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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

AUSTRALIA'S FEAR AND LOATHING

Prime Minister Howard must take a stand against racists


"MY HUSBAND FOUGHT IN Vietnam to keep out the yellow peril," the woman caller told an Australian call-in radio show. "Now Chinese and Vietnamese own half our country, and our government is sitting around doing nothing." Nor did a subsequent caller pull punches: "We won a few battles but we lost the war because they control everything," he said. "Japanese cars, Korean TVs and Chinese restaurants are all we see around here."

If progressive Australians were cringing at the barrage of anti-Asian rhetoric that has dominated the airwaves of late, they knew who to blame for instigating it: Pauline Hanson, former Brisbane cafe owner and sitting MP. Ms. Hanson's maiden speech to Parliament last month set off the storm and is already infamous from Jakarta to Seoul to Hong Kong. "I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians," Ms. Hanson pronounced. "They have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate." She went on to urge the government to halt Asian immigration and to abolish the policy of multiculturalism.

That Ms. Hanson said what she did is no real surprise. She is a well-known espouser of extreme views. Earlier this year, she blamed racism in Australia on the government's affirmative action policy towards Aborigines. Shortly after that utterance, Ms. Hanson was forced to resign as a candidate for the Liberal Party of Prime Minister John Howard.

However, she won handily as an independent, and many Australians appear to support her views on immigration. Last week, The Australian newspaper conducted a poll of 1,200 people. More than 70% of respondents said they believe immigration levels are too high, despite a recent government decision to trim the numbers by 10.8% to 74,000 this year. Ms. Hanson is feted wherever she speaks. Last week, she got a standing ovation from members of the National Party, which is part of the ruling coalition.

There is reason to believe that the PM may also applaud Ms. Hanson's remarks, though Mr. Howard is smart enough not to clap in public. While Ms. Hanson contested the March 2 election as an independent, her name appeared on ballots as the Liberal candidate, and she probably received numerous Liberal votes. Moreover, there are persistent rumors that workers from Mr. Howard's party helped run Ms. Hanson's campaign. Those with long memories will also recall that Mr. Howard was denied the prime ministership in 1987 after he campaigned on an anti-immigration platform. During the election campaign earlier this year, he was still haunted by a 1988 remark that Asian immigration should be slowed "in the interests of social cohesion."

With commentators of various political hues denouncing Ms. Hanson's views, Mr. Howard had room to do the same, and in the interest of social cohesion he should have done so. He did not. Instead, he stated the obvious, saying that Australia stopped choosing its immigrants on the basis of race in 1972, when the government of the day finally ended the "White Australia" policy. "What matters is the view of the government," said Mr. Howard, "not those of a lone independent." His apparent message to Asian immigrants and the region: No worries. Nothing has really changed.

But it has. In recent years, Australia had earned the image of a more tolerant society, one proud -- at least in big cities such as Sydney -- of a newfound multiculturalism. There was a sense that Australia had turned its back on the past. Former prime minister Paul Keating may have been widely disliked by the end of his tenure, but his vision that Australia should consider itself part of Asia made a lot of sense to many voters. Of course, there were still plenty of bigots spouting egregious nonsense, but the prevailing political climate kept most of them in the closet. Certainly they were not on national radio, spitting venom and encouraging others to do so.

Now they are. By refusing to condemn Ms. Hanson, Mr. Howard has implicitly sent the message that it is acceptable to publicly hurl racial epithets -- and perhaps worse. "One of the great changes that has come over Australia in the last six months," the prime minister said in a recent speech, "is that people do feel able to speak a little more openly about what they feel. In a sense, the pall of censorship on certain issues has been lifted."

The immigration issue warrants plenty of discussion, but it also requires strong leadership. Australians need to be told -- and told often -- that they cannot afford to go back to the days of cultural and economic isolation. A prime motive for Mr. Keating's drive to link Australia's fortunes with Asia's was to revive the moribund economy. And it seems to be working. In recent years, the unemployment rate dropped from a high of about 11% to around 8%. However, the growth is not universal, which explains some of the resentment.

The anger currently on display in Australia is partly a reaction to the social trauma caused by the sudden influx of relatively well-to-do Asians. Consider the Sydney suburb of Chatswood. For decades it has been the exclusive preserve of Anglo-Saxon professionals. Then, starting in the late 1980s, thousands of Hong Kongers applied for Australian passports as a hedge against China and moved to Chatswood. Suddenly bungalows were joined together or ostentatious mansions erected in their place. Properties were remodeled to reflect the geomancer's feng shui directives. Open-top BMWs blaring Cantopop began to cruise the boulevards. In the space of half a decade, the character of an entire suburb changed.

Managing such change takes long, hard work. It means building bridges, and both sides -- newcomers and old-timers -- have a responsibility to get involved in the process. All parties must make an effort to adapt.

Cutting the number of immigrants will not solve the growing pains of places like Chatswood. Mr. Howard should understand that. He should prevent the debate over immigration from being hijacked by bigots spouting untruths such as: "Immigrants steal jobs." The PM will not find it easy, however, because much of his government's support comes from conservative redoubts where whites still hark back to Japanese aggression during World War II and tend to see all Asians as the same. Mr. Howard must ensure that such ignorance does not poison his policies.

Australia needs Asia. It needs the money and brains of Asian immigrants. The nation has an annual current account deficit of some $16 billion. The deficit is being funded by the sale of national assets, mainly property, hotels, shares and bonds. Asians are responsible for 80% of the purchases. Mr. Howard should also consider what message his actions -- or lack thereof -- is sending to Asian capitals. He has made it abundantly clear that he does not share his predecessor's enthusiasm for "enmeshment" with Asia. Australian business people worry that Ms. Hanson's comments have caused offense around the region. "The Asian market is very important," said Ian Macfarlane, boss of the Queensland Grain Growers Association. "We cannot afford to have that growth jeopardized in any way, and I'm astounded at the silence by the prime minister." Mr. Howard would do well to speak up and take a stand.


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