Earlier this week, I was in Adelaide for an academic conference. The subject was the “border politics of whiteness“. Not exactly the cup-of-tea for a small-“c” conservative like myself. One of the keynote speakers was Dr Sara Ahmed, a British academic of Pakistani descent who was brought up in Australia. She provided a rather novel re-interpretation (I’d suggest misinterpretation) of the movie Bend It Like Beckham, which she examined in the context of how white people deal with Asians.

Believe it or not, in the United Kingdom, when people use the term “Asians”, they are referring to people from the sub-Continent – Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Nepalese etc. In Australia, we use the term “Asian” to describe someone of Indo-Chinese heritage. When John Howard made his 1988 remarks about Asian immigration, it was assumed his target was Indo-Chinese migrants, many of them refugees.

Recent reports of Maxine McKew targeting “Asian” voters (a claim she has denied) suggest many Indo-Chinese migrants wanted to teach Mr Howard a democratic lesson on why the politics of race simply doesn’t work in the long run. But it wasn’t just Indo-Chinese voters responding to McKew’s overtures.

The gossip I heard around the traps is that many of my South Asian uncles and aunties also collectively decided to punish Howard. For many, it wasn’t just about 1988. It was also about the anti-Muslim sentiments of Howard and his ministerial minstrels (including Dr Nelson). Believe it or not, when Muslims are vilified by politicians, the victims of verbal and physical attacks are not just women in headscarves but also men in beards and turbans (like the Prime Minister in this photo standing on the left).

Most of these men aren’t even Muslims. Further, the treatment of Dr Mohamed Haneef by the Immigration Minister also went down like a lead balloon among shoppers at any one of Bennelong’s many Indian spice shops. Middle class Indians aren’t exactly huge ALP fans. But they certainly aren’t fond of alleged conservatives who play the politics of race. And they certainly added plenty of chilli and spice to the vote in the former PM’s electorate.

Then again, race politics hasn’t harmed Pauline Hanson, who profited handsomely despite gaining just over the 4% required to cash in on the taxpayers’ largesse.