Wednesday, 05 June 2013

The Federal Racism Commissioner

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Ben’s exclusive, in-depth interview with Australia’s Federal Racism Commissioner is a must read for anyone concerned about the quality of care our government provides for racism in this country.

‘Of course there are good days and bad days,’ says Roland Entwhistle, leaning back in his taxpayer-funded swivel chair. ‘I think anyone who works in public service feels the pressure of having to serve his country. But there’s also an enormous honour that comes with it, and when I’m feeling wrung out, I always remind myself of that.’

Entwhistle doesn’t make the claim idly. As Australia’s Federal Racism Commissioner, he is responsible for the maintenance and regulation of racism throughout the entire nation and its dependencies. When it comes to racism in Australia, the buck really does stop with him, and he’s acutely aware of what that means.

‘I try to avoid controversy wherever possible,’ he says candidly. ‘My job isn’t to make big headlines to generate media circuses. I want racism to run smoothly in Australia: if one citizen feels that domestic racism is going off the rails, that’s on me.’

Clearly Entwhistle takes his job seriously. He is the fourth Federal Racism Commissioner, a position created by Paul Keating in 1992 in response to public criticism that racism in Australia ‘lacked class’. Although Entwhistle pays tribute to his predecessors — ’they were good men, who really did enormously important groundwork in bringing racism into the twenty-first century’ — he himself had introduced many modern ideas to the job.

One of these is the new Federal Racism app, available for iPhone, iPad and Android, which provides handy hints on racism, a daily inspirational quote from a famous historical racist, and perhaps most important of all, the ‘Find-A-Racist’ feature. This allows the user, when caught in a location with little or no racism, to locate their nearest fellow racist using GPS technology, and travel to him or her via the most direct route for fellowship and comfort.

‘Racism in the past hasn’t been as scientific as it could have been,’ Entwhistle explains as he takes me on a tour of FRC headquarters. We pass by the Racism Lab, where a team of Australia’s most qualified race scientists do vital research into new racism techniques. Their current major project is GMR, or genetically modified racism. The Commissioner explains its importance: ‘The fact is there’s a lot of resistance to racism these days, and if we want racism to survive and thrive, we have to try to find ways of producing hardier racists, who can exist under a variety of conditions.’

As I look through the glass window into the lab, where one team of scientists is injecting jojoba extract into white children’s brains, and another dangles Indonesian shadow puppets in front of a row of strapped-down RSL members, I marvel at how far the science of racism has come even since my own youth, when racism was mainly something learned at home from unqualified parents and tradesmen.

The key to the New Racism is data, as Entwhistle explains when introducing me to Emma Fitzcarraldo, the FRC’s head statistician. As she tells me, having accurate figures is vital to the Commission’s work. ‘A lot of people think it’s just a matter of the more racism, the better,’ she says, ‘but racism is a lot like hunting: if you just go out shooting animals willy-nilly, you’ll soon have nothing left to hunt. It’s the same with racism, and that’s why we try to keep racism in Australia to a reasonable level, so as not to overload the system with prejudice.’ It’s also, as Entwhistle informs me later, why he reversed the previous Commissioner’s policy of granting licences for minority-hunting.

Fitzcarraldo, dressed fetchingly in a long white coat and purple thigh-boots, shows me an enormous chart on one wall of her spacious office. Here is noted the distribution and frequency of all manner of racist incidents and slurs.

It’s an impressive operation, and the commitment of the Commissioner and his staff to the cause of racism is beyond dispute. But there have been rumblings in certain parts of the community as to the place of the Federal Racism Commission in a modern economy. Many commentators are now suggesting that publicly-funded promotion of racism might be seen in some quarters as somewhat racist. I put the question to Elvin Protogore, Deputy Commissioner in charge of Blogs. He shakes his head confidently. ‘We get that a lot,’ he admits, ‘but the fact is that the Racism Commission has so many protocols and procedures put in place to ensure that our cultivation of racist attitudes and actions is done in a completely non-discriminatory way. For example we are an equal-opportunity employer. And certainly we manage to deliver a quality racism service far more cheaply than a private provider could.’

But isn’t the Racism Commission all about racism, I press him? ‘No,’ he answers emphatically. ‘I mean yes, obviously. But not just about racism. It’s about balance. Without a Federal Racism Commission, the scales would be tipped completely in favour of non-racism. And while non-racism has its place, it’s up to us as public servants to ensure that it doesn’t get out of hand.’

Still, this is an uncertain time at the FRC. Staff are nervous and afraid of the future. Ominous questions have been asked at Senate Estimates, and the Opposition has stated that the continued funding of the Commission ‘will come under serious review under a Coalition government’. As yet they have not even appointed a Shadow Minister for Racism, never a good sign; although a spokesman defended this oversight, pointing out that responsibility for racism was included in the remit of the Shadow Immigration Minister, as well as the Shadow Defence Minister, the Shadow Treasurer, the Shadow Education Minister, the Shadow Trade Minister, the Shadow Foreign Minister, the Shadow Industry Minister, and the Shadow Environment Minister. So perhaps they have it covered. Nonetheless, Entwhistle sees storm clouds gathering.

‘The current annual budget for FRC is $367 million,’ he notes. ‘Now obviously that is an absolute shoestring. But on that tiny allowance, we deliver efficient, high-quality racism to the entire country, and this is a diverse and widely-scattered population, so that’s no mean feat. But we really can’t afford to cut any closer to the bone without compromising the service. If the next government believes that we are a valid target for budget cuts, then the Federal Racism Commission might end up disappearing altogether.’

It’s a troubling thought, and one paid scant attention by the mainstream media. Entwhistle admits he would like more press coverage to bring attention to the underfunding of Australia racism. ‘The question is,’ he says soberly, ‘do we really want to live in an Australia without racism? If not, it really is time to make some noise.’

But for Entwhistle, all he can do is get on with the job he is doing, of ensuring fair and equitable access to racism for all Australians, and hope that those same Australians don’t forget all he’s done for them when it comes time to decide on this nation’s future.

Ben  Pobjie

Ben has not one but TWO hilarious books out now. Surveying the Wreckage and Superchef.

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