TRADING ON INSULTS - JOHN HOWARD AND THE ANTI-ASIAN TAG
A number of ozbloggers have been critical of a recent piece
by Opposition trade spokeperson, Craig Emerson, in which he says that our beloved Prime Minister is anti-Asian. To hear the bloggers speak you'd think that Howard had never given people reason to think this before and that Emerson was uttering something that had never crossed anyone's mind. Is it simply a measure of Howard's new-found (hard-won?) respectability that it is now taboo to even mention what was once a commonplace? Or are my fellow bloggers just being a bit precious?
Now I think there are problems with Emerson's article, not least its repetitiveness. There is also the fact that whatever views he holds about Howard, you can't make the easy extension and say that his attitudes pervade our entire trade and foreign policy. But Howard anti-Asian?
Well, for a start it's hard to know what it might even mean. Emerson links it to the notion of preferring to trade with nations other than Asian ones. But I suspect that the ozbloggers are getting upset about more than that. Ken Parish calls
the article "unAustralian", "completely repugnant" and "disgusting" (though I note that he seems to have toned down the comments he originally had on his site). Gareth Parker backs him
It seems likely then, that what has people upset is the suggestion that Howard doesn't like Asians as a "race", that he is racist, or something approaching it. Given that "racist" as a term is fraught on any number of levels, let's just deal with the idea that Howard lacks an empathy for Asians. How does this claim stack up?
He did, after all, introduce "race" into political debate back in 1988, declaring we should cut back on Asian immigration ('slowed down a little' was the exact phrase). As I've said, Ken Parish, for one, rejects outright
the claim that Howard is anti-Asian, but what else would you call someone who says we should have fewer Asians coming to live here? Pro-Asian? The comments ended Howard's leadership of the Liberal Party at the time and brought many in his own party out against him. Phillip Ruddock, and a fewothers, crossed the floor and voted against him on a motion that urged an "unqualified commitment" not to use race or ethnic origin as a basis of immigration policy. It was a commitment Howard would not give.
Whether it amounts to racism is another matter. I'm well aware of Katharine Betts' line that the issues raised by Howard (and Blainey) don't actually amount to racism, but this still seems an open question to me. She says
I define racism as the belief
that cultural characteristics are biologically determined, that they cannot be
changed, and that groups sharing these characteristics can be ranked in a
hierarchy of inferiority and superiority. This belief is wrong and it has been used
to excuse terrible acts. The word ‘racism’ describes some of the greatest evils we have
seen. When it is used loosely as a catchall term of abuse, we trivialize something which
should be taken very seriously. For example are ethnic preferences in choice of
marriage partners racism, or just personal preference?
It's fashionable now to call racism as I've defined it ‘old racism’ and to say that today
we must struggle against ‘new racism’. But this ‘new racism’ seems to involve
nothing more than preferring to mix with people like yourself. Such behaviour may
sometimes be cliquey and unfriendly but it's a long way from slavery and mass
Pretty compelling, isn't it? And yet. Surely the line can't be drawn as neatly as this. Even if what Betts calls old racism is different in degree to new racism, it isn't different in kind. Now I'm not saying that it is a trivial difference, but it suggests the two forms are on a continuum rather than on opposite sides of the paper. Thus, different people will interpret different behaviours as being more or less to a given end of the continuum, and such a judgement will be affected by things like their political affiliation. So it is probably fair enough to say that there is a degree of political opportunism being excercised by those who label Howard racist and that this might amount to a misuse of the term. And yet.
Where does Howard's statement, reported by Saun Carney
in his biography of Treasurer Peter Costello, that he (Howard) was "uncomfortable" with the number of Asian faces on the streets of Sydney fall on the continuum?
The tendency today, in a political and punditry climate more favourable to Howard, is to reinterpret his flirtations with "race talk" as a brave and necessary challenge to the stifling atmosphere of political correctness that pervaded at the time. I 'd go along with this to some extent. Any talk of changing levels of immigration was far too easily labelled racist if it suited the political agenda of some people. And yet.
What about Howard's softly softly approach to Pauline Hanson? Was Hanson racist? Or was she just a step further along the continuum than Howard? He said the rate of specifically Asian immigration should be "slowed down a little." She said we were being swamped by Asians. Her words, in fact, mimic very closely a speech Margaret Thatcher made to the Conservative Party in 1978. She said Britain was being swamped by Asians. And as Paul Kelly reminds us in The End of Certainty
, at the time Howard made his Asian immigration comments, he was well under the influence of Mrs Thatcher, having spent some time with her imbibing her credo of "never apologise, never withdraw." Kelly suggests that it was stubbornness, born of Thatcher's influence, that accounts for Howard's failure to withdraw his comments even as it cost him the leadership. But surely he wouldn't have stuck by an opinion he didn't really believe?
What if we abandon the charge of racism and simply say that Howard isn't comfortable with people not of his own ethnic group. That would be okay on Betts's understanding. What if we took it a smidge further and said, Howard just doesn't really like people from Asia. This seems to be Emerson's plan in using the term "anti-Asian", though it also seems clear that many have read it as code for a charge of racism. I think it probably is. But if we're going to allow that sort of analysis, then it is reasonable to apply it to Howard as well and say that his comments about immigration and Hanson were code, euphemisms, for his anti-Asian feelings which may or may not have been racist.
After all, for some reason, he thought it worth singling out Asia as the place from where Australia should take fewer immigrants, so presumably there was something in particular about Asians that he found problematic. According to Betts, this is okay and doesn't amount to racism because it isn't inspired by feelings of superiority or a desire to do physical harm. Okay, but it does amount to not liking them, doesn't it? And where exactly is the line between not liking someone and thinking you are better than them? I mean, it can exist. I don't like plenty of people whom I can happily acknowledge are not worse people than me. But when you associate that dislike (discomfort
if you prefer) with a group ("race") of people and single them out for special consideration because of membership of that group, well, then, at the very least it suggests that Betts's line between "old" and "new" racism isn't as clear-cut as she suggests.
Howard's approach in this matter (less Asian immigration) also smacks a little--just a little--of her other criteria for actual racism, namely, a belief that they, other "races", cannot be changed. Presumably Howard thought there was something unchangeable about Asians that made them problematic as a category of immigrants? Surely if he thought they could change, which can only mean, fit in better and be more like Australians, then there would have been no problem with them coming in almost any numbers. But if you thought they couldn't change.
But how can Howard be anti-Asian? As another blogger, Alex Robson
In today's Melbourne Age, Labor Party hack Craig Emerson writes: "Consistent with the Prime Minister's long-held beliefs, the government is turning its back on Asia"
and, "Maybe the Prime Minister hasn't changed his spots: he just doesn't like Asians."
Robson then offers a bunch of examples of where the Howard government has actually dealt with Asia. For example:
25 October, 2002: Speaking at the APEC Leaders CEO Summit in Mexico, Anti-Asian John Howard announces that the Anti-Asian Australian Government will grant tariff and quota free access for 50 of the world's poorest countries, including Bangladesh, Cambodia and East Timor.
25 October, 2002: Renowned Anti-Asian John Howard announces that the Anti-Asian Australian Government will provide an additional $10 million over four years to assist Indonesia build its counter-terrorism capacity.
8 August, 2002: Renowned Anti-Asian John Howard announces that he has "been advised by the Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji that Anti-Asian Australia’s Northwest Shelf Venture has been chosen by China to be the sole supplier of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to its first LNG project in Guangdong province. The contract will be worth between $20 - $25 billion in export income for Anti-Asian Australia. This is Anti-Asian Australia's largest single export deal. Starting from 2005–06 the venture will supply over 3 million tonnes of LNG per year for 25 years. It is likely to entail an eventual additional investment in a fifth LNG processing train for the Northwest Shelf facilities on the Burrup peninsula, which in itself would be worth about $1.5 billion."
But this proves precisely nothing. You can still be anti-Asian, not like Asians, and decide to do business with them. We do business with Saddam Hussein but I don't think Alex would argue we are therefore pro-Hussein.
A further point in this regard is made by
John Quiggin. He thinks that Howard's critics have overstated the extent of our withdrawal from Asia but that there are some grounds for noting a change in attitude. He quotes a piece
by Cavan Hogue:
That balance sheet shows a government whose public statements have sent the message that Australia is not part of Asia, that relations with Asia must be balanced against important relations with our great and powerful friends, and that previous Australian governments gave too much emphasis to Asia...If you constantly tell people they are not as important to you as they used to be, then you can't blame them for believing you.
Nor can you entirely avoid the label of anti-Asian.
In brief, John Howard has a clear record of antipathy towards Asia, often defining himself in terms of trying to minimise involvement with them. Of course, given our position in the world, we must both trade with Asian countries and allow immigration from them, a fact Howard recognises, but there is little or no evidence that this is other than another strand of his much-vaunted political pragmatism.
His early approach to immigration is, I think, the most revealing aspect. Remember, it was not simply a matter of controlling immigration in general, which anybody who believes in sovereign states has to acknowledge is a legitimate concern of government. No, Howard wanted to limit specifically Asian immigration. He was uncomfortable with Asian faces on the streets of Sydney. It mightn't be racism, but I think it makes the minimum requirements of being anti-Asian. So why the fuss about Emerson revisiting the accusation?
Perhaps a further point is the one made by Ken Parish, and with which I agree: "I can't blame Labor members for getting increasingly desperate about their prospects under Simon Crean's leadership. But if 'arse licking' and 'anti-Asian' rhetoric are the best alternatives they can offer, then God help us."
Emerson should realise that the line just doesn't play and that his job is to articulate an actual trade policy.
But whether Emerson's clumsiness absolves Howard of the charge, I have my doubts.