The End of Race-Based Politics in Australia?

At first sight, the recent defeat of the Howard Government in Australia looks like a repudiation of the race-based politics that Howard has championed in his thirty-three years in politics.  From his statement in 1988 that ‘If (the level of Asian migration) is in the eyes of some of the community too great, it would be in our immediate term interests and supportive of social cohesion if it were slowed down a little so that the capacity of the community to absorb were greater’ (1) to his refusal to apologise to the Indigenous population for the wrongs inflicted on their population since 1788, race has always been just under the surface in many of Howard’s statements.

For many, the epitome of Howard’s use of race for political gain was the 2001 Federal Election.  Harking back to the Government’s decision to deny the MV Tampa, a Norwegian tanker carrying 433 predominantly Afghan and Iraqi asylum seekers rescued from their sinking vessel, from entering Australian waters in August 2001, Howard proudly proclaimed in his speech at the Liberal Party Campaign Launch that ‘We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.’ (2)  This policy platform played well in the Australian public, still reeling from seeing the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, which came only two weeks after the Tampa Affair.

The attack on asylum seekers continued during the election campaign.  Famously, asylum seekers on a sinking vessel were accused of throwing children overboard, a lie the Government knew to be wrong for weeks during the election.  In an attempt to link the major planks of his campaign, Howard raised the possibility that ‘some people having links with [terrorist] organisations that we don’t want in this country might use the path of an asylum seeker in order to get here’ (3), following on from his Defence Minister who had explicitly linked the two issues only two days after the terrorist attacks on September 11.  The Government also spruiked its policy to continue to imprison those asylum seekers that did reach the Australian mainland in detention camps for indefinite periods of time, a policy introduced by the Australian Labor Party (ALP) in the early 1990s.  This racist behaviour continued on election day, where there are reports that Liberal Party workers murmured, ‘If you want a Taliban for [a] neighbour, vote Labor’ and cheered on a group of youths who loudly announced that ‘they were voting for Johnny Howard because they liked the way he was bashing the ragheads’. (4)

Despite, and it could be argued, because of this racism, Howard’s Government was re-elected with a swing of approximately 2 per cent.  This after the polls at the start of the year pointed to an ALP victory.

After being re-elected again in 2004, this time in complete control of both Houses of Parliament, Howard again was staring at electoral defeat in the first half of 2007, with new ALP leader, Kevin Rudd, enjoying a strong position in the polls.  Again, as in 2001, the Government attempted to use race to provide improve its electoral success.  Again, linking migration to terrorism, the Howard Government detained Indian doctor Mohammad Haneef, in Australia under the controversial 457 visa system, in relation to the terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow in June 2007, only for the case to completely fall apart in the courts.  Haneef was deported on the basis of ‘character grounds’. 

With the Haneef case unsuccessful, the Government moved on to Indigenous Australians.  Using a report detailing the abuse of Indigenous children as its reason, the Government launched its ‘intervention’ in the Northern Territory.  Better seen as an invasion, this ‘intervention’ resulted, amongst other outcomes, in the removing of land rights in many Indigenous communities.  Again, with the ALP supporting the Government, this intervention did not improve the position of the government in the polls.

In a final attempt, the Government returned to its favourite whipping-boy – asylum seekers.  Rather than attacking asylum seekers from the Middle East, the Government shifted its aim to Africa, in particular asylum seekers from the Sudan.  After the fatal bashing of a Sudanese refugee, by two non-African men, the Minister for Immigration, Kevin Andrews stated, ‘I have been concerned that some groups don’t seem to be settling and adjusting into the Australian way of life as quickly as we would hope and therefore it makes sense to put the extra money in to provide extra resources, but also to slow down the rate of intake from countries such as Sudan.’ (5)  If ever there was a case of blaming the victim, this appeared to be it, but, again, the ALP supported the new cap on African refugees, while questioning the Government’s motives. (6)

It wasn’t until the last few days of the campaign that race again raised its head.  Liberal Party members and volunteers in Western Sydney were caught distributing a pamphlet purportedly from the Islamic Australia Federation (an organisation that does not exist).  The pamphlet urged all Muslims to support the ALP because of its ‘support to forgive our Muslim brothers who have been unjustly sentenced to death for the Bali bombings’, the party’s ‘support for our new Mosque construction’ and being ‘the only political party to support the entry to this country of our Grand Mufti reverend Sheik al-Hilaly’. (7)  Those caught distributing the flyer included the husband of the current Liberal member of the electorate, who defended her husband, calling the flyer a joke, and the husband of her nominated successor.  The uncovering of the flyer unmasked the racist attitudes of many Liberal Party supporters, although Howard, realising the political damage that the flyer would cause, was quick to condemn the flyer and call for the expulsion from the party of the culprits.

Unfortunately for the Government, none of these measures were successful in improving the polls, with the ALP supporting the Government’s position.  This lack of success meant that the Government never recovered in the polls, and despite running a campaign of fear over the ‘union-dominated’ Labor Party, 24 November 2007 saw the defeat of the Howard Government, eleven and half years after its ascent to power in 1996.

Although the pamphlet case was evident of the length’s the Liberal Party would go to maintain control of the Federal Parliament, and saturated the news for the day, another incident was possibly more important to the future of the country.  Sixteen Indonesians, including ten children, were rescued from a sinking vessel in the Timor Sea, sparking memories of the ‘children overboard’ incident during the 2001 Federal Election.  Fortunately, this time, no such false claims were made, and the incident was not used as a political football by either party.  But, what it did highlight was the ALP immigration policy, which, up to this point, had not been broadly discussed. 

Rudd called for an ‘orderly’ migration programme, and committed his government to maintaining the policy of mandatory of asylum seekers, while dismantling of the ‘Pacific Solution’ (where asylum seekers are sent to small islands nations in the Pacific for processing), but for what appears to be economic reasons.  Further, Rudd stated that a new Labor Government will ‘turn back the boats on the high seas’ if they are seaworthy. (8)

In the same interview, Rudd outlined his plans not to consider a treaty with Indigenous Australians, to continue Howard’s policy of ‘practical reconciliation’ and to fully fund and carry through the intervention in the Northern Territory.

The aim of progressives has therefore been achieved: the Howard Government has been defeated.  In repudiation of the racist undercurrent of many of the Howard Government’s actions, it appears that Howard has also lost his own seat (only the second time a sitting Prime Minister has lost his seat in Australian political history) and the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough, has also lost his seat. 

But given Kevin Rudd’s apparent support for much of Howard’s policy platform, it is now important for progressive Australia to continue to work to ensure that the Labor Party delivers.  Perhaps, the hard work has only just begun.

(1)Max Walsh, ‘Liberals Have Abandoned the High Moral Ground’, Sydney Morning Herald, 4 August 1988, p. 15.
(2)John Howard, Transcript of Address at the Federal Liberal Party Campaign Launch, Sydney (28 October 2001, cited 26 November 2007); available from
(3)Tom Allard and Andrew Clennell, ‘Howard Links Terrorism To Boat People’, Sydney Morning Herald, 8 November 2001, p. 6.
(4)Mungo MacCallum, ‘Girt by Sea: Australia, the Refugees and the Politics of Fear’, Quarterly Essay, Vol. 5, 2002, pp. 60-61.
(5)Farah Faroque, Andrea Petrie and Daniella Miletic, ‘Minister speaks on Africans’, The Age, 2 October 2007, p. 2.
(6)Tory Maguire, ‘Political slaughter of African refugees has got to stop’, Daily Telegraph, 8 October 2007, p. 1.
(7)A copy of the pamphlet can be seen at
(8)Dennis Shanahan, ‘Politically correct will stay in the doghouse’, The Australian, 23 November 2007, p. 16


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