7th May 2000

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Black marks for Australia's Prime Minister

By Dr. Sanjiva Wijesinha

"Australians", says Aboriginal leader Charles Perkins, "are basically good people. Can't they see that this man John Howard is tearing our country apart?''

It isn't the first time that Australia's prime minister has been charged with racism. The last time his actions created such a furore was back in 1988, when as leader of the opposition, he spoke out in favour of Australia reducing the number of Asian immigrants that it was accepting into the country. "In the eyes of some of the community it's too great" he stated then, "it would be in our immediate term interest and supportive of social cohesion if it were slowed a little so that the capacity of the community to absorb was greater."

Howard suffered for that 1988 stand on Asian immigration - in August that year several of his party colleagues revolted against his leadership, believing that he was sponsoring a racially divisive immigration policy. A few months later, he was deposed as party leader - and his party stayed out of power for the next seven years.

John Howard grew up in the nineteen forties in the middle class Sydney suburb of Earlwood, a world of genteel Anglo-Saxon values. His formative years were spent during a time that the country's White Australia immigration policy was based on keeping Australia's population "European".

Over the years he has found it hard to shake off the racist epithet. Even though an investigation of his speeches doesn't reveal unequivocal evidence that he is prejudiced against Aborigines or Asians, there is at the same time little evidence that he has had much to do with either group or that he has much empathy with them.

Often accused of tailoring his words and views purely with his eye on the polls, Howard is seen as a man who believes his job is to harvest the largest crop of votes by speaking whatever happens to be the popular language of the time.

And if that means gathering the votes of those who hold racist views - the PM sees no harm in that.

It takes a great deal of skill to accomplish this task without blatantly making racially prejudicial statements. One of Howard's greatest talents is his ability to frame sentences that appear to say one thing to his audience while allowing other listeners to infer what they want to hear.

Australian Journalist Tony Wright refers to this as "dog whistle tactics".

"Blow a dog whistle," he says, "and you won't hear much of a sound. But the target of the whistle - the dogs - can detect a sound beyond the audible range of the rest of us, and will react to it. Two quite different messages are contained within the one action - the one benign and the other designed to be heard and heeded only by the ears tuned to it."

The beauty of this tactic is that if your critics claim they have detected your true meaning, you can deliberately accuse your accusers of mischievously misinterpreting your words!

In 1996, during the rise of Pauline Hansen, Howard pointedly refused to criticise her attacks on Asian migrants and the indigenous Aborigines, arguing instead that "in a free country which allows free speech, people should be able to say that''. In fact, he went so far as to state on a radio programme, "Some of the things she said (sic) was an accurate reflection of what people feel."

Howard's most recent use of the dog whistle technique has been his pandering to racist attitudes in the Northern Territory and Western Australia by refusing to override their mandatory sentencing laws - and then snubbing a UN treaty committee which found these laws racially discriminatory.

Recently Howard faced an emotional day of protest by Aboriginal groups outside Parliament House.

Mandatory sentencing - regulations which force the courts to impose jail terms on juvenile offenders, even for crimes as trivial as stealing a pencil or a book - is a controversial issue. These local laws apply only in the Northern Territory and the state of Western Australia, both of which have large Aboriginal populations - and not surprisingly, it is almost always young Aborigines who end up in jail as a result.

Despite calls on the government to table legislation in the federal parliament to over-ride the local laws which allow mandatory sentencing, Howard has persistently refused to do so.

Last week Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Herron had to apologise for the government's insensitive handling of the report - notably Herron's assertion that less than 10% of Aboriginal children were iorcibly taken from their parents and could not be referred to as "a generation."

In an era during which the Pope has said sorry to the Jewish people for the actions of the catholic church during the Holocaust, and then South African president de Klerk publicly apologised for the suffering that apartheid inflicted on the black population, Howard has pointedly refused to apologise for Australia's treatment of the Aborigines.

John Howard will want to be remembered as the man who led this Lucky Country through the turn of the century, the man responsible for a heady period of economic success, sweeping tax reform and Olympic glory.

But since the good that men do is oft interred with their bones - it will almost certainly be the evil of his words and his actions on race relations that will live on after Howard.

Dr. Sanjiva Wijesinha is a lecturer in Monash University's faculty of medicine - and also works as a doctor among Australia's Aboriginal people.

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