Melbourne, Australia – On an Australian talk show recently mining multi-millionaire turned populist right-wing politician Clive Palmer called officials in Beijing “Chinese mongrels” who were trying to “take over this country”. He later apologised.
The following day, a member of Palmer’s political party, Senator Jacqui Lambie, chimed in saying successive governments had failed to build an Australian military capable of stopping “our grandchildren from becoming slaves” to the Chinese.
Several weeks later, with Australia raising its terrorism alert to “high” amid police raids and sensationalist media coverage, the focus turned to the Muslim community.
Lambie followed up her anti-China comments by posting a manipulated photo of an Afghan policewoman killed by the Taliban on Facebook as part of her campaign to ban the veil in Australia – while denouncing Islamic law along the way.
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“Anyone who supports sharia law in Australia should not have the right to vote, should not be given government handouts, and should probably pack up their bags and get out of here,” Lambie said.
The comments by these politicians and others have thrust cultural insensitivity and racism into the spotlight in this predominantly European settler-state perched in the Asia-Pacific.
With a long history of poor treatment of Aboriginal people and its current controversial policy of locking up boatloads of asylum seekers, debate about Australia’s much-vaunted multicultural society – past and present – is now under way.
Historian Henry Reynolds is a strong advocate for what he calls a more “objective” learning of Australian history.
“We say we recognise this, but we don’t really. We don’t really take on board the way Australia was settled as a part of conquest and massive killing [of indigenous Australians].
“I think it’s important we come to terms with our own history and not continue to think that things done overseas like in the First World War were important to us, because they weren’t. They were part of European history and European history will become less and less relevant to us as the century wears on,” he told Al Jazeera.
Long history of ‘White Australia’
Gwenda Tavan, a researcher of Australia’s immigration history, told Al Jazeera that broad blocks to ethnic migration began at the time of Federation in 1901, though restrictions on Chinese immigration were already in place. “It has almost become a cliche that one of the first pieces of legislation passed in 1901 was the Immigration Restriction Act [also known as the ‘White Australia’ policy].”
Sophie Couchman is a curator at the Chinese Museum in Victoria state, which was established to tell the story of early Chinese immigration that mostly began in the 1850s amid the gold rush. She said learning the experiences of early Chinese migrants and their positive contributions to society was important for the way immigration is discussed today.
“It is disappointing that the same language is still used, certain words we used in the 19th century to talk about Chinese immigration – ‘influx’ and ‘swamped’ – and it’s all these sort of monsoonal words,” Couchman said.
It is disappointing that the same language is still used, certain words we used in the 19th century to talk about Chinese immigration - 'influx' and 'swamped' - and it's all these sort of monsoonal words.
Also in 1901, laws were passed to repatriate many Pacific island labourers in northern Australia, many of whom were brought over as slaves. Indigenous Australians, meanwhile, would not be considered citizens until 1967.
Coming to terms with the past
While southern European immigration was allowed in the 1950s, the official end of “White Australia” policy didn’t come until 1973, and relatively large numbers of Vietnamese refugees were accepted soon after.
Tavan said while legally it has been largely removed, racism is still a part of Australian society.
“By international standards, Australia – especially given its history – has done pretty well in a very short amount of time. However, on one hand, we’re meant to be this multicultural society, while on the other it’s very clear Australia maintains a very Anglo core,” said Tavan.
Today, about 90 percent of Australia’s population remains of European descent. Australia settles 200,000 immigrants a year, almost one percent of the population, which is one of the highest immigration intakes globally. Most are skilled migrants, and the majority are from Asia.
Andrew Marakus is a researcher who has conducted surveys on public opinion towards immigration and asylum seeker policy for the last seven years. A 2013 survey found 51 percent of people in favour of the current immigration levels, with 66 percent of people approving of accepting immigrants from “many different countries”.
Marakus told Al Jazeera that Australia remains one of the only countries in the world with popular approval of its immigration policies.
“Throughout the European Union, in most countries, the majority of the population are not happy with the current immigration levels and are concerned by it. There are also political movements against immigration, which we haven’t had here since the 1990s,” he said.
Australian Human Rights Commissioner for Racial Discrimination Tim Soutphommasane told Al Jazeera while Australia is a successful multicultural society, more needed to be done to combat “casual racism”.
“Australia has been a success story as a multicultural society. This is an achievement in which we can take pride, but also one which we must protect,” he said.
I think it is about race, because if it were white South Africans arriving by boat, I think you would get a different response.
Alice Pung, author and editor of several books exploring lives of Asian-Australians, said it is important to understand why Asians have become accepted over time to understand current tensions with other migrant groups.
“Asian-Australians are now mostly part of the fabric, though there are still many ways we’re not. But culturally, because we’re not Muslim, because we’re not black, because we’re not the much-maligned Asians now, we’re accepted,” she told Al Jazeera.
“Australia always has a history of not being able to define what it was because it had colonial forefathers,” said Pung.
The ‘boat people’
Some people have drawn a connection between Australia’s harsh refugee policy for those often referred to as “boat people” – mostly South Asian, Middle Eastern or East African – and the psyche of “White Australia”.
Marakus rejected the notion the two are linked. “It’s not about ethnicity. People are concerned about the government being in control of their borders, and Australia is not unique in this,” he said.
However, Reynolds disagreed saying there are clear ties between the attitudes of the past.
“It’s like a throwback to an earlier era. The concern is just if they come by boat. More people come by plane and overstay and in effect literally are ‘illegals’, and that doesn’t concern people,” said Reynolds. “They are very small numbers, but the fact that they are arriving by boat on these remote coasts seems to create this sort of sense of danger and threat.”
Tavan also suggested the debate taps into a racial thinking historically.
“Australia is a large island continent, still largely British and European, that geographically sits in an area that has been culturally, religiously, ethnically quite different to it,” she said.
“I think it is about race, because if it were white South Africans arriving by boat, I think you would get a different response.”
Follow Jarni Blakkarly on Twitter: @jarniblakkarly