Legitimising racism: Howard, Hanson, and the 1996 "race debate"

Newman, Paul (1999). Legitimising racism: Howard, Hanson, and the 1996 "race debate" M.A. Thesis, School of English, Media Studies and Art History, The University of Queensland.

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Author Newman, Paul
Thesis Title Legitimising racism: Howard, Hanson, and the 1996 "race debate"
School, Centre or Institute School of English, Media Studies and Art History
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 1999
Thesis type M.A. Thesis
Open Access Status File (Publisher version)
Total pages 115
Language eng
Subjects 370103 Race and Ethnic Relations
Formatted abstract
This thesis analyses the conservative political discourse on race issues – Aboriginal welfare, native title, reconciliation, multiculturalism, and Asian immigration - from the period of Pauline Hanson's election in March 1996, to the passing of John Howard's Ten point plan' in July 1998. This period covers Hanson's rise, the creation of her One Nation Party, and its electoral debut in the Queensland state election of June 1998. Conservative discourse here refers to the discourse of the political right in Australia: the Liberal and National parties at state and federal level, Hanson, and industry lobby groups such as the National Farmers' Federation, which have had such significant influence during the native title debates.

Since Hanson's election, parliamentary conservatives have situated themselves in a confused relationship to her: led by Prime Minister John Howard, they have exhibited a strong desire to align themselves with Hanson's ideas and supporters, that had to be balanced against a need to be distanced from her when her racism threatened to become electorally damaging to the Liberal/National Party cause. It is argued that a politics of blame emerges in this conservative discourse, a targeting of racial difference through derogatory comments on Aborigines and Asians, coded within protestations about cultural self-defence, or about the right to 'speak out.' The strong sense of grievance established by independent Member of Parliament Pauline Hanson in the post-election period drew on the 'special pleading' for the majority implied by the Coalition's 1996 electoral strategy, and gained sustained public popularity. As an extension of complaint about an ostensible restraint on 'free speech,' this grievance was worked into a mythology of victimisation, created and sustained by rhetorical concepts that gained considerable currency in the public/political sphere. Hanson's scapegoating of Aborigines and Asians was given freedom in this context, able to be defended on the grounds of her membership of the 'mainstream' and validated in terms of a rejection of political correctness.' It is suggested that this 'race debate' forms the basis of the conservative reaction to the previous Labor government's endorsement of positive manifestations of racial difference in the national identity, which was expressed in the acceptance of native title and multiculturalism and gestures towards self-determination for Aborigines such as ATSIC.

This thesis analyses the underlying cultural and historical links that bind this conservative discourse on race in its Australian context, arguing that in its attack on racial difference, this conservative discourse draws on a history of race relations, which includes the dispossession of Aborigines, their subsequent treatment, and the maintenance of the White Australia Policy until the 1960s. This discourse mobilises the recently revived tradition of negative public evaluations of Australia's racial others, which have involved both John Howard and history professor Geoffrey Blainey in issues of Asian immigration and Aboriginal land rights. Blainey's continued influence highlights the importance of Australian History and history in the negotiation of these public issues.

This thesis argues that a racist, colonialist discourse was deployed by conservative elements at a crucial moment of the resolution of Australia's white/black relations. Hanson's agenda, and the Howard government's alignment with it, can be seen as a timely justification of the aggressions and oppressions of the past, part of an attempt to minimise the restitution due to Aborigines on the basis of their past treatment by the colonisers and governments of Australia. An analysis of the usefulness and timeliness of the public racism of these mutually enforcing agendas is therefore central to this thesis.

Public racism has been most extensively deployed in opposition to the existence of native title, following from the High Court's Wik decision in December 1996. The Wik decision, which with Mabo has been particularly threatening to conservative ideology, was the subject of an often hysterical public debate; like so many of the 'race issues' which gain public prominence, the attacks on native title reveal the extent to which Australia is inextricably tied to its colonialist past. It will be argued that both Labor and the Coalition shared a belief about the racial tolerance of white Australians, but it was derived from very different mobilisations of the past. The importance of the rise of this conservative discourse on race to Australian nationhood, then, is its strategic manipulation of both the colonialist past and a 'post-colonial' national future. The prominence of this debate in the 1990s refuses to allow the national narrative to leave its colonial roots: it is thus both politically conservative and historically regressive.
Keyword Australia -- Race relations
Racism -- Australia
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