jh scores own goal

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    The battle for minds

    By Ian Cohen
    November 5, 2003

    Ian Cohen is one of three Green members of the NSW Upper House. To my knowledge he is the only Jewish politician in the NSW Parliament. In this piece, Ian responds to the Brandis decree that the Greens are Nazis and opposition to the awarding of the Sydney peace prize to Palestinian Dr Hanan Ashwari from some powerful Jewish individuals and groups.

    Following the outbreak of two particularly gross public examples of reckless political narrow-mindedness in the past week, I find myself in a paradoxical situation that highlights not just the absurdity of the comments involved, but their place in a well established pattern of derogatory racial commentary for political gain.

    Apply Liberal Senator George Brandis' comments and I am, as a Green, Nazi-like in my advocacy of social and economic justice for all, not to mention peace and non-violence. Add to this the argument that has erupted over the awarding of the Sydney Peace Prize to Dr Hanan Ashrawi and, being Jewish as well, I am labelled anti-semitic for my advocacy of the same things.

    Senator Brandis' inflammatory and narrow-minded comments established a new low point for the Liberal Party. To make comparisons of anyone with the Nazi regime is invoking an image of genocide and of mass murder.

    That Senator Brandis was able to speak out in this way at all speaks volumes for the attitudes of his party and his Liberal colleagues. The entire Liberal parliamentary party - which failed to critique Senator Brandis's allegations - would do well to heed a fundamental tenet of being Jewish: we remember our past in order to be engaged with our present. A dose of reflection for the Liberals could also include that Jewish history, ritual and traditions compels us to tikkun olam - the healing and repair of the world.

    The Liberal Party appears to have two distinct and separate policies. One is expressed officially as supporting "strength through diversity". The other retreats to a position of intolerance expressed through a well-established pattern of attacks on previously recognised liberalisations. This includes:

    * The dismantling by the federal government of several institutions, including the Office of Multicultural Affairs and the Bureau of Immigration, Multicultural and Population Research.

    * The extension and privatisation of the mandatory detention of undocumented asylum seekers.

    * New policies towards asylum seekers, first culminating in the Tampa episode and the 'Pacific solution' and now through the Melville Island excision and the creation of the "Mackay line".

    * Continuous attacks by conservative politicians, journalists, broadcasters and think tanks on 'politically correct' policies relating to multiculturalism, refugees and Indigenous affairs.

    Even Prime Minister John Howard has expressed a Rousseau-esque yearning for the past to return. "We are losing something," he said in 1996, "which has been indelibly Australian for as long as we have thought of ourselves as Australians, and that is the sense of community and mateship and looking after each other in adversity, which you find in rural Australia".

    While he wooed the ethnic vote prior to the elections of 1996 with politically correct statements, the Prime Minister made it clear soon after being elected that the halcyon days of multiculturalism were over. "I'm a one nation man," he declared.

    Add Senator Brandis' comments last week to the track record of the Howard government on ethnic affairs and multiculturalism and it is easy to see the pattern evolving - the retreat to a position of intolerance.

    The "accepting and open society" the Liberal Party claims to seek now includes having more than 3000 people locked away in the Australian desert or on Pacific islands; the abolition of effective national advocacy; an immigration policy which makes family reunion very difficult; a volatile public opinion potentially susceptible to racist or xenophobic attitudes; and a national political leadership which has exploited all of this.

    To improve community relations requires changed attitudes at the national level. It demands the recreation of viable institutions - preferably outside the province of the Immigration Department. A tolerant and accepting nation needs the constant official repetition that it is and will remain multicultural and that this is of benefit; curriculum and media content which also repeats and develops this theme; and a shift away from the temptation to play the race card in party politics.

    Australia is not likely to go up in flames because of racial tensions. But human rights are individual rights. Among these is the ability to enjoy the benefits of Australian life with equity and free of prejudice.

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