There are probably many in South Africa who are wondering why it is that the Australian immigration minister Peter Dutton has rushed to the aid of South Africa’s white farmers. After all, Australian politicians rarely take any interest in South Africa, focusing instead on the Asian region.
Sadly, Dutton is not motivated by his love of humanity but rather he is shoring up support among the right-wing voter base in Australia. He is appealing to the racist element in the Australian body politic that doesn’t mind immigration so long as those landing on Australia’s shores are white and middle class.
Dutton chose the forum of an interview with a well known right-wing columnist Miranda Devine of the Rupert Murdoch-owned Daily Telegraph, Sydney’s biggest selling newspaper, to launch his invitation to farmers. Dutton told Devine last Wednesday: “If you look at the footage and read the stories, you hear the accounts, it’s a horrific circumstance they face.” He says these farmers “need help from a civilised country like ours”. And why help South African farmers? “We want people who want to come here, abide by our laws, integrate into our society, work hard, not lead a life on welfare. And I think these people deserve special attention and we’re certainly applying that special attention now.”
These comments need decoding for South Africans. First some background. The current conservative Liberal-National government led by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, in office since 2013, is lagging in the opinion polls and likely to lose a general election due next year to the centre-left Australian Labor Party (ALP). The government is not only under attack from the centre-left but also the hard right in states like Queensland where Dutton hails from. There Pauline Hanson, an MP in the federal Parliament and her One Nation party, is strong. One Nation is a xenophobic, nationalist force and attracts disillusioned conservative voters.
Immigration has been a sure winner for the conservative side of Australian politics since former prime minister John Howard passed laws in 2001 to stop the flow of asylum seekers from countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Iran arriving on Australian shores by boat. Dutton, since he took over the Immigration portfolio, has been enthusiastically courting the hard right vote by attacking asylum seekers as “fake refugees”, accusing lawyers who act for refugees as being “un Australian” and in whipping up racial fears in Melbourne about so-called “African gangs”. In relation to the latter, Dutton has seized on media reporting of home invasions and assaults which, in a few cases, have been committed by groups of young men who come from African nations such as South Sudan and Somalia.
In January this year, Dutton proclaimed that some people who live in Melbourne, Australia’s second-largest city, were too frightened of these gangs to go out for dinner. His claim was mocked by many but it was designed to undermine the credibility of the state (provincial) ALP government in Victoria.
In addition, Dutton has presided over Australia’s infamous offshore immigration detention regime at Manus Island, off the coast of Papua New Guinea and in the small island nation of Nauru. Last year when the Australian government was forced to pay nearly A$100 million (about R1.2-billion) to settle a damages claim by Manus Island detainees, Dutton blamed “ambulance chasing lawyers”. He and his department have forced lawyers to go to court to seek orders so dangerously ill men, women and children on Nauru can be flown to Australia for urgent medical treatment.
Given this context, Dutton’s reaching out to white farmers in South Africa makes sense. He knows that among right-wing voters, particularly those who have borne the brunt of economic change or who live in regional Australia, there is fear of “the other”. But white farmers, according to this view of the world, are “like us”.
And Dutton’s snide reference to Australia being a “civilized country” is an extension of his “African gangs” rhetoric. Black Africans harassing innocent whites again, just like what is happening in Melbourne, is the message.
Dog whistling politics, and by this we mean “expressing racially loaded ideas in coded terms”, as University of California Berkeley Law Professor Ian Haney Lopez explains it, has become part of the armoury of conservative politicians in Australia since Howard’s time. Dutton’s remarks this week were simply another example of this nasty tactic.
As many Australians have noted on social media over the past 24 hours, if Dutton is concerned about individuals who face land grabs from government, then why isn’t he equally welcoming of Palestinians and the Rohingyas? The answer, of course, is that these groups are not white and middle class.
Greg Barns is a writer and barrister in Australia. He is a spokesperson for the Australian Lawyers Alliance, an advocacy group.