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  January 4, 2002  

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Anti-terrorism revives 'White Australia' policy
By Kalinga Seneviratne

SYDNEY - Media debate about the economic and social costs of immigration is rekindling suspicions that the government of Prime Minister John Howard may be quietly considering the re-introduction of some sort of "White Australia" policy.

"Despite what a few hyperbolic types might allege, the 'White Australia' policy is dead and gone," said Dr Gerard Henderson, executive director of the Sydney Institute. "However, if influential Australians have their way, it might soon be replaced by a Muslim Immigration Restriction Act or perhaps, a Judeo-Christian Australia policy."

Australian diplomats and politicians, however, will be quick to dismiss such suggestions, even pointing out that Pauline Hanson's racist One Nation Party was soundly beaten in the November polls. But the fact is that in order to win back voters from the far right anti-immigration party, Howard's anti-immigration rhetoric reflected very much the platform of One Nation. He even went as far as suggesting during the campaign that some of the boat people from Iraq and Afghanistan, whom Australia has refused to let in, could be terrorists.

In order to protect Australia from "international terrorism", the issue of resurrecting some sort of a "White Australia" policy has been quietly raised through the media, with a subtle economic focus given to it. Until the mid-1970s, Australia had a policy that specified that only those with European ancestry could migrate to Australia. It was designed to stem the "yellow peril" - the possibility of large numbers of Asians, especially Chinese, flocking to Australia. Now, some respected economists, sociologists and influential media commentators are openly debating economic arguments to justify the re-introduction of a discriminatory immigration policy.

For instance, Wolfgang Kasper, emeritus professor of economics at the University of New South Wales, argued that because "no community can function effectively without shared institutions or values", immigrants should be screened for their ability to be part of these factors in Australia. Kasper added that a set of shared institutions and values are precious social capital. He noted that although all people may be equal, they carry deeply held cultural and institutional baggage of greater or lesser value for life in Australia. "Of the various institutional systems developed by man, probably none is more resistant to accepting new ground rules than the Middle Eastern tradition. This is not a consequence of biology and race, but of environment and race," said Kasper, arguing that this means Middle Eastern migrants can have friction with ordinary Australians. Thus, Kasper called for Australia's immigration policy to be restructured to include a selection criteria that have to "measure the readiness or otherwise of newcomers to fit in with our open society".

Another key figure to join in the debate is John Stone, former secretary to the treasury and ex-senator of the National Party. He was a member of the shadow cabinet in 1988, when the then opposition leader Howard raised the issue of restricting Asian immigration. Stone was one of his strongest supporters in the shadow ministry. In an article in The Australian entitled, "We only want those who are prepared to be like us", he called for a new immigration policy that discriminates not on the basis of race but culture.

Stone said: "Australians must fundamentally rethink the stupidities which for 20 years now have dominated our immigration policies and, along with them, our official policies of multiculturalism." He defines multiculturalism as "non-assimilation" to the mainstream culture. "Our future immigration policy should have nothing to do with immigrants' skin color or ethnicity," added Stone. "It should have everything to do with whether those concerned are capable of assimilating into Australia's basically Judeo-Christian culture, and disposed to do so." Espousing the theory of the superiority of the European Judeo-Christian culture over all others, he added: "All cultures are not equal, and it is ridiculous - and since September 11 much more dangerous - to keep insisting that they are."

Sydney Institute's Henderson disagrees, pointing out that Muslims have been in Australia since 1860. While the Islamic population has been growing rapidly in the last 20 years, the majority of them are not Arab, and the majority of the Arabic immigrants are not Muslims, he explains. "It is reasonable to expect that all Australian residents - whether of the Judeo-Christian culture or otherwise - obey our laws and respect our pluralistic traditions. For most parts this has been the case," observed Henderson.

This latest bout of nostalgia for the less complicated times of the "White Australia" policy by the country's conservative white establishment has been triggered by the Howard government's recent refusal to allow Middle Eastern and Afghan asylum seekers to land on Australian soil. The government's rhetoric has been uncomfortably close to that which was used to shut out non-white immigrants from Australia for most of the 20th Century.

Former human rights and equal opportunities commissioner Chris Sidoti said that groups trying to change the Howard government's stance on asylum seekers have been wasting their time. He suggests that they should focus on changing community attitudes. "I don't think we've got yet the answer to how those kinds of fears can be laid to rest, but certainly we've wasted a hell of a lot of time in trying to persuade this government to change its policy," Sidoti said at the launch of the Australian Human Rights Register earlier this month. The register accused the Howard government of subjecting asylum seekers to violence and encouraging xenophobia with its policy toward boat people.

Sidoti said that the alternatives to detaining asylum seekers, proposed by non-government bodies, have been ignored by the government. "That was a miscalculation, a strategy that has not worked," he said. "We should spend more time talking to the community."

A report released by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in December said that the level of racism against those who do not fit into the stereotype of the "typical Australian" is increasing across Australia. Since the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, reports of cases of racism against all ethnic communities have increased, added the report.

(Inter Press Service)

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