When John Howard suggested in 1988 that he might slow the pace of immigration from Asia, so as to avoid taking in more people than the population was comfortable with, he was well aware he would be criticised within the political class, even, or perhaps particularly in those days, by commentators at The Australian.
But he was shocked by the extent to which critics, even in his own party, thought he had appealed to a national racism in a way that invited questions about his moral fitness to govern. No amount of grovelling to Asian constituencies afterwards ever completely satisfied them that his motives had been pure or that he now understood himself to have been wrong.
There was nothing accidental about what he said. Nor was it anything more than his actual belief at the time. Howard had ample reason to know his statement would be welcomed in many quarters and thought his statement would win him votes, even if it disappointed others. Thirty years on, there is no shortage of politicians willing to pander to the crowd.
There's a long history of Australian hostility to immigrants, particularly immigrants of the latest wave, in that case (during the 1980s) Indo-Chinese. We talk of ourselves as a very successful multicultural nation but, mostly, we are looking back to what we were doing decades ago, not what we are doing now.
More than 200 years ago, poms were complaining that the Irish were failing to assimilate. Progressively right-thinking (white) Australians have resented the entry of northern Europeans, southern Europeans (additionally suspect for being Catholic), Jews, Greeks, Turks and Lebanese. That these were all, more or less, white, and that Australia had a long period of a white Australia policy, did not necessarily reduce the antipathy to the newest wave, even if it was more readily categorised as xenophobic rather than frankly racist. It has almost invariably been alleged that the latest wave of immigrants simply don't fit in, and are responsible for a disproportionate amount of crime.
All the more so when the arrivals were Asian (or now, as in the case of Sudanese, Somali and Zimbabwean settlers, African), because their otherness was immediately apparent. Indo-Chinese were quickly, as earlier arrivals had been, accused of living in ghettos and failing to engage with the wider community, and of being involved in crime, particularly drugs and stand-over tactics, apparently previously unknown in Australia. Australian was undergoing marked economic change, including job insecurity, and some were inclined to blame immigration or to worry that the browning of the country was damaging our sense of ourselves.
Such fears were later exploited by Pauline Hanson mark I, to Howard's disadvantage, and at further cost to his reputation. With extra panic about the threat of terrorism and Islam, they are running again with arrivals from around the Hindu Kush and refugees from Africa. The problems such people have in fitting in are aggravated by the decreased investment in government integration programs, as well as the effects of exaggerating and manipulating concerns about national security. The creation of a sense of siege, requiring an ever more intrusive and coercive state, led by bureaucrats who use the language of fear to build up their empires and their budgets, is supervised by Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton. That ASIO and the federal police – each of which, in its own way, has tried to separate itself from the blame and fearmongering – now answer to him and, in the name of better coordination and effectiveness, will now be under pressure to sing from his hymn sheet is perhaps the greatest bulwark of national insecurity.
Perhaps Howard's mistake, in dog whistling his concerns about how many aliens of different skin colour should be allowed in, was his failure to frame his argument as one against political correctness.
It seems it is OK to say what you like as long as you say you are daring to go past a stifling and appalling political correctness straitjacket. This is said to be inhibiting plain talk and sensible discussion of all of the nation's social problems. Especially if it involves ethnic groups. Smug lefties are, apparently, trying to keep it a secret that some of the latest ethnic groups arriving in Australia have trouble integrating or assimilating.
This week saw the triumph, for the moment at least, of a News Corp campaign to fight an alleged "political correctness" that was said to be preventing Victoria Police from admitting that Melbourne was suffering a reign of terror from South Sudanese gangs. Police, it was said, were busy trying to play down the problem or, so much as they admitted it, to deny that the activities of some Sudanese youths in concert was a "gang" problem, like the problems of motorcycle gangs, organised drug crime or corporate tax evasion. (The mere fact of having something in common with other perpetrators does not necessarily make a gang, or convert illegal behaviour into the realm of organised crime.)
Police hesitance about using the word "gang" or stressing the offenders' ethnicity was said to go against their inclinations. But they were, it was said, hamstrung by the wicked Victorian Labor government, which was refusing to face the problem and deal firmly with it. Dealing firmly with it, of course, means more law enforcement, heavier penalties and more people in jail.
Probably not by coincidence, senior Liberals, state and federal, were soon on the bandwagon, insisting that Melburnians could not sleep safely in their beds at night, or go out to a restaurant, for fear of being assailed by these gangsters, luckily very identifiable in any crowd. It was, it was said, both a symptom and a cause of the state government's having lost control of crime and an example of how the blight of "political correctness" was inhibiting proper management of any number of political, economic and social problems.
Some were inclined to worry that the browning of the country was damaging our sense of ourselves.
The Home Affairs Minister, making life unpleasant in concentration camps and during deportations, Dutton, was forthright on the issue. He told a radio program – choreographed, by total coincidence, by strident Australian columnist and former Liberal minder Chris Kenny – that Victorians were bemused by the African gang violence and "the political correctness that's taken hold; you look at some of the joke sentences that are being handed down.
"There's no deterrents there at the moment and the state government's wrapped the police force up in this politically correct conversation, which I think they're trying to break out of and they're trying to do the right thing, but I think the state government's really been caught flat-footed ...
"... when the police are given direction from the Premier and from the state government down there, which is really a go-soft message, it's unacceptable.
"I think the Victorian public are really outraged by some of the goings-on. I mean, people don't see this in NSW and Queensland. The reality is people are scared to go out at restaurants of a night-time because they're followed home by these gangs, home invasions and cars are stolen. We just need to call it for what it is. Of course it's African gang violence. It's not the whole community."
Most Sudanese refugees integrated with the community, he said. "But obviously we're looking at those at the moment who don't, and I've been very clear about this. If people want to come here, particularly if they're coming out of a war-torn area or an area of desperate poverty, Australia is an opportunity for them that will never come their way again.
"We have a generous welfare system and health system and education, housing, all the rest of it, but this is a two-way street and if people aren't prepared to integrate, if they aren't prepared to send their kids to school, if they have 10 and 12-year-old kids wandering the street at night committing these offences, then frankly they don't belong in Australian society ...
"I think the public is sick of the political correctness and the sensitised versions of statements and people soft-peddling on this stuff. You need to be honest, and if the truth is inconvenient here for the Victorian government, well so be it."
Malcom Turnbull was keen to be seen to be likewise concerned, if not to mention anything to do with race. "We are very concerned at the growing gang violence and lawlessness in Victoria and in particular in Melbourne. This is a failure of the Andrews Labor government.
"Victoria Police is a huge organisation. Much larger than the federal police. It needs the direction, it's got the capacity to do the job but what is lacking is the political leadership and the determination on the part of Premier Andrews to ensure that the great policemen and women of Victoria have the leadership, the direction and the confidence of the government to get on with the job and tackle this gang problem on the streets of Melbourne."
Standing beside him, Health Minister Greg Hunt was not so shy about ethnicity. "Gang crime in Victoria is clearly out of control. We know that African gang crime in some areas in particular is clearly out of control and the failure is not the police, but the Premier.
"The Victorian government has dropped the ball on allowing the police to take a strong, clear role. The solution is very clear: it's [Liberal opposition leader] Matthew Guy's plan and that is tough on drug crime, tough on gang crime, call it out for what it is, and tough sentencing laws and giving the Victorian police the resources they need to do the job."
I am reminded of two things whenever I hear such phrases. One is of a forthright editorial in The Canberra Times in 1947, warning that the intake of refugee Jews was proceeding at a pace beyond what the community could or would tolerate, and that ordinary Australians ran the risk of being reduced to economic servitude by Jews.
"Where black markets and illegalities flourish, the experience is that Jewish refugees are plentifully in evidence," it said. "Australians, particularly-ex-servicemen, are finding themselves elbowed away by the money power which the refugee class exercises, and Australians find themselves exploited by all manner of snide business tricks which have been introduced to this country.
"Moreover, the historically proven experience that Jews are incapable of governing others and unwilling themselves to be governed is being repeated in the lack of Australian sentiment by this class of immigrant. The overwhelming feeling of the Australian people today is that much more discrimination should be shown in the selection of this class of immigrant, and that their number should be strictly controlled in relation to other classes and nationalities of new arrivals."
No political correctness there. But no more virtuous as a result.
I am also reminded of Indigenous Australians, who, judged only by their incarceration rates, must contain within their population a subset of people many times more criminal than the dreaded Sudanese gangs. Yet it is rare, except in Western Australia or the Northern Territory, to have politicians (let alone prime ministers and senior federal ministers) pontificate about them as a law-and-order problem, to announce that one is going to be tough on their forms of crime, call their crime for what it is (whatever that is) or have tougher sentencing as a way of bringing the miscreants to heel.
This is probably not because the ministers or politicians are suffocated by political correctness in relation to Indigenous Australians. It is probably not from innate politeness. Nor unwillingness to call things out for what they are or (as in the case of Mal Brough with the Northern Territory intervention) what he believed them to be. It is because most politicians are well aware that get-tough policies have failed, that jail rates (even under our lily-livered liberal judges) are an international embarrassment and national disgrace, and that mere abuse and grandstanding is highly counterproductive.
So why would such formulas work with other groups facing manifest disadvantage, discrimination and cultural and other problems in quickly fitting in and merging with other parts of the population?
I don't suggest Dutton is anything less than sincere in his beliefs about how being tough on crime, and being resistant to political correctness, are the right approach. But they are beliefs unsupported by much in the way of evidence.
It should be remembered that Dutton was a police officer, and it is primarily from his experience in the Queensland Police Service that his convictions about the right way to deal with crime come. Queensland police, now or in the past, have hardly shown themselves to be expert on the subject.
One gets used to a type of cop who thinks that the world would be a better place if we had more discipline, longer jail sentences, tougher judges, more police and more police powers, and, sometimes, the restoration of the gallows, the whip and national service. There have been times when Queensland police have been given everything they wanted, by eager state governments, some of which made compliant police their personal playthings.
What cannot be said is that the technique reduced crime, whether among the underclasses, the well-heeled smarties who also seemed to have the government on a leash, or even among police themselves. The only thing Victorians have gained from the week's frenzy has been a feel for the unfitness of some politicians for power.
Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times. email@example.com