Australia is by most measures one of the world’s most successful multicultural societies, but a controversial cartoon of Serena Williams has rekindled accusations it is also inveterately racist.
Australia should be a poster-child for diversity: One-in-two Australians has a parent born abroad. The economy has been growing for 27 straight years. Crime is barely a worry. Melbourne and Sydney dominate rankings of the best places in the world to live.
Visit any medium-size human habitation on the mind-bendingly large continent and it’s obvious that Australia is the proverbial melting pot — Kiwis, Chinese, Irish, Filipinos, Brits, Vietnamese, Italians, Indians, Greeks and Lebanese at every turn.
But this racial, ethnic and linguistic diversity contrasts sharply with a lingering image of Australia as an angry white country stuck in the past.
It was an impression underscored by foreign outrage about an Australian cartoonist’s depiction of a fat-lipped and masculine Serena Williams, and the collective shrug it prompted Down Under.
After the drawing was published, a CNN opinion piece described Australia as “the nicest racist country you will ever see” and the New York Times thundered that “Australia has never fully confronted its own history of racism.”
Many Australians admit there is a problem.
The legacy of European settlers terrorising Aboriginal communities looms large, and inequality between the two groups remains staggering.
Racial epithets are still tossed around in a way that makes visitors’ jaws drop. A “White Australia” immigration policy, only fully dismantled in the 1970s, and more recently off-shore migrant detention centres have also done much to frame the modern image of Australia abroad.
But many Australians also believe the problem can be overstated.
“There is an element in Australian society that is racist,” said John Blaxland, a professor of International Security at the Australian National University. “But every country has them. Name a country that doesn’t.”
He insists the reality of modern Australia is a “vibrant, booming, multicultural society” that integrates almost 200,000 migrants a year — the equivalent of the United States taking three million people.
“Australia is a success story!” he insisted. “We’re really hopeless at selling that message. People are dying to get here, literally and metaphorically. It is such a coveted place to be, why is that so? It’s not because of racism.”
– Powerful white men –
As real as the problems in race relations are, popular stereotypes have also played their part framing Australia as a racist nation.
Ask any foreigner to name a famous Australian and they are likely to cite the endearing yet uncultured “Mick ‘Crocodile’ Dundee” — well before indigenous rights activist Eddie Mabo or pioneering social reformer Edith Cowan.
Today experts point to a coarsening of Australia’s politics and a powerful right-leaning media that has turbocharged the impression of a country that is socially tone-deaf.
Duncan McDonnell, a professor at Griffith University’s school of governance, sees immediate roots of that politics in the Liberal Party’s decision to co-opt right wing messages in the 1990s, giving the politics of prejudice a mainstream platform.
Figures like populist firebrand Pauline Hanson, once on the fringes, found their ideas firmly at the centre of public debate.
The strategy was “on one hand to shoot the messenger and on the other hand steal part of their message.”
“They started being much more explicitly harsh on immigration and also on issues related to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.”
Creaking infrastructure and stagnant wages growth have helped give populist messages more purchase.
– ‘Monetisation of racism’ –
That hard-line message has been amplified by Australia’s conservative press — on Sky News and in print media outlets like the Herald-Sun which printed the Serena cartoon not once, but twice.
Both are owned by Rupert Murdoch and like his properties in Britain and America, simultaneously channel populist sentiment and steer it further to the right.
Australia’s former race discrimination commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane, describes what he sees a “monetisation of racism.”
Some Australian media — which is still overwhelmingly male and white — have embraced hard-line views as a business model to counteract shrinking audiences, he told AFP.
“You only need to look at the Herald-Sun’s response to get an indication of how that works. You try to take advantage of the outrage, you try to run with it as your front page and that’s your coverage for the next two days.”
Data from the Australian National University suggests Australians have — with some ebbs and flows — actually become markedly more tolerant over the last three decades.
Its tracking of public opinion on key issues since 1987 has found that attitudes toward indigenous Australians and asylum seekers have softened dramatically.
Soutphommasane insists racism is a serious problem, but Australia’s media and her politicians, which garner so much attention, “do not reflect the multicultural character of Australia.”