Racism, dog-whistling and the fair go

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Michael~John Shea discusses if it's just a vocal right-wing minority whose opinions are heard above other more tolerant voices, or whether Australia is just racist.

NOT EVERYONE AGREES that Australia is a racist country, or that it has been since the British invasion.

When you no longer venture from the suburbs to the city out of fear, real or imagined.

When we are lectured to by racists whose voices are disproportionately loud.

When the local member of parliament votes for millions of dollars to be spent where his party might pick up an extra swinging seat, instead of being spread evenly, including in his own electorate.

When business is promoted as more important than people.

When your longstanding values are decried and mocked as antiquated.

When a smidgeon of street gang violence makes headlines instead of official corruption.

It is then you believe the world you have known is no longer the one in which you live.

These may be perceptions, not facts, but they impact the conscience of the country. They affect our values.

It is no wonder many Australians are confused by the country they thought they knew. As an oldie myself, I see that the country is different from when I was younger — for better or worse. While we accept sensible change, we struggle with change merely for the sake of change.

By definition, conservatives eschew change. Former PM John Howard said of the Australian Senate and the idea of a Republic, "If it ain’t broke don’t fix it", as did Michael McGarvie, the Commissioner of Victorian Legal Services, of the latter. Monarchists eschew change to the Australian democratic system. Republicans would embrace the change, were it made available to them.

Where do our values sit among this bickering? Is self-determination an Australian value? Is having an Australian head of state an Australian value, or just an aspiration?

Likewise, people struggle with values being degraded. We often fail to recognise what is in front of our eyes and you only need to read Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu to realise that. But what are our values? Are they all-encompassing? Who decides what our values are? Are they mutually agreed?

From time to time, waves of racism and anti-racism sentiment play for dominance in mainstream consciousness but racism usually wins out, thanks to dog-whistling politicians and supportive radio and television commentators.

However, I believe the majority of the population are not racist and deplore racism. And, unfortunately, it is merely a vocal minority urged on by rightwing politicians and news media owners, whose opinions are heard above other more tolerant voices.

What passes for leftwing news media in Australia (the ABC — if you are a Liberal, The Guardian and a few other sources), which is really no more than centrist at best (IA and a few others excepted), call out the racists from time to time, but relatively few people hear the cry and they are probably only those already converted to anti-racist sentiment.

Is the diversity of news media sources an Australian value? Not if the conservatives have anything to do with it! Sadly, the values of a ruling class elite seem to be held up as most desirable. Blame the mainstream media for that — it is in their own interest. Vested interest first, daylight second.

"Australian values" – the only one of which everyone agrees on being "a fair go for all" – are nebulous, to say the least, and non-existent in any form of mainstream reality. The homeless, the unemployed and underemployed, and the working poor will attest to that in the case of a fair go. It is easier for news outlets to report economic and financial situations because statistics render them measurable but, as the so-called "do-gooders" remind us, we live in a society, not an economy.

Crime also arises as another newsworthy reportable story because, again, statistics. Crimes against property are heinous to property owners (read "elites" for the most part), whereas crimes by the property owners are fair game. Recent reports of bankers’ misdeeds are telling but rent-seekers have long abused any claims to a fair go as renters in this country might expect, especially when compared to countries like Britain where renting is common as opposed to home-ownership. Perhaps the unscrupulous antics of rent-seekers is the source of the "great Australian dream" — which is to own your own home to get out from under the claws of greedy bastards. Where do our values lie in this regard?

News reporting, these days, is fraught. Are murder and mayhem more frequent in the suburbs than it used to be, as it seems, or is it just more frequently reported by lazy, under-resourced news editors, relying on police activity to lead them to clickbait stories? Is domestic violence more prevalent, or is there a surge in reporting incidents to the police? Crime rates can be measured with statistics.

On reading a newspaper, a person could be forgiven for thinking that Australian values included tolerating corrupt politicians and businessmen, sanctioning violence and destruction in the suburbs, barracking for rent-seekers against renters, admiring time-servers in parliament, expecting privilege for men over women, condoning racism and ignoring poverty.

To misquote ex-Chief of Army Lieutenant General David Morrison and others: The values you walk past are the values you accept. Australian values are inexplicit, ill-defined, better identified in the negative than the positive — for instance, "racism is not an Australian value". If only!

Apart from "a fair go" and being "fair dinkum", I’ve never heard an Australian value clearly articulated. Thirty years ago, the motto of a regional community radio station was (may still be) "diversity with tolerance". What a substantial and appropriate motto for Australia! And while expressing contrary views, commentators like Andrew Bolt would probably agree, failing to see the irony in holding such diametrically opposed opinions.

In a piece in Monday’s (6 August) Guardian, Robert Manne criticises Andrew Bolt’s racist column recently published in the Murdoch press. Manne's criticism is mainly towards the incorrect interpretation of facts than against racism itself. Bolt has form in this regard.

On a similar matter, the Federal Court once determined that:

'… it was the manner in which Andrew Bolt misrepresented information and made inflammatory comments that meant they were not covered under the s 18D exemption for 'fair comment'. The reasons for that conclusion have to do with the manner in which the articles were written, including that they contained erroneous facts, distortions of the truth and inflammatory and provocative language.'

Similarly, Manne’s recent criticism of Bolt was for manipulating figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics into incorrect facts to support Bolt’s contention that foreigners are invading Australia. Tell that to Bennelong or Tjandamarra. The question is, are Andrew Bolt’s values the same as mine? I think not. Are Andrew Bolt’s values more Australian than mine? I hope not.

It is important to distinguish facts from perceptions, because only then is a clear picture of events available. Only then can our values be comprehensibly and comprehensively articulated. As to values, I desire to one day examine an accurate list that applies to Australia and appeals to all Australians.

Michael~John Shea is a freelance writer who lives on Queensland's Sunshine Coast.

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