When asked to comment on the Cronulla beach mob violence, which everyone knows was a racist attack on people with Middle Eastern appearance - whatever the instigation might have been - Prime Minister John Howard today refused to call those Aussie rioters racists.
However, he did condemn the incident in which up to 5,000 people descended on North Cronulla Beach, chanting racist slogans and hunting for people of Middle Eastern appearance. Howard said:
"Attacking people on the basis of their race, their appearance, their ethnicity, is totally unacceptable and should be repudiated by all Australians irrespective of their own background and their politics. I believe yesterday's behaviour was completely unacceptable but I'm not going to put a general tag of racism on the Australian community. I think it's a term that is flung around sometimes carelessly and I'm simply not going to do so."
Howard’s reluctance to call those responsible for what they really have been, racists, was not entirely unexpected. The Prime Minister has a history of refusing to call extremists or extremist statements for what they really have been!
When Pauline Hanson made racist remarks which attracted vocal support from a number of Australians, Howard evaded condemning her or her supporters by stating that while he didn’t agree with their views he understood why they took such a stand. He was loudly condemned by community leaders and of course the Opposition for even admitting he ‘could understand’ racist attitude.
When Rev Fred Nile, a rightwing Christain minister, made a bigoted proposal to ban the wearing of chador in Australia, that the long flowing Middle Eastern dress could conceal all sorts of deadly weapons, John Howard again refused to condemn that racist anti-Muslim remark by the Christain leader. He only rejected Fred Nile’s proposal when he noted that the majority of Australians came out swinging against the Christian minister’s stupid and bigoted comment.
The same treatment occurred with the Schapelle Corby and Nguyen Tuong Van cases, with the latter suffering the ultimate sentence from Singapore. He only made sympathetic noises when he sensed the growing Aussie support, particularly for the former.
Is John Howard a racist? I would say an emphatic NO. No doubt he has a conservative world view but I doubt very much that he is personally racist in any way.
What he is however, is a very calculating politician who is very conscious and careful not to offend the more conservative elements of Australian public. As I mentioned in my earlier posting Brotherhood of Evil behind Sydney Riotings, Howard had invested much effort in drawing those conservative elements away from Pauline Hanson’s One Nation back into his party’s fold. Obviously he doesn’t want to offend them or those who sympathise with the more extreme and unruly mob, as witnessed at Cronulla beach.
While there have been grounds for grievances against Lebanese youth gangs by the locals of Cronulla, there is none for the mob behaviour. But Howard must have felt he would have difficulty navigating between the two considerations to the satisfaction of the white Australian public.
He fears that calling those bigots racists would antagonise their sympathisers against supporting the Coalition Party. That was also why he didn’t press Singapore excessively over the Nguyen Tuong Van’s case, as there have been right wing elements in Australia, no doubt a minority (but then every vote counts) who wanted the 25-year old Aussie hanged for drug trafficking. His qualified appeals (“won’t harm Aus-Sing bilateral relations if execution happens”) was a delicate balancing act to please the anti-death-penalty camp and the right wing elements who wanted drug traffickers hanged.
But like the Fred Nile’s chador issue, Howard will certainly change his tone if he obtains the feedback that the majority of Australians have been revolted by the indiscriminate mob violence at Cronulla beach, which police stated was instigated by neo-Nazis and other white supremacist groups like the Patriotic Youth League.
Howard is very much governed by his perception of where the voters are, making him the most consummate politician, and possibly explaining why he continues as a popular prime minister for so long.
When reporters switched their inquisitorial attention to New South Wales Premier, Morris Iemma of the Labour Party, and asked what he thought about the Prime Minister’s refusal to call the Cronulla rioters racists, Iemma also tried to tiptoe through the tulips, by stating: "Look, it was un-Australian what happened at the weekend."
But the press, probably sensing blood because Iemma is a brand new State Premier, didn’t let him slip away so easily and insisted that he gave his opinion on whether Howard was ‘in denial’.
Not unlike Howard, Iemma was also mindful of the conservative votes and thus responded by first qualifying that the assault on the lifeguards by Lebanese thugs was also a cowardly act, before he admitted that the Cronulla inciodent was racist in motive. He said:
"It was quite clear, quite clear from the vision and the sound, both of what was on television and those that were there, those sorts of remarks, that 'sloganeering' that was taking place, was something that was utterly racism".
In other words, he was saying that he formed his opinion on what he saw on TV. Then to show he would be fair to both sides, he added:
"And the incidents that occurred the week before were just as ugly, thuggish and cowardly. Now, let's remember how this started, that was, a cowardly attack on an Australian icon.”
He was referring to the Lebanese attacks on the lifeguards, to mollify those who were angry over the bashing of the Australian icons. Iemma promised:
"But for those that seek retribution, there will be an unrelenting fight to ensure the perpetrators are brought to justice.”
The fields of Australian politics are filled with dainty tulips that require delicate tiptoeing through if none is to be bruised. And of course the Australian media will always be there to toss the occasional live mines into the tulip fields to encourage the politicians to make that disastrous faulty step.