by Ram Manikkalingam

Screenhunter_14Prime Minister John Howard’s days were numbered the day Dr. Senan Nagararatnam, a radiologist in Sydney, took two weeks leave from work and went to Bennelong – Howard’s electorate – to campaign against him. I have known Senan since we were in first grade at Royal Junior School in Colombo. You couldn’t win an argument with Senan – however good your logic, your rhetoric or even your volume. If rhetoric was not on his side – he used logic. If logic was not on his side he used rhetoric. And if neither was on his side – he used volume. Whichever way you went at it – you always lost. And the argument always ended with Senan proclaiming loudly in front of the whole class – “Machan you do not know what the hell you’re talking about – so shut the …. up”. Someone should have warned John Howard.

Rudd_2I was in Australia recently and Senan drove down from Sydney to spend an evening with me. Like many Tamil families – his left Sri Lanka in the mid 80s when the fighting intensified and it started becoming uncomfortable to live in Sri Lanka particularly as a Tamil. However, unlike many members of the diaspora, Senan developed a real interest in the politics of the country where he chose to settle. He said his interests first began because he would read the papers daily – both to improve his English and to stave off boredom when he first moved to Sydney – and then because he started following politics more closely. Senan, is one of those peculiar people – who loves a good fight – but doesn’t like to hurt anyone. The result is that he enjoys watching people slug it out (verbally) – and occasionally joins in himself. And I suspect that this is why he deepened his interest in Australian politics – the stakes there after all are much lower than the volume. In any case, Senan has developed a good centre-left politics of support for basic freedoms, economic re-distribution and the underdog (whoever that might be). So Howard, to begin with, was definitely not his cup of tea. [Photo on left shows current Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.]

Screenhunter_15All immigrants in Australia do not share this view. Many have traditionally voted for Howard’s liberal party – endorsing policies based on the simple premise that if you work hard and lead a frugal life you will succeed, if the state gets out of the way. Howard, himself, comes from a background where such an experience proved to be true. The son of lower middle class owners of a small business, he saw how working hard and saving money enabled his parents to improve their lives. And he finally became prime minister of Australia. The flip side of Howard’s thinking of course is that those who do not succeed have only themselves to blame. Oddly, many immigrants who move to Australia share this thinking. I say oddly, not because it is surprising that they have social views about, say homosexuality and abortion that are relatively conservative, but that though they have moved to another country in order to do better for themselves, they still cannot see how their doing better is so closely tied to the political system in which they live.

Instead they attribute their success – in getting to a new place and doing well – to precisely the fact that it is individual effort, not social support that matters. Moreover, they look at a country like Australia with relatively generous social welfare provisions (healthcare, housing and unemployment benefits) and treat with a mixture of dismissal and disdain those who are originally from Australia, whether white or Aboriginal, and fail to succeed. They are dismissive of White Australians for not doing much better than they do under such favourable circumstances, and disdainful of Aboriginal Australians for being at the bottom of the heap.

So the immigrant community in Australia has a diversity of views, and do not always share the centre-left perspective that Senan has. Still they do come together on one issue. Since they are immigrants, they are uncomfortable with the politics of nativism in Australia – that also invariably has a racially exclusivist tone to it. Despite the presence of a large non-White native Australian population, it is hard in Australia to separate nativism from opposition to non-Whites. And successful immigrant communities in Australia, like the Chinese and South Asians are also affected by this. They are uncomfortable with direct or indirect appeals to race – which invariably come from the conservative end of the political spectrum. And John Howard was noted for this on many occasions.

In August 1988, Howard created controversy with the following comment about Asian immigration into Australia:

“I do believe that if it is – in the eyes of some in the community – that it’s too great, it would be in our immediate-term interest and supporting of social cohesion if it were slowed down a little, so the capacity of the community to absorb it was greater.”

Advocating what he called a one Australia policy Howard opposed land rights for aboriginal Australians and the shifting focus of Australia away from Europe and towards Asia.

Subsequently, Howard took his time to disassociate himself from Pauline Hanson, who founded the “One Nation” party and campaigned on a platform of anti-immigration and anti-multiculturalism. Her policies, which included a combination of protectionism, nationalism and social conservatism, resonated in the late 90s with a significant fraction of the population. From a high of 8% of the national vote in the federal elections of 1998, however, her party’s popularity dwindled to a measly 0.3% in the election of December 2007. But not before she had a significant impact on national politics, particularly the shift in the platforms of the Liberal party towards the anti-immigrant right.

Finally there was the infamous MV Tampa affair. Here the Australian government, led by Howard, accused seafaring asylum seekers of throwing their children overboard in order to get permission to enter Australia. They refused to permit the MV Tampa, a Norwegian freighter that had gone to the rescue of the refugees at sea, to land on Christmas Island, an Australian territory and sent Australian special forces on board to enforce this order. The incident eventually led to a serious diplomatic dispute, with Norway accusing Australia of violating its maritime and humanitarian obligations under international law. It eventually emerged that the Howard government had knowingly lied about the refugees throwing children overboard in an effort to demonise them, and get public opinion on their side. Australia suffered a serious blow to its reputation of tolerance and openness, but John Howard’s coalition gained popularity and won the elections held shortly thereafter.

Why did John Howard, who appeared unassailable only a few months ago, not only lose the elections in December 2007, nationally, but also lose his own seat in parliament. So I asked Senan, who loves to travel during his vacation, why he instead took two weeks off to work against Howard, in his own electorate.

Senan mentioned two factors – Mohamed Haneef and “Work Choices”. Mohamed Haneef was an Indian physician working in Australia, who was falsely accused of association with terrorism. He is distantly related to one of the perpetrators of the attacks on Glasgow airport and had left his SIM card with a balance in it, with him after leaving the UK. And because Dr. Haneef was found to be leaving the country shortly after the incident on a one-way ticket to India, he was charged with associating with terrorists. All the “suspicious” activities had very innocent explanations. He could not afford a ticket and asked his father-in-law to buy him a one way ticket. And he wasn’t fleeing after the attack in Glasgow, but was finally able to find other doctors to cover for him at the hospital that week. Eventually charges against him were dropped, but his visa was revoked, and he was sent back to India. To the credit of the Australian judicial system and Dr. Haneef’s courageous lawyer, Stephen Keim, he not only won his case, but his visa was re-instated. The minister who revoked his visa was also rebuked by the court, for loosely interpreting the term association to imply family or professional relationships.

What is remarkable about the Mohamed Haneef case was that not just the judiciary, but also a large section of Australians were unhappy. Australians, whatever their background, have a strong sense of fair play. And they sensed very quickly that this was a case of a young man being victimised by powerful politicians to scare others into toeing the line. The hospital where Dr. Haneef worked, and the Prime Minister of the State of Queensland, where the hospital is located, all said that Dr. Haneef was welcome back anytime.

Then, there was “Work Choices” the Howard government’s legislation to radically overhaul the industrial relations framework of Australia. The result was a pro-business legislation that weakened collective bargaining agreements, permitted individual contracts between employers and employees, and facilitated the dismissal of employees under circumstances that had hitherto been considered unfair. The Autralian trade union movement and the labour party opposed this legislation. Still, it passed muster in parliament and became the law. There were widespread protests against “Work Choices” and a great deal of unease among voters across the entire political spectrum, except maybe the super rich. Even the middle class was affected as their employers pressured them into individual contracts that lacked the protection of collective bargaining arrangements backed by a trade union.

And, finally, there was John Howard, himself. Having served out eleven years as Prime Minister, the second longest since Sir Robert Menzies, even his ardent supporters were getting a bit tired of seeing him around all the time, and his long time critics were getting ready to get rid of him.

I teased Senan, that he put on his walking shoes and went to Bennelong to join all the other “Chardonnay Socialists” in ousting John Howard. And they succeeded, helped by a charismatic, courageous and attractive labour candidate Maxine McKew, who was a well known anchorwoman for Australian TV.

And it did not hurt that the then leader of the opposition and current Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd , a fluent Mandarin speaker, campaigned in Bennelong. In the past decade Bennelong had changed from a predominantly White middle class neighbourhood to an ethnically mixed immigrant neighbourhood with a significant East Asian immigrant population.

So in-between sipping a lot of chardonnay, Senan walked many miles around Bennelong, educating voters about whom to vote for and how to do so, in Australia’s relatively complicated single transferable voting system. Senan was both a cause and a symptom of why John Howard lost. Until this past election, he had mainly discussed and argued about politics, but had never become directly involved. This time he actually worked to unseat John Howard. And he won.