THE rise of Pauline Hanson's One Nation (‘we'll be swamped by Asians, we'll be swamped by Muslims’) political party has given some impetus to the growth of racist sentiment in Australia in recent years.
But, although a recent poll showed 17% of Queenslanders supporting One Nation, I believe this only a tiny minority of Australians are racist.
That’s good news given our history of entrenched racism.
There were the goldfield riots against Chinese workers and ‘blackbirding’ (effectively slave labour) in the 19th century. In the 20th century there was the white Australia policy and not allowing Aboriginal Australians to be counted as citizens until 1967. Overall, we’ve been a pretty sorry bunch of bigots.
The Immigration Restriction Act 1901 put in place the law that became the cornerstone of the white Australia' policy. The Governor-General signed the document two days before Christmas Day 1901, a week after he had signed the Pacific Islander Labourers Act into law.
Together with Section 15 of the 1901 Post and Telegraph Act, these formed a powerful set of legal instruments shaping immigration policy at the foundation of the Commonwealth of Australia. They continued to guide thinking on immigration for half a century.
The Immigration Restriction Act enabled the government to exclude any person who 'when asked to do so by an officer fails to write out at dictation and sign in the presence of the officer, a passage of 50 words in length in a European language directed by the officer'. The dictation test could be administered to any immigrant during the first year of residence.
It was initially proposed that the test would be in English but it was argued that this could discourage European migration and advantage Japanese people and Americans of African descent. Instead, any European language was specified. In 1905 this was changed to any prescribed language to lessen offence to the Japanese. From 1932 the test could be given during the first five years of residence and any number of times.
The dictation test was administered 805 times in 1902–03 with 46 people passing and 554 times in 1904–09 with only six people successful. After 1909 no person passed the dictation test and people who failed were refused entry or deported.
The Act remained in force until 1958.
And what about today?
My Papua New Guinean wife, Rose, and I have lived together happily in Australia for 10 years now and in all that time have been met only with kindness, generosity and love from our white Australian friends.
But there have been three incidents of overt racism.
The first was in a Brisbane pub where Rose was sitting in a corner with some PNG friends. A somewhat inebriated white man at the bar started railing about "allowing these black bitches into the bar".
Rose took him to task and pointed out that her ancestors had saved the lives of many Aussie soldiers during World War II. Things got a bit heated and the other patrons rose up to support Rose. The offender was forced to apologise and was ejected from the pub. Round one to Rose.
In the second incident, we were window shopping in Tuggerah Mall on the NSW central coast when I became aware of a white woman with two teenagers walking behind us with exaggerated steps and whistling ‘Old Macdonald had a Farm’.
Rose thought nothing of it, but I realised what they were doing and rounded on them saying, in not uncertain terms, where they could go before I called security. Round two to Peter.
Incident three. Sadly, even though we live in a pretty multicultural community (the SDA College nearby has lots of PNG and Pacific islander students passing through), we have a United Patriots Front supporter passing out literature in our local shopping centre.
Now the UPF is probably the most blatant and provocative white supremacist movements in Australia and is often given oxygen by some right-wing media commentators. The UPF chose to give out its magazine outside our local shopping centre next to the Indian restaurant.
"If you want to keep your customers,” I told them, “don't allow this to be on display outside your shop." They agreed and promised to ditch the stuff if it appeared again. Round three for multiculturalism.
I'm all for freedom of speech but this doesn't allow you to shout out "Fire! Fire!" in a crowded theatre when there is no fire.
So is Australia racist? For the vast majority of us I'd say no. But some few sick individuals manage to maintain the rage against humanity and decency.
And those politicians and media commentators who fan the flames have a lot to answer for.