As Victoria is heading for a state election this year, it is only natural that political debate will become more and more heated. But according to Minister for Families and Children, Early Childhood Education, and Youth Affairs, Jenny Mikakos, there’s significant risk that this debate will head to race baiting.
Last week, the minister was suspended from parliament after accusing Liberal Party members of employing racist rhetoric.
Today it’s the Africans, tomorrow will be the Indians, the day after the Chinese and then it will be the Greeks. As soon as bigots are given permission to attack other members of the community on the basis of their ethnicity their religion or their race, then everyone is fair game, everyone who is “different” becomes potentially the victim of abuse”
“I did make some comments about racism,” she admits. “I believe that they were fair comments based on behaviour that we’ve seen in recent weeks.”
Despite paying a price for her comment, the minister stands by her views.
“It is very clear to me that the Liberal Party, both on a Victorian level and nationally, has decided to replicate Donald Trump’s political strategy and engage in race baiting,” she says, pointing to comments made by Federal Minister of Home Affairs, Peter Dutton about a perceived ‘African gang issue’ in Melbourne.
“He was backed up by Malcolm Turnbull himself and this has certainly been the rhetoric that we have heard from the Victorian Liberal Party for many months now, talking about African youth gangs in particular.”
Minister Mikakos says that this has already escalated to the point where people working for her, for the state government, have reported being racially vilified on public transport. “These are people who are middle-aged women, they can never be mistaken for being members of youth gangs,” she points out. “But because they can clearly be identified as being of African descent they have been the victim of appalling racial abuse. I’m concerned about where this is all going,” she adds and warns that Victoria is in danger of losing one of its key elements.
“We’ve had very strong bipartisanship around supporting multiculturalism in Victoria for decades and that is something that as Victorians we should all be very proud of.
“What I’m fearful of is that the Liberal Party is walking away from that. I think it is a political strategy designed to play into some elements in the community who have prejudiced views and this is very alarming to me. Because now it is focused around the African community but as soon as we give permission to bigots to openly preach what they might be thinking openly, we’re opening up a can of worms. Today it’s the Africans, tomorrow it will be the Indians, the day after, the Chinese and then it will be the Greeks.
“As soon as bigots are given permission to attack other members of the community on the basis of their ethnicity their religion or their race, then everyone is fair game, everyone who is ‘different’ becomes potentially the victim of abuse.”
Jenny Mikakos knows all too well what this means.
“Many of us in politics who come from migrant backgrounds, myself included, have that personal experience of schoolyard bullying because of our ethnicity.
“That’s why we are more sensitive to this, to having those issues play out in the broader community. It’s an ugly thing and I worry that we will see far right-wing brutes popping their head up now trying to gain some legitimacy in the media and we’ve already seen neo-Nazi groups trying to promote vigilante behaviour. I worry where it is going to end up.”
She claims she’s not alone in this.
“I’ve had private conversations with Liberal politicians about what I said in the parliament and I know that some of them have very deep reservations and concerns about the political direction their party has been heading in over the past year,” she says calling all members to express these concerns publicly and strongly to their leadership.
“They are putting the social cohesion of our community at risk,” she warns.
“They are sending signals that they are abandoning bipartisanship for multiculturalism to gain some political advantage and that they will try to lump together a whole community and call them responsible for the action of a very small number of young people.
“When some young people of Greek background commit a crime – and we’ve seen terrible crimes being committed – the Greek community is not held responsible, we don’t have that kind of finger-pointing, so it is important that our community does not point the finger at other communities.”
That is not to say that the minister is in denial about the real social problems that are at the core of this phenomenon.
“We acknowledge that there are some issues particularly in Melbourne’s western suburbs and we are supporting Victorian Police in their efforts to address these issues,” she says, making reference to the Andrews Government’s “historic” $2 billion Community Safety Statement, which includes tough new laws and police powers, and the addition of 3,135 police officers to the Victorian force, alongside improved technology and new and upgraded police stations.
It is this support, she argues, that allowed for Victoria Police to arrest 850 youth offenders since May 2016.
“So we are not ignoring that issue,” she says.
“But we always have issues with all newly arrived communities and the young people, this is not a new phenomenon.
“In every wave of new immigrants or refugees, we have issues of young people disengaging from school and from positive activities in the community and getting in trouble with the police.”
As Minister for Families and Youth, she believes that the answer lies in education and training.
“We know the most effective way to keep young people out of trouble with the criminal justice system is to give them hope for the future, to link them with training and help them find a job,” she says.
“These are far more effective strategies than having young people becoming involved in the criminal justice system.”
But what does the Minister for Youth say to those young people who will come to the ballots this year, worrying about employment security and housing affordability?
“The biggest issue for young people is unemployment and this is where we are making a lot of effort. Our government is focused on education and training and creating more jobs. We are working very strongly to create more jobs in Victoria, we are investing in new infrastructure that creates enormous jobs opportunities.”
This may well be true, but it may not play a role in this election, given that as we move towards the elections, it is by now obvious that the Victorian Opposition will steer political debate to the issue of law and order.
Minister Mikakos is not trying to shy away from it. “Let’s have a proper debate about law and order, but let’s not make it about race and ethnicity,” she says, arguing that the biggest law and order issue that Victoria is facing is family violence.
“Half of the police’s time and effort is actually devoted to dealing with family violence in our communities but it’s hidden away behind closed doors and people don’t see it,” she says.
As for the issue of youth offenders, she points to statistics which show a decline. What’s more, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics Victoria has fewer young offenders than New South Wales and Queensland: 1,573 young offenders were recorded per 100,000 in Victoria, compared to 2,632 in Queensland and 2,741 in New South Wales.
“And yet Peter Dutton comes out publicly and talks about ‘gang issues’ in Victoria, not in New South Wales which has a Liberal government, or within his own electorate.”
Statistics are one thing, but at the end of the day, this debate about racism and crime threatens the very fabric of Australian society. Stressing the need to fight racist rhetoric, she points to the “enormous leadership role” that the Greek community has played in championing multiculturalism for decades.
“It’s not just because it benefits our community, but because we know it’s going to benefit the entire state,” she says. “We’re very happy to have half the population in Victoria have parents born overseas. It adds to the richness and diversity of our society.”