In the opinion of the ordinary reasonable Australian

2013-04-24 04.49.50 amNICK CATER

From The Australian, April 1, 2014


IF the citizens of Koo Wee Rup took umbrage at Gillian Triggs’s sledge they will just have to learn to get over it. As the Human Rights Act stands, the act of describing a place as “shabby” does not count as discrimination against the people who live there.

The Human Rights Commissioner was responding to a reporter from the Herald Sunwho had rung asking her to explain why the commission had spent $60,000 on a cocktail party at a harbourside venue in Sydney.

“I really do take umbrage at the idea that somehow because you’re a human rights body you’ve got to do things in some sort of shabby way,” she told John Masanauskas. “We don’t want to be in a village hall in Koo Wee Rup just because we haven’t got a lot of money.”

Triggs’s comments have done nothing to dispel the impression that the Human Rights Commission is living in a world of its own, removed and out of touch with community standards.

The Australian thing to do after a gaffe like that would be turn up at the front bar of the Royal Hotel and shout Koo Wee Rup’s locals a beer, preferably from one’s own pocket.

It would be churlish to make too much of the discrepancy between Triggs’s weekly income and that of the average household in Koo Wee Rup. We merely note that Triggs earns more in a day than the average Koo Wee Ruppian earns in seven.

The drive to Koo Wee Rup from the centre of Melbourne takes barely an hour, but the two places are worlds apart. An academic lawyer like Triggs might struggle to make conversation.

The town’s 3080 residents do not have a law degree between them. Three quarters of them did not complete Year 12.

It is a town where people come home from work with dirt under their fingernails, a town of motor mechanics, carpenters, plumbers, cleaners, concreters, packers, truck drivers and earth movers. It is a place where the commissioner and commentator classes rarely venture. The Census data tells the story. Number of journalists: Nil. Media professionals: Nil. Number of university lecturers: zero.

Nevertheless, under the government’s proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act, the view of people in towns like Koo Wee Rup would count for something at last. A judge would be obliged to consider what the view of the “ordinary reasonable Australian” is in decisions about racial vilification.

It is a move Triggs and other supporters of the status quo are fiercely resisting. To them the judgment of the “ordinary reasonable Australian” is suspect, especially if they are white.

“What race is this hypothetical ‘ordinary reasonable member of the Australian community’ meant to be, exactly?” the ABC’s Waleed Aly asked rhetorically in The Age last week. “If you answered that they have no particular race, then you’ve just given the whitest answer possible.”

To understand racism you must be — in Aly’s words — a “wog, gook or sand nigger,” which pretty much writes off Koo Wee Rup, where 98.3 per cent of those who stated their ancestry in the 2011 Census came from Australian or European stock.

Aly continues: “If the ordinary reasonable Australian has no race, then whether or not we admit it, that person is white by default and brings white standards and experiences to assessing the effects of racist behaviour.

“This matters because — if I may speak freely — plenty of white people (even ordinary reasonable ones) are good at telling coloured people what they should and shouldn’t find racist, without even the slightest awareness that they might not be in prime position to make that call.”

So in the cause of fighting prejudice, Aly argues that only those who pass his race-based test should arbitrate the boundaries of racism. Can he really have thought this through?

The resort to such intemperate and divisive language is a further indication that the Human Rights Commission’s supporters are losing the argument. Perhaps they should get out more. They might be pleasantly surprised at the everyday decency of the ordinary reasonable Australian.

Race commissioner Tim Soutphommasane frets about a “darker, even violent, side of our humanity” that might surface if parliament tinkers with the act.

Yet there is nothing, apart from prejudice, to back this slur on the character of his fellow Australians. Time after time, Australians have confounded their sophisticated critics with their ­capacity to embrace plurality.

In so far as attitudes to immigration reflect broader sentiments on race, Australians are remarkably broad-minded, according to the latest findings from the rolling Australian Election Study released in February.

Fewer than one in six Australians think immigration is bad for the economy and 75 per cent say it opens the country to other ideas and cultures.

In 1996, more than six out of 10 Australians wanted immigration quotas to be cut. In 2013 a clear majority — 59 per cent — believed immigration levels were about right or should be increased. There are signs that attitudes are softening even towards asylum-seekers. At the 2001 election 63 per cent wanted to turn back the boats. Last year 49 per cent advocated the turn-back.

There is no evidence to suggest anything has changed since Gough Whitlam declared Australians “an exceptionally generous and understanding people” in a speech proclaiming Australia’s first human rights legislation

“When we look at the history of our immigration program and compare our record with that of any other multiracial society, it is remarkable how smooth and harmonious this great experiment has been,” he said. “We can fairly claim that Australian people are among the most tolerant and decent in the world.”