When will the federal government announce a replacement for outgoing Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane?
I ask this only because Soutphommasane’s term is up on Sunday and we cannot possibly wait months for his replacement, not when we have Fraser Anning in parliament, Blair Cottrell on television and Andrew Bolt on mainstream news sites. And I ask this because I fear the influence of the Institute for Public Affairs which earlier this year wrote to federal members of parliament arguing for the axing of the position.
Soutphommasane was outstanding, worked a zillion hours a week, wasn’t afraid to stand up to racists, big and small. He led the battle to save section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, when it looked as if the pallid ranks of the LNP, led by former attorney-general George Brandis, would succeed in changing the wording from "insult", "offend" and "humiliate" to "harass". Yes, led by Brandis, the man who told us Australians had a right to be bigots. Our Race Discrimination Commissioner saw them all off and I cannot believe I youth-shamed him when he was appointed.
While current Attorney-General Christian Porter is on the record saying Soutphommasane will be replaced, those on the shortlist were interviewed in June. That’s a long time to be sitting on good news, if good news it is. And when I say good news, let me say I hear gossip that Herald Sun columnist Rita Panahi applied, that Warren Mundine wanted to apply. And Augusto Zimmerman, a former law reform commissioner in WA who left his job at a university for inexplicable reasons, something to do with too much concentration in the faculty of the status of women in law.
What I fear now is there will be a dramatic change to the office of the Race Discrimination Commissioner, a big shift in its responsibilities and a striking change to its name. Of course, that would require legislative change and further delays. We just cannot afford to wait as long as we did for the replacement Sex Discrimination Commissioner or the Human Rights Commissioner, not when we are normalising race hate every single day, when race hate has new and more ‘acceptable’ platforms.
Here’s what worries me. The Attorney-General gave it away earlier this year when he said that all commissioners had to “have an understanding and empathy not merely for minority groups but for middle Australian values ... they are not positions well suited for people with radical views.”
Middle Australia is not the one in trouble here. Middle Australia is not experiencing veils pulled off women in the street, swastikas drawn on their synagogues, ghastly cartoons demonising them.
I bet it’s no coincidence that the government is sitting on the long-awaited report into religious freedom in Australia from former Liberal minister Philip Ruddock. It’s been parked in the back paddock since May and, for all we know, waiting to deliver an expansion of anti-discrimination laws to cover Christian bakers who don’t want to make cakes for gay weddings, or some other tortuous view of what Christianity is about. You can just imagine, right?
What we’ve seen in the last few weeks is nothing short of terrifying. Anning, Australia’s latest senator-by-accident-of-eligibility, appalled the vast majority of Australians when he went on a poorly informed rant about migration (my colleagues wrote an extensive debunking of his claims. Basically nothing he said was based in evidence). If you too are not familiar with the phrase ‘final solution’ as he claims, please send me the name of your school and I will ring them (I rang the school that used to be De La Salle College in Redcliffe, where Fraser Anning went to boarding school. Anning was born in 1949 and try as I might, I couldn’t get anyone to take responsibility for his poor grasp of history. Shame.) He wants a return to the days of the White Australia policy. Never mind how the extensive and expansive ways our multi-coloured migrants have contributed to the cultural, social and economic life of our nation, imagine what our lives would be like without felafel. Or pho.
“We as a nation are entitled to insist that those who are allowed to come here predominantly reflect the historic European-Christian composition of society and embrace our language, culture and values as a people,” said Anning, representing Katter’s Australian Party.
The good news is that Anning won’t last long. He inherited the leftover quota from Malcolm Roberts after that foreigner was booted from parliament. As the ABC’s election analyst Antony Green said: “There was no intrinsic quality of Malcolm Roberts or Fraser Anning to get elected. None of the other three One Nation candidates had any capacity to attract votes,” he said. “Senator Anning’s term finishes on June 30 and he will never sit again.”
Hanson’s policies attract votes but not that many votes – and those policies gain particular rapport in Queensland. Elsewhere, the race vote doesn’t play that well. Which might be because around 30 per cent of us are foreign-born (or our darling parents were) and why would we put up with this rubbish. As Green says: “It’s very hard to operationalise migration as an issue without tearing the party system apart.”
Also, the majority of us are not barking mad. And while some of our politicians are, we need another Soutphommasane or similar to wrangle them.
Jenna Price is a Canberra Times columnist and an academic at the University of Technology Sydney.