Another elephant in a very crowded room

by ray goodlass

My Daily Advertiser column for today, Tuesday 24 January 2017

Last week an Australia Day billboard showing two girls in hijabs was taken down after the advertiser received threats. The two girls featured amongst revolving images of many other different Australians.

According to the Victorian government the billboard was taken down from a site in Melbourne after threats and abuse were directed at the advertising company, and whilst there is no doubt superficial truth in this its removal also smacks of giving in to intimidation by xenophobic and Islamophobic extremists. From this perspective its removal is shameful and puts a huge dent in our claim to be a multicultural society.

The electronic billboard at Cranbourne, in Melbourne’s south-east, was part of a Victorian Government campaign to promote Australia Day events in the city.

The United Patriots Front, a far-right group opposed to immigration, published an image of the billboard on its Facebook page on January 13, which has since been widely shared.

“State government billboard in Cranbourne spotted by a supporter — they’re making every effort to redefine your nation and gradually erase you from history,” the post read.

Victoria’s Minister for Multicultural Affairs, Robin Scott, said the company that operates the billboard, QMS, took the ad down after receiving a number of complaints. “There were a series of complaints, some of which were of an abusive and threatening nature, that were made to the organisation QMS that put the billboard up,” he said.

“And they’ve made a decision based on the safety of their employees and business infrastructure to temporarily remove the billboard.” Taking Workplace Health and Safety into account such a response is of course appropriate when viewed superficially, but there are other ways of ensuring the wellbeing of staff without pandering to threats from extreme right wing bullies, and it would have been pleasing to have seen some of those tried.

From this perspective Mr Scott’s statement that he was not aware of whether the matter had been referred to the police is disappointing, to say the least, and makes his comments that “Whatever background people come from, images of people celebrating their love of this country should not be considered something that is offensive in the society,” and that “I think it is something we should celebrate” somewhat disingenuous, to say the least,

Greens Leader and Victorian Richard Di Natale was slightly more on the ball when he said he was “disgusted” the campaign to remove the billboard was successful.

“Islamophobia is a genuine threat to Australian democracy and to the multicultural society that the vast majority of Australians cherish,” he said.

“We must stand against racial hatred wherever we encounter it, and stand with those communities suffering from its vile effects.” Quite.

This incident brings to mind the wider question of that enormous ‘elephant in the room’, whether or not we should be celebrating Australia Day on 26th January, for to many it was and remains ‘Invasion Day’, and to others (White) ‘Settlement’ Day.

The establishment of the British convict settlement had a devastating impact on the land’s first people, something most politicians and their parties manage to ignore, though thankfully not all, for as Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon said last year, “On Jan 26 thousands of Australians will remember the Frontier Wars when this land’s First Peoples fought against British colonisation. Tragically their struggle continues.”

Indeed it does. We really do need to seriously consider if this is the most appropriate date to celebrate Australia’s diversity.