When all else fails - dogwhistle

Religious organisations have been getting a bad rap in Australia recently, thanks to the Royal Commission that investigated serial abuse of children and the disadvantaged. Those that committed the abuse and those that covered it up deserved what they got. However, there is a tendency to tar all with the same brush, which is unfair. We’ve suggested on this blog before that there are literally thousands of members of religious groups that are working hard to make their communities better and fairer on a daily basis — and in a lot of cases doing it for the love of it because the rate of pay is usually very poor (if it’s paid at all). On top of that, they are probably as mortified regarding the behaviours by the hierarchy of ‘their’ organisations as you or I are.

It’s not very hard to find examples. St Vincent’s Health Australia is operated by a religious order with Catholic affiliations. When Abbott’s Government announced that ‘we’ would accept 12,000 additional refugees as a result of a humanitarian crisis in Africa (yes, you did read that correctly), St Vincent’s offered the temporary use of 60 newly renovated and unused units in an aged care facility in Eltham, about an hour out of Melbourne’s CBD.

The usual suspects went wild. Those that are very good at throwing insults from behind mirrored sunglasses wearing black or flag motif t-shirts that don’t really cover the ‘patriotic’ tattoos went to the site to protest and in the words of The Guardian Their protest – based on racism, misinformation and fantasy – was ugly, threatening and hostile. Another breeder of racism and mis-information, (then newly re-elected) Senator Hanson called the plan an absolute disgrace.

Two years after St Vincent’s threw open the doors, the program of assistance provided by St Vincent’s with some assistance from Catholic Care is coming to a close. So what’s happened? According to The Guardian again
as what became known as the Eltham Project draws to a close, the dire predictions by the extremists — everything from ushering in a local crime wave, to creating an environment of fear among the village’s elderly residents — have proven unfounded.

Instead, what has occurred has been a wonderful exercise in cohesion and respect: a community’s generous embrace of the refugees, who have been eager to put down roots in their new environment.
Out of the 54 adults and seven children temporarily accommodated in the section of the aged care facility, all but four have moved into private rental accommodation and are making a contribution to the society they live in. Fourteen refugees who are over 55 are now renting at the Eltham facility on a long-term basis as it reverts to offer accommodation and care for the over 55’s, and the remaining four that don’t qualify to stay at St Vincent’s are moving on to private rentals in the next few weeks.

Despite the claims of Hanson and others
over the duration of the project, crime in the local area actually went down … dramatically.

The number of recorded offences in the Eltham area dropped by more than 44% between 2016 and 2018.
Australia has been resettling refugees and economic immigrants for decades, from the southern Europeans after World War 2, through the ’10-pound poms’ in the 50s, 60s and 70s, the Vietnamese after the fall of Saigon and more recently those affected by wars and humanitarian disasters in the Middle East and Africa. Generally, the Australian people through government and private organisations (including religious groups) have given targeted assistance to those who need to gain an understanding of the differences in culture and language between their country of origin and Australia as well as some job assistance. In 2007, Liberal Party conservative MP Kevin Andrews discussed the difficulties of being a refugee in a different culture and specifically referenced those who had come here from Sudan (partial paywall)
“We know that there is a large number of people who are young. We know that they have on average low levels of education, lower levels of education than almost any other group of refugees that have come to Australia. We know that many of them, if not most of them, have spent up to a decade in refugee camps and they’ve spent much of their lives in very much a war-torn, conflicted situation.

“And on top of that they have the challenges of resettling in a culture which is vastly different from the one which they came from.”
The year the comment was made is significant — the Howard LNP Government was looking down the barrel of electoral defeat in 2007, so less than a month before the election suddenly immigrants from Africa were not adjusting into Australian society as quickly as ‘required’. Accordingly, the number of immigrants permitted to immigrate from northern Africa (and the distinction is important here — South Africans moving to Australia are generally white) was slashed. It is history that Howard lost the election.

More recently, the LNP under Abbott and Turnbull have maintained the narrative that certain groups of immigrants are more trouble than they are worth, while cutting funding to programs that actually assist immigrants from other cultures to identify Australian cultural norms, receive targeted job assistance and acquire language skills. At times, the target has been ‘boat people’ who ‘jump the queue’ or more recently ‘African gangs’ that, while only being a ‘problem’ in Melbourne (where the Andrews’ ALP State Government is up for re-election later this year and the State Liberal Opposition is running hard on a ‘law and order’ platform), apparently can be used in a fear campaign across the country as witnessed recently in the ‘Super Saturday’ by-elections. The campaign was a spectacular failure as the ‘African gang’ rhetoric aimed at unsettling the ALP candidate in Longman (a marginal seat prior to the by-election) increased the ALP’s margin by nearly 4%.

Sadly, The Shovel’s recent headline Threat Of African Gangs Has Halved Since By-Elections, Analysis Shows has more than the usual faint resemblance to the truth. Conservative politicians have been dogwhistling on race and immigration since the 1980s around election time, with Howard, Abbott, Morrison and now Dutton plumbing new lows as the public ‘got used’ to the existing level of vitriol.

At the height of the ‘white Australia policy’, founder of the Liberal Party, Robert Menzies, stated as a principle of the Liberal and Country Parties during his 1949 election policy speech
Though we naturally want as many migrants as we can get of British stock, we denounce all attempts to create hostilities against any migrant or group of migrants, whether Jew or Gentile, on the grounds of race or religion. Once received into our community, a new citizen is entitled to be treated in every way as a fellow-Australian. The strength and history of our race have been founded upon this vital principle.
You’d have to ask what Menzies would be thinking about those that lead the Liberal Party today. As St Vincent’s has proven yet again, giving assistance to immigrants when they need it, rather than marginalising them, produces positive outcomes.

What do you think?

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