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As Old Certainties Fade in Australia, a New Self-Image Evolves

Moving closer to Asia hasn't been easy for many whites. Feeling 'swamped' by Asians immigrants has provoked a racist backlash against them.

Just a few weeks ago, Catherine Chung was verbally abused as she walked down a city street. She has lived in Australia for 20 years, and it was the first time she had experienced a racist attack.

Ms. Chung is a lawyer who runs her own property-investment and development company and is the chairwoman of the Australian Chinese community. She and other immigrants like her say there has been a marked increase in the number of racist attacks - both physical and verbal - since last September.

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That was when Pauline Hanson, an independent member of parliament, gave a speech in which she said Australia was in "danger of being swamped by Asians." Ever since, Ms. Hanson has been at the center of a swirling controversy.

Chung says a recent survey of the Chinese community shows the number of racist incidents they have experienced since the speech has almost doubled.

"Generally, most Australians are not racist," Chung says. But "I have spoken to many Asian people who have been here several years, and most feel this is worst they have experienced."

Asians make up less than 5 percent of Australia's population of 18 million and account for 40 percent of its current immigrants.

According to some projections, they could form one-quarter of the country's population within 25 years.

This change in self-image from a mainly white to a more multicultural society hasn't been easy for many Australians. Rising unemployment and an increasing dependence on Asia, rather than Europe, as a trading partner has made Asian immigrants easy targets of resentment.

The prime minister stays mum ...

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Many Australians are dismayed at this new wave of racism that erupted after the Hanson speech. A broad spectrum of community leaders have criticized the failure of Prime Minister John Howard to repudiate Hanson's claims. They worry that Mr. Howard's inaction has been interpreted at home and abroad as an endorsement of her remarks.

The prime minister has defended his position, saying that a public desire for political correctness has prevented a robust debate about immigration, something he says he wants to encourage without branding any participants as racist.

Cynics suggest, however, that Howard believes Hanson speaks to a section of his own political constituency that he does not want to alienate. Howard came to power in March, 1996, in part because of a backlash against his predecessor, Paul Keating. The former prime minister had pushed Australia toward integrating with the rapidly growing economies of Asia, and away from its traditionally close ties with Europe.

Several Asian newspapers have lambasted Howard for allowing racism to flourish in Australia.

The criticism increased when he suggested that it is wrong to teach children today that Australia has a "racist and bigoted" past.

Many Australians have found it difficult to understand how the "white Australia" policy - under which virtually no nonwhites were admitted - that was only abandoned officially 30 years ago could be viewed as anything else.

... but others speak out

Virtually all other political leaders in Australia have distanced themselves from Hanson's view, including many in Howard's own government. Immigration and Multicultural Affairs Minister Philip Ruddock agrees there should be a "vigorous" immigration debate, but says it should be "based on fact, not urban myth and narrow perceptions."

Mr. Keating, the former prime minister who worked relentlessly for a multicultural Australia, says the government will be to blame if multiculturalism falters.

"If multicultural Australia, and with it our hard-won good name for tolerance and fair play, falls over ... it will be because the government has stopped peddling [the idea]," he says. "And on the government's head, not the people's or Pauline Hanson's, will the responsibility rest."

Keating acknowledges that for many Australians "old certainties" are disappearing. There is a feeling of loss of control, he says, leading to a nostalgia for a "cultural homogeneity" that is nothing more than a myth.

"The great tragedy of the shamelessly regressive politics of Pauline Hanson is not so much that it is rooted in ignorance, prejudice, and fear, though it is; not so much that it projects the ugly face of racism, though it does; not so much that it is dangerously divisive and deeply hurtful to many of her fellow Australians, though it is; not even that it will cripple our efforts to enmesh ourselves in a region wherein lie the jobs and prosperity of future generations of young Australians, though it will.

"The great tragedy is that it perpetrates a myth, a fantasy, a lie. The myth of monoculture. The lie that we can retreat to it," Keating says.

Putting it into perspective

Keith Suter, the president of the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney, says Hanson's "politics of anger" has less to do with racism and more to do with misinformation and alienation. And, he points out, it is not unique to Australia.

"In the United States it is called 'white male rage' and in Australia 'the Hanson factor,' " he says. Rapid change, which follows in the wake of globalization, together with the failure of politicians and the news media to provide citizens with accurate information about these changes, has led to many Australians becoming angry and looking for scapegoats.

"People need to know that the process of globalization is under way, traditional ideas of the role of government are no longer relevant, and there is a limited capacity for any government to do much to slow the overall pace of global change," he says.

"The lack of conventional political leadership has created a political vacuum into which unconventional leaders have moved: militia groups and [Nation of Islam leader] Louis Farrakhan in the United States and Pauline Hanson in Australia," Suter says.

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