‘Race Politics Is Back,’ but What Does That Mean?

Tim Soutphommasane at an event in Sydney, Australia, in May.

Tim Soutphommasane, Australia’s race discrimination commissioner, will end his five-year term this month and issued a blistering assessment on Monday of the country’s politics and its commitment to racial equality.

Here are highlights and analysis of Dr. Soutphommasane’s speech, which he delivered Monday night in western Sydney as his last public address.

On the State of Australia and Race

Race politics is back. I take no pleasure in saying this but, right now, it feels like there has never been a more exciting time to be a dog-whistling politician or race-baiting commentator in Australia.

Five years ago, I wouldn’t have said it was likely that we would see the resurgence of far-right politics. I wouldn’t have expected that the biggest threats to racial harmony would come from within our parliaments and from sections of our media. Yet here we are.

Dr. Soutphommasane, a political philosopher with a Ph.D. from Oxford University, opened his speech with a damning, if obvious, diagnosis: Race relations in Australia are getting worse.

His comments came in response to what he later describes as a wave of offensive comments involving race, dominated by conservative commentators and politicians.

But his speech also follows a recent burst of activity by his office that included several data-heavy reports showing the wide gap between Australia’s ethnically diverse population and the mostly white elites running government and business.

Last month, he was co-author of a report showing that Australia’s leading companies are failing to take advantage of the nation’s cultural and linguistic diversity and are losing out as a result.

Before that, he introduced an even more comprehensive look at the lack of diversity in government, large corporations and academia.

In our story about it, we quoted this key conclusion: “Although those who have non-European and Indigenous backgrounds make up an estimated 24 percent of the Australian population, such backgrounds account for only 5 percent of senior leaders.”

On ‘Yellow Peril’ and Fears of China

The specter of history never lurks far away from our public debates. Consider the debate about foreign influence. Notable commentators have suggested there is a ‘silent invasion’ of Australia being conducted by China, with the Chinese party-state planting ‘fifth column’ operatives within our public institutions. It goes without saying that we must protect our democratic institutions from foreign interference. This should give no excuse, though, for some to rerun old fears about the Yellow Peril.

Dr. Soutphommasane dived into the heated debate about Chinese influence on Australian politics by calling out Clive Hamilton, the author of a book about Chinese interference titled “Silent Invasion.”

He went on to cite specific examples of the trickle-down impact of the discussion, including an incident involving Jenny Leong, a Greens party lawmaker in the New South Wales Parliament, who was harangued by a woman who said: “You are taking over. I know your plan. We are all now second-class citizens because you Chinese are taking over.”

On the Media’s ‘Monetization of Racism’

It’s not just politics that is behind this. Alongside the politicization of racial fear, we are also seeing the monetization of racism.

Sections of a fracturing media industry, under the strain of technological disruption, seem to be using racism as part of their business model.

The Australian media landscape is one of the most highly concentrated in the world, and Dr. Soutphommasane is arguing that some media outlets are using racism to attract eyeballs.

These tend to be outlets owned by Rupert Murdoch.

Sky News Australia, a Murdoch-owned cable news channel, faced withering criticism for…

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.