I did not believe, until recently, that there was significant racism in Australia. I am a migrant myself, born in the Philippines of Spanish blood, and immigrated with my family when I was 11 years old, in 1972. At that time, when I went to school, my classmates were predominantly white Anglo-Saxons or Anglo-Celts, with a handful of Italians who were labeled ‘wogs.’ They didn’t quite know what to do with me. The fact that I’m white skinned made them think I was an Australian. The moment I opened my mouth to speak and they heard my accent, however, the look of horror on their faces said it all. But I took this to be the typical bullying and banter that goes on in school. I didn’t really believe, in this day and age, that Australians were racist.
Even seeing Pauline Hanson appear on the news for the first time, with all her vitriol, it struck me as an aberration that would be laughed off by most Australians. It has been sobering to see the rise of the One Nation party and hear the rhetoric in politics and the media. I’m saddened to say that my eyes have been opened to the truth.
I would still hope that most Australians are not tainted with the brush of racism, but there is certainly a problem when we don’t see politicians or the media doing anything significant to address the deep undercurrent of racism which exists in this country — a country, incidentally, which was founded on the erasure of a people — and the role the media plays to fuel the racist status quo. What I believe we are seeing today is Australia unpacking its structural racism.
For those of you who didn’t catch it, earlier this year Sky News chose to conduct an interview with a noted fascist and vocal figure in the Far Right movement in Australia, Blair Cottrell. Not only has Cottrell described himself as a ‘fascist’ in a now infamous video of him and a few of his brethren abusing a street performer following their ill-fated ‘flag march’ back in June, but he’s also called for pictures of Hitler to be hung in classrooms across the country. He has been continually front and centre at Far Right rallies and has a noted criminal record including stalking and arson.
This was who Sky News felt would make a good interviewee on the Adam Giles Show. He was engaged by news director Greg Byrnes and then interviewed by Giles himself. The interview was a warm and collaborative one where Giles quizzed Cottrell on whether he felt he spoke for ‘ordinary Australians’ then engaged in a nice bout of race-baiting over the alleged ‘African gangs’ crisis in Melbourne.
The fact that Giles — both the former Chief Minister of the Northern Territory and an Aboriginal man — felt compelled to collaborate with a fascist figure on air raises serious questions about just how far right an Aboriginal person, looking to climb to the upper echelons of the Liberal Party, must aim to be.
When the controversy hit, former minister Craig Emerson had to tender his resignation and sponsorship dollars were lost before Sky News got the picture, but when they did, they did moved on it. Byrnes issued a statement of wrongdoing on behalf of the station, Giles’ show was suspended and Cottrell has been banned from appearing on Sky News again.
But Cottrell is just a figurehead, performing a role not unlike the one Pauline Hanson has played within the political field over two decades. People in this country can just point at them and say ‘they’re the real racists’, then when these figures are dealt repercussions for their views, many end up thinking that that’s the job done.
Yet over the years Pauline Hanson’s racism and xenophobia, not only got absorbed by the federal Liberal Party and turned into policy, but the media normalised all of it. Her original battle cry of ‘Swamped by Asians’ merely shifted to targeting Muslims then Africans. What’s worse is that the Labor Party then adopted similar ‘stop the boats’ election campaigns in a bid to win back the votes of the disaffected. They had an opportunity to educate and embrace and instead, they retreated into White Australia Policy security.
If this goes on, what guarantees have we got that the views of Cottrell also won’t be normalised by politics and the media? Sky News may sanction him now, but the ABC has previously welcomed him with open arms. This is after years of the media — including the conservative Sky News — painting the views of Cottrell and his brethren as somewhat neutral yet different – as the concerns of ‘ordinary mums and dads‘ – as just one side of the coin with anti-racist activists as being the other, therefore framing anti-racism as an extremist ideology and not what should be a given in a civilised society.
For far too long, the media has been complicit in maintaining the very conditions which allow the likes of Cottrell and Hanson to become ‘figures’. They will fuel history wars, demonise the migrant communities, target Aboriginal activists, objectify and ridicule women while ensuring at the end of the day, the Murdochs and Packers of the world still have hefty pay cheques.
What is required is a massive cultural shift within all of the mainstream media — from the demonisation of vulnerable groups of people, to education and proper news reporting. And right now, there is no evidence this shift is ever going to occur.