promoted more division than harmony.
Porter seemed to nod to these criticisms when he gave an interview saying the next commissioner would need to have “an understanding and empathy not merely for minority groups but for middle Australian values”.
Macdonald is surely capable of forming his own views, but it was an interesting coincidence that his declaration of Australia as racism-free and not requiring a race discrimination commissioner came in the same week the Institute of Public Affairs circulated a “research brief” to parliamentarians arguing “Australia must not appoint a commissioner for racial division”. (Macdonald’s office said the senator had not read the brief when he made his comments, “however [he had] read some Spectatorarticles that had been raised with him by constituents, enriched by his own experiences”.)
The IPA believes the entire Human Rights Commission should be abolished, and asserts that it has abused more human rights than it has redressed.
But until that happens, it argues the government should leave the race discrimination commissioner role empty.
The IPA paper asserts that “refusing to appoint a new race discrimination commissioner would be an acknowledgement that race has no place in Australia’s national institutions”.
This point of view is an interesting one and an increasingly prevalent one among hard conservatives (it’s worth remembering that the IPA is a feeder for Liberal politics: MPs James Paterson, Scott Ryan, Tim Wilson and Tony Smith were all associated with the institute pre-politics).
People who mention race at all, or note racism, or racist incidents, are told that they are the racist ones.
To name race as a factor in social conflict is to stoke social division. To call out the problem is to be the problem.
It is a tricky rhetorical move, because it forces us to go back to first principles, as though we were drafting the “affirmative” case in a year 7 debate entitled: “Does racism exist in Australia?”
That opens the way for people like Macdonald – who has served in the Senate since the early ’90s yet doesn’t concede he lives in a “bubble” – to claim that there is no racism because he has never seen it.
By that logic you could declare me a bacteria-sceptic, or a gravity denier.
Some people have a hard time accepting the concept of subjective experience, particularly when that subjective experience is very different from their own, as subjective experience so often is. It shouldn’t have to be said, but the best witnesses to racism are probably not going to be Anglo-Saxon “lifer” senators who live in largely white communities.
Macdonald might ask himself why, if racism was no problem, there was such a strong electoral backlash from ethnic communities over the 18C issue, so strong it turned toxic for the government, which was forced to dump its pledge to amend the section.
Macdonald’s comments were made the same day The Daily Telegraph published comments from NSW Opposition Leader Luke Foley that an influx of refugees into western Sydney, notably Fairfield, has lead to a “white flight” of “many Anglo families” from those suburbs.
The Labor movement, and the ALP, have a long, ignoble tradition of xenophobia and racism but these days it’s rare to see it so openly expressed.
Foley later apologised, claiming he had no idea the term “white flight” might be offensive to some. He says he was only arguing that those regions need proper resources to cope with the surge of new arrivals.
Why, then, would he single out “Anglo families” as being the ones so adversely affected they “have” to leave?
Premier Gladys Berejiklian, the proud daughter of immigrants, savaged him in NSW Parliament on Thursday, saying his comments were “divisive, dangerous and nasty”.
For a country that has no racism, racism seems to make the news a lot.