Racism, anti-racism campaigns and Australian social research: a case study in recovering socially-useful knowledge


(Research Strategy and Results)


DIMIAAntiRacismReportQuant1998   and

HERE (Campaign Strategy and Outcomes)

Freeing the information: the context of the 1998 Anti-Racism campaign study

When John Howard took government in 1996 he had a number of agendas for deconstructing the Hawke/Keating legacy. One of his most aggressive goals was the termination of the trajectories of what he described as “political correctness”, and in particular, the truncation of the multiculturalism that had been so important to Hawke (though less so for Keating), and for which Howard blamed his electoral defeat of 1990.  However the election that brought Howard to power also marked the election to Federal Parliament of independent and faux-Liberal, one-day-to-be Dancing Star and Celebrity Apprentice Pauline Hanson.

Howard had led the fight inside the Liberal Party against multiculturalism (in fact it was mainly Malcolm Fraser’s legacy), and had by 1989 managed to have it dropped from the Coalition policy platform, to which it was returned by the brief reign of John Hewson. By 1996 the Howard-led Coalition had also (with the help of the libertarian elements among independents in the Senate) blocked attempts to include criminal sanctions in the revised Racial Vilification section of the Racial Discrimination Act, foreshadowing only a commitment to “education” as a pathway to the resolution of intercultural  conflict should it be elected. The 1996 election saw Howard in the Lodge, one of the few remaining then liberal Liberals Phillip Ruddock as Immigration and Multicultural Affairs Minister, and a “please explain” Hanson running a fierce anti-immigrant and Aboriginal line under the tutelage of her Svengali John  Pasquarelli.  The headlines were full of stories about gang wars among the Vietnamese in Cabramatta, giving Hanson a field day in her campaign to “send them home”, or as the by-now assassinated Cabramatta MP John Newman had said, “back to the jungle”.

It was in this climate that the Howard government contracted Eureka Research (today subsumed in the multinational Ipsos company) to undertake a study as the basis of what was initially planned to be an “anti-racism” campaign.  Announcing the program, Ruddock said “Australia has been fortunate to be comparatively free of the more virulent forms of racism… we cannot afford to be complacent… Increasing community awareness through community education is our best viable long-term approach” (20 Aug 1996).  With that statement Ruddock pre-empted the findings of the research and guaranteed that whatever anti-racism strategy might emerge would not step outside the confines of his “education” template.

Fifteen years on, as Australia is poised once more to embark on an anti-racism campaign announced by Immigration Minister Bowen in February 2011, the findings of the 1998 research have finally been released under Freedom of Information [FA11/07/00962] (http://t.co/uDLkHfWu ).  Despite the Department brief being excised from the documents, so we have to deduce what exactly the research was asked to uncover, the report makes fascinating reading. My own attempts to secure a copy of the report go back to its completion in 1998; it was never published and indeed was so sensitive that I was told the Prime Minister had ordered its sequestration, protected under rules of Cabinet secrecy. Nearly every new Multicultural Affairs Minister/Secretary since then I have approached for access, always denied, being told that the report was secret! Even Rudd’s Parliamentary Secretary Laurie Ferguson refused to release it, his office claiming it was of no current interest. However a change in the government’s perception of its documents (keep everything secret unless you are forced to release it, has moved to let everything out unless there’s a good reason to keep it locked up) had a Department officer suggest to me in passing I might want to ask again.  Three months or so later, and the document arrives, comprising a qualitative and quantitative report.

Eureka’s research

The broad aim of the research was “to explore and understand the subtleties and nature of racism in the Australia of the late 1990s with a view to mounting an effective mass media and /or education anti-racism campaign”.  The campaign would have to fit in with the Coalition’s vision of Australia “as a country whose people are united by the common cause of commitment to Australia”. The first student of this vision, Hanson, quickly dubbed her movement “One Nation”.  The research would seek to discover whether there were indeed core common Australian values that could serve as the “central unifying message” promoting tolerance and diminishing racist attitudes and behaviour.  However, what it found apparently so shocked the government of the day that the report was declared too dangerous for release to the Australian people whose attitudes it had investigated and who had paid for its surveys and conclusions.

The research sought to identify what values Australians actually shared, what they knew and understood about these values, and their awareness of the benefits of shared values.  As well it examined what people thought might be the personal and social costs of racism, what people thought racism was and how it was manifested. Specifically, what should such a campaign be called? What definition of racism would work for different people? The qualitative research undertaken through some thirty focus-groups would determine the likely causes of contemporary racism, its focus, and how effective different messages might potentially be in reducing racist sentiments, and thereby racist behaviour (or the reverse – reducing the behaviour and thus modifying the sentiments).   The focus groups comprised about one third “positive” (“short social distance” from other groups), and the remainder “negatives” (“long social distance”), and were designed to place like with like to elicit the confident expression of “socially undesirable attitudes”.

Qualitative Report

The first qualitative report concluded that there was “a clear need for an anti-racism campaign” (59). Moreover, the research uncovered a crisis in what it meant to be “an Australian”. The researchers argued that the crisis, stirred and debated in the context of Hansonism, actually provided a rare opportunity to reaffirm Australian core values through defining them: that is, through asserting that being Australian meant accepting diversity, and that such values were in fact held by all Australians, whatever their national origin. The study had determined that many Australians were deeply insecure about what was happening to the country, and it was this anxiety that rendered the questions of values and identity so salient and intense for so many people.  If Australians  in general could be assured both that core values of acceptance existed, and that they were widely shared, the insecurity (which was widespread in Anglo and non-Anglo groups, and often reflected concerns they had about each other) might be ameliorated and a stronger sense of Australia as a non-racist and diverse community “of which we can all be proud” might be fashioned, “to the benefit of harmonious community relations for decades to come”. Thus the underlying issue became, how do we strategise to reduce anxiety about difference?

The need for an anti-racism campaign did not imply that a campaign should carry such a label, which was argued would be counter-productive. Respondents were deeply antagonistic to any suggestion that their fears were anything but natural, and in particular, that their emotions implied that they were racists. Rather they took it as natural (both for themselves and for the exotic Others about whom they held those fears) that people would prefer their own cultural group, and would defend the space of the group, be it physical, psychological, economic or geographic, against the inroads of those perceived as aliens.  At the same time though some people resented public representations of those differences, and their “rewarding” by government.

Quantitative Report

How then might an anti-racism strategy be made to work? That was the underlying question posed for the second stage of the study, a survey-based approach that was designed “to provide strategic directions for the campaign, to assist campaign development and to act as a ‘benchmark’ of community attitudes prior to the launch of the anti-racism campaign”.  The survey took place early in May 1998.  Pauline Hanson’s maiden speech in September 1996 had set the agenda for a more hostile and angry orientation towards immigration and Asian migrants. By May 1998 Hanson’s One Nation Party had been established and was pushing for the victory that would give her 11 seats in Queensland’s parliament, and fuel Howard’s recognition that he could no longer condone what she inflamed.

The survey undertaken by telephone of 2000 Australians over the age of 16 covered the country, utilising bi-lingual interviewers. It was thus able to cover people with more limited English and ensure a culturally-diverse sample. The  findings related to the climate of racism, its form, prevalence and intensity, and the profile of those most likely to hold more racist views, and community reactions to possible campaign themes.

The value on which there was the highest level of agreement (90%) was the decidedly circular definition of an Australian as “anyone committed to Australia”; the most hostile value was associated with “I hate… when migrants all live together and form ethnic ghettos” (55%).  Commitment to Australia implied a singular nationalism, though the research never tested the possibility of multiple commitments dependent on situation and context. Moreover, within three years the government would amend the immigration and citizenship laws to authorize dual if not multiple citizenship, and the carrying of more than one passport, a decision that triggered only marginal opposition, and that passed without a blink through Parliament.

Meanwhile, indicative of the times before 9/11 (and instructive thereby as to the impact of its aftermath), Moslems were seen to have “strange ways” (30%), while Asian migrants took jobs (30%), and were heavily into crime and drugs (40%).  Thirty percent picked out Asians and Vietnamese as failing to live in harmony with the wider society, while only 3% identified Muslims (and the Greeks and Italians captured 4% together). Two in five respondents could see “why some people are racist towards [migrants and Aboriginals]”.  Moreover, 7 in 10 agreed that racism was often the result of fears of losing out to competing “races” (eg jobs, housing, etc.).  By 1998 the Blainey interpretation of the legitimacy of racist apprehensions was well-embedded, and reiterated by Howard. Hanson was on the crest of her political curve, and the media were for the most part uncritically supportive of the anti-multicultural ethos championed by the conservatives.

If attitudes to immigrants were negative (and remember this was a period before the Muslim scare, when Indo-Chinese were the bête noire (jaune) of the racists), attitudes towards Indigenous people were very hostile. A quarter of respondents could name nothing positive that Indigenous people had contributed to Australia, while those that could find a positive focused on culture, lifestyle, arts and artwork. Forty percent believed “most Aboriginals are lazy and so have to rely on Government handouts to survive” (with Immigrants and Australian-born equally prejudiced).

The crunch issue becomes what people believe “racism” to be. The survey found that they understand racism either as something that permeates social life (most immigrants, Aboriginals and “positive” non-immigrants support this approach),  or as extreme action involving violence (the definition more likely for those with the most stereotyped and negative views of other groups).  So those who held the strongest racist views were most likely to deny racism on their own part, while those who recognised racism more widely were less likely to hold racist views.  The survey found 15% held to the “extreme” view, while 85% recognised racism was widespread and multi-faceted.  The researchers concluded that about 15% of the community hold to hard-core and probably unchangeable values,; they tended to be older, non-metropolitan, have lower educational attainments, not be in the workforce, have a low income and be living in more rural states with higher Indigenous populations.  They hold to this extreme definition as a protection from allegations against them of racism: “if racism is violence, I am not violent, therefore I am not a racist”, the logic apparently flows.
When the various responses were combined into a “racism index”, with an extreme statement about racism as the boundary marker, about 42% were deemed to be fairly tolerant and holding non-racist views, with 33% as fence-sitters, and 25% supporting four or more racist views.  Given place of birth and gender did not distinguish the attitudes, the implications were that any anti-racism campaign would need to be subtle and comprehensive.  The three segments present very different challenges – those who are generally racist, those who hold some racist views and some anti-racist, and those who generally hold to anti-racist views.

Three value statements were found to meet the critical criteria for a campaign, (while three clearly failed). In what way were the values recognisably Australian, to what extent were they widely shared, and did they make Australia a better place?  On the positive side the value statements were:  “helping one another in crisis” (79,54,73%), “a fair go” (78,58,72), and “a desire for community harmony” (77,55,72), where they had a conversion rate of over 90% for contribution to making Australia a better place. These were communal bonding ideas based on reciprocity and recognition of common membership of a wider society. Values that failed to ignite sufficient support included “equality” (64,41,59), “acceptance of others” (64,39,59) and “tolerance” (57,31,52), which were more linked to individual differences, and even their supporters saw as being very limited in their appeal (tolerance =54%).

The Eureka report then argued that the only theme that might work in a  campaign would need to capture the “desire for harmony”, which was to be less as it would turn out about anti-racism, and more about reasserting the social order so fragmented by the rapidly changing diversity of the country, economic crises, and the stirring of political agitators.  The most highly shared statement had become “people in Australia should strive for community harmony” (98%).  Thus criticism of others who were not clearly “striving for community harmony” would not be self-construed as racism; they would be blamed for their failures to conform.


From the outset then the advice to the Government was not to use “anti-racism” as a vehicle. Rather messages should stress the fact of harmony, the value of harmony, and the importance of protecting harmony.  Furthermore harmony would be best protected by two parallel approaches – one would show how harmonious Australia was in reality and how precious that harmony was, while the other would demonstrate the role of diverse communities in Australian life and their commitment to Australia (especially in times of disaster and danger).

This campaign would then promote and reinforce those who hold non-racist attitudes, while reducing the ambivalence of fence-sitters, thus reducing their possible racist behaviour. Moreover given that fence-sitters see or identify so little racism in their daily lives, they would react negatively to any campaign that spoke of widespread racism. Its credibility would soon be undermined.  Interestingly Eureka specifically recommends that the term “cultural diversity” not be mobilised in the campaign, as it attracts criticisms from all sides, for emphasizing difference rather than commonalities.


Assuming that not much has changed since 1998 in terms of the deeper social psychology of Australia, what can we discern from the research and how its results were interpreted and applied?  From the outset the Howard Government accepted the main thrust of the Eureka proposals, in particular not to mention racism or anti-racism. In addition the Government suppressed the report, so that its evidence base for the policy of “Living in Harmony” that would run for well over a decade, could not be examined, tested, or challenged.

Since the suppression of the report there has been no government research into the extent or intensity of racism in Australia, nor was there any attempt to use the research to provide a benchmark against which changes in attitudes as a  result of “Living in Harmony” could be assessed. A review of Living in Harmony and the Harmony Day funding scheme was unable to ascertain whether any changes had been affected in the range and quality of Australians’ attitudes as a consequence of the decade-long program. However, the ALP government under Parliamentary Secretary Laurie Ferguson changed the title of the program from Living in Harmony to Diverse Australia in 2008, exactly the framing of the title that Eureka had warned against so strongly in 1998. In 2011 it was changed once more to Diversity and Social Cohesion, re-integrating the Diverse Australia with the National Action Plan to Build on Social Cohesion, Harmony and Security (the post-2005 Muslim youth project).

In a reaction to the suppression of the report and the prevention of key social data reaching the public and the taxpayers that had funded it, (UNSW and later UWS) social geographer Kevin Dunn with colleagues at Macquarie and Melbourne Universities, initiated the Challenging Racism Project in 2000 (http://www.uws.edu.au/social_sciences/soss/research/challenging_racism). In introducing the project, which has government partners (though not in NSW)  Dunn has argued that “Australians are in large part secure with cultural difference. However, there are still pockets of the country that hold on to ‘old-fashioned’ racist views”. Dunn suggests overall this figure sits at about 15% of the total population (similar to the Eureka finding).  Similarly Dunn finds that the majority of Australians believe the majority of Australians (but usually not themselves) hold racist attitudes.

As part of the new Anti-Racism commitment, the Government has announced a series of anti-racism partnerships as yet undefined, and has funded specific projects to use sport as a framework for including youth from diverse backgrounds in mainstream activities.  The focus of Living in Harmony funding after 2005 and the Cronulla riots, turned to the “counter-radicalisation” of young Muslim men. The October 2011 Attorney General Department’s Resilient Communities program appears almost fully focused on the re-integration of young Muslims, including youth leadership training.

Meanwhile DIAC’s Diversity and Social Cohesion offers these two aims in a program that opened in August and closed to applications in September  2011.

Aim 1: to promote respect, fairness and a sense of belonging for Australians of every race, culture and religion. The aim primarily focuses on promoting inter-community harmony and understanding.

Aim 2: Develop the community capacity building skills of specific community groups under significant pressure due to their cultural, religious or racial diversity. This aim primarily focuses on supporting specific communities with the purpose of building their social cohesion capacity and/or to promote their positive contribution to Australia.

The long term influence of the Eureka research on the aims reflect each of the elements that Eureka had identified as the critical projected components of successful attitudinal change and social integration. Whether together they will actually achieve those goals remains to be seen, as without an evidence base to do other than document activities rather than track social change the outcomes of Diversity and Social Cohesion may not be any more attributable to the program interventions than the last decade proved with predecessor attempts.

The Eureka research does raise some valuable questions about the characteristics of an anti-racism campaign and the multiple faces it will need to present to the many constituencies it will need to win over.  The hard kernel of emotion about race relations remains locked into a “desire for harmony”, complemented by a denial of personal responsibility for racism, and an edge of inter-communal intolerance and distrust. This is a wider cultural problem than can likely be addressed through education and information per se. Ascertaining a contemporary benchmark and exploring a wider range of options for changing behaviour would need to be part of planning and evaluating any campaign that may now emerge.


Launch video


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