It’s a point missed by many progressives in their reaction to Peter Dutton’s race-baiting over South Sudanese crime in Victoria: he’s doing so from a position of both personal and ideological weakness, rather than trying to repeat the successes of John Howard’s Golden Years of Dogwhistling.

After all the debate about what’s labelled, occasionally correctly, as “identity politics”, progressives should at least be aware that when cries of racism start going up, the smart move is to think about the economics involved. And you don’t even need to be — pace my good friend Ms Razer — a Marxist to find that a useful approach.

Peter Martin made good sense in Fairfax today, pointing out the long history of various ethnic/racial “gangs” being singled out by the media and politicians on the make, and the glamorisation of being deemed a “gang” (in the time-honoured way that the wrath of parents/media/commentators toward sexting/rap/rock’n’roll/drugs/that terrible new craze of waltzing has served to portray them as thrillingly transgressive ).

It’s also worth noting — as few apparently have — that if there’s any sort of flaw in Australia’s immigration program that prevents the federal government from deporting non-Australian-born residents when they have committed serious crimes, it is a problem the Coalition itself has failed or refused to fix for more than four years, and Dutton himself as minister for more than three. This should include people on humanitarian visas who have abused the sanctuary offered by Australia by committing crimes, especially violent crimes; people convicted of harming others in a sanctuary country have no moral basis to demand non-refoulement. In complaining about crime within a recently arrived community, whether it’s a fiction or not, Dutton is, in effect, lamenting the very system that he has been in charge of for years.

Then again, given the extraordinary levels of incompetence routinely displayed by the Department of Immigration — now, in a bureaucratic and aptly named demonstration of the Peter Principle, bloated into an absurd “Home Affairs” portfolio as a reward — that the buffoons of Belconnen can’t even do the basics of protecting Australians via the immigration visa system should come as no surprise.

The economic aspect is this. The defining characteristic of the Turnbull government is that it has had to grapple with the Western collapse of neoliberal economics under the weight of wage stagnation and surging inequality. This has been a difficult challenge for a party of neoliberals (in coalition, admittedly, with a clutch of agrarian socialists), although in some senses the “only Nixon could go to China” factor has helped — for example, Labor could never have tried to impose a de facto nationalisation of the east coast energy market as Turnbull has had to do.

With the electoral revolt against neoliberalism has come an intense nationalism and tribalism, which sees the open borders and free trade espoused by neoliberals as a recipe for undermining wages, exporting jobs and curbing national sovereignty. Trying to determine whether this nationalist instinct is racist or economic misses the point that it’s both, and that it’s absurd to talk about racism separately from economics anyway. The hostility toward foreign workers — Polish workers taking UK jobs because of EU border rules, 457 visa workers taking Australian jobs, jobs shifting to Mexico under NAFTA — is a mix of economic resentment and a toxic loathing of the Other, whether racially or ethnically Other, or merely being from an Other country.

This reinforces perceptions of unfairness generated by rising inequality: voters believe governments (and companies) are behaving unfairly in failing to strongly preference local workers. The fairness concept is a key component of malice toward asylum seekers in Australia. The phrase “queue jumper” was always the most potent term of abuse of maritime asylum seekers, because it suggested they were behaving unfairly compared to “real” refugees who played by the rules and tried to come to Australia the authorised way (like white Australians didn’t in 1788, of course).

In targeting the South Sudanese community, Dutton is offering a variant of this — his message is that a community of people are behaving unfairly by abusing the hospitality Australia has extended to them.

The problem for Dutton — and the racist right more generally — is that while the right is traditionally good at exploiting nationalism and racism, it is poorly placed to exploit the economic roots of nationalism and racism, because its dominant economic narrative is one of globalisation, free trade and open borders for workers. The “abolition” of the 457 visa class last year illustrated this — 457 visas have simply been replaced with another, slightly different category, that inconveniences no one except tech bros who prefer to import their software talent from offshore. Indeed, 2016-17 actually heralded an increase in 457 visas. It is the left which is much more effective at exploiting economic xenophobia — it’s in the DNA of unions to oppose foreign workers (or ensure that they are paid at, and receive the same conditions as, local workers), and Labor has a long history of opposition to foreign investment.

Dutton’s attacks on the South Sudanese community are a cover for what is a significant weakness for the government — it is pulled by its heart toward globalisation and neoliberalism, but by its head toward interventionism and harder borders, because that’s where the votes are. Using economic resentment to exploit racism within the electorate only gets you so far. Sudanese refugees aren’t taking anyone’s jobs, and that’s where the real issue for the government will remain until strong wages growth is restored and workers stop worrying about employment security.

Peter Fray

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