Despite Joe Hockey’s indignant posturing over the weekend, the fact is that the Liberal Party has used race over the past two decades for its own political advantage. Mr. Hockey, and his Leader Malcolm Turnbull are not racists themselves, but they are members of a political party that has perfected the art of playing to xenophobia and race based fear in recent years.

The evidence of this is irrefutable and reaches back as far as the 1980s. In 1988 John Howard as Opposition Leader split his Party by making emotive remarks about the level of Asian immigration. And in 1996 it was Mr. Howard and his strategists who, rather than seeking to curb Pauline Hanson’s anti-Indigenous and anti-Asian One Nation Party, decided instead to run along with it. Why? Because Hanson was attracting the white working class voter, the people Howard called ‘battlers’?

These voters swung to the Liberal Party in its landslide win over Paul Keating’s Labor in 1996, and Howard was determined to hold them. He could not afford to call Hanson’s views for what they clearly were – racist. In fact Howard on October 19 1996, observed that , “…you can argue a racist position without necessarily being a racist.”

The low point of the Liberal Party’s recent flirtations with racism came in the lead up to the 2001 election when the Howard government, of which Mr. Hockey was a minister, used desperate asylum seekers from the Middle East and Afghanistan to win an election based on fear and xenophobia. Mr. Howard and his ministers made the point on numerous occasions that these “were not the sort of people” we want coming into Australia. They allowed talkback radio and the tabloid media to inject daily into the political atmosphere virulent does of hate filled racist sentiment about “queue jumpers” and “terrorists” on a daily basis, because it gave the Liberal Party a distinct electoral advantage.

That the Liberal Party’s harsh policies towards asylum seekers was race based, is evidenced by the fact that when it was discovered that Cornelia Rau, a European person had been shamefully wrongfully detained, the Howard government moved to hold an inquiry and pay her compensation. But the hundreds of cases of wrongful detention and mental and physical abuse suffered by asylum seekers from the Middle East and Afghanistan did not warrant such attention.

And what about the appalling spectacle of the 2005 Cronulla riots? Instead of urging harmony, respect for diversity and greater tolerance of ethnicity in Australia, Mr. Howard merely declared there was no evidence of racism in Australia. He did not dare upset the voters of Western Sydney who, in the words of Jackie Kelly, one Liberal MP who represented that area, “…do not want their representatives dancing around to the tune of noisy minorities; they want their representatives in mainstream Australia.”

Mr. Hockey, Mr. Turnbull and the Liberal Party pollsters know that there is in Australia a streak of racism and fear about people who are not European. Their polling has told them that for many years. Why not play the race card when you are down in the polls and facing a Prime Minister in Mr. Rudd who is spectacularly popular?

One hopes that the ‘liberal’ Mr. Turnbull will not sanction a whipping up of anti –Chinese sentiment. The Howard government did enormous damage to Australia’s reputation around the world with its xenophobic and perceived racist stance. It’s time for the Liberal Party to close this unsavory chapter in its history.

Peter Fray

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