Sydney Buses route 545 carves its way through the heartland of the electorate of Bennelong. From Ermington, the geographic gateway of western Sydney, it winds through Eastwood and on to Macquarie. It hosts an eclectic crowd, as most buses do, a mixture of the feeble and youthful. Schoolkids of all ethnicities, elderly white and Asian women with trundling trolleys, university students. It also regularly hosts one of those seething racists that you will invariably encounter, given enough time on public transport in Sydney – the kind of man who would hurl abuse at an Indian man with his small child, or a tourist speaking French, to reference just two more publicised cases.
He’s a sandy-haired man, probably 30 years old but aging harshly, with patchy stubble and a perpetually drunken gait. He mutters abuse as he walks past a Chinese student in a Macquarie Uni jumper. Sitting next to another student speaking Mandarin, he tells him to “speak English or shut the fuck up”. The kid looks alarmed, an old Indian man protests, and the (white, elderly, female) bus driver tells him to quit it or get off the bus. The collective unease hangs thick as fog as the mostly Asian passengers wait for him to move. I hold my half-Indonesian girlfriend’s hand tight and try to make meaningful, empathetic eye contact with the Chinese kid – I’m on your side, man.
A variation on this theme occurs most afternoons on the bus, like some bizarre Groundhog Day-esque tableau. This kind of virulent racism seldom finds an outlet in Australian society on a scale that is threatening to not only individuals, but to the very state of ethnic diversity – despite our well-publicised slant of intolerance, no party has managed to gain traction in the way that the British National Party or the Greek Golden Dawn have, and nor does it sit easily in the mainstream political conscience (modern day ‘border protection’ aside). Rather, a smattering of hard-right groups cluster on the fringe of political legitimacy. In Bennelong, the 2010 federal election saw One Nation garner 725 votes, or 0.85% of all votes, at least one of whom presumably is a fixture on the 545. It is the discomfiting presence of such a blatantly unapologetic racist in my everyday life that encourages me to seek out its political outlet – Victor Waterson, formerly of One Nation, now Bennelong candidate for the Australia First Party.
Ryde, at Bennelong’s heart, was the third settlement founded in Australia, serving to link the colonies of Sydney and Parramatta. Bennelong has not shed this geographically emblematic centre – the affluent north shore sits on one shoulder, the working-class western suburbs on the other. Culturally, too, it is an archetype of the median – almost stereotypically middle class, with its Federation-era Californian bungalows and professional families. Within a 5km radius of Bennelong there is a university and an IKEA, as if there are two more obvious markers of a middle class in Australian society.
More than anything though, Bennelong is now characterised by its diversity. In my high school – a nondescript, middling one in Ryde – I didn’t make friends with another kid of Anglo descent until Year 9. According to the ABC (“Australian Born Chinese, or Anything But Caucasian”, giggles Waterson), 19% of Bennelong’s vote is Chinese, another 4% is Korean. 5% is Armenian, another couple of percent are of Indian or Sri Lankan descent. At the 2011 census, over 50% of the population was from non-English speaking backgrounds. Cumulatively, over a third of the electorate is non-White. Indeed, Labor’s candidate, Jason Yat-sen Li, is of Chinese descent.
“What we’re seeing now is nothing short of Chinese Imperialism; I think that’s what people should be concerned about. That’s why they call it the Asian century,” declares Victor Waterson, the man who stood for One Nation in Bennelong in 2010, though this time around he’s running for the Australia First Party (AFP), an anti-immigration ticket founded by neo-Nazi Jim Saleam in 1996. It’s an ignominious beginning to the interview, though as an opening salvo it’s emblematic of the rest of the interview – unabashedly anti-Asian, slim on policy, slimmer on facts.
Waterson is 48, but looks about ten years older. Wearing a bomber jacket over a flannelette shirt and holding a bike helmet, he looks more a retired tradesman than a budding politician. His accent is broad, almost to the point of ocker stereotype, and his face is weather-bitten, with a nose crowded with burst capillaries and a permanent squint. He makes for a frustrating interviewee. Without the politician’s gift of obfuscation, made up for by a lack of practical evidence for his claims, and a general willingness to ignore questions, either holding them too firmly and closing off, or allowing them to multiply magnitudally, so that a question on the AFP’s preferencing blows out to a conspiratorial lurch into the realm of political donations.
Waterson becomes more vigorous the longer we talk. He gestures animatedly, blinks owlishly and juts his chin confidently. I imagine him holding court at the local, beer slopping down his shirt as he rants. He has ordered the big breakfast (“eggs well done, thanks!”) and for a long while his body language and eating habits are the most interesting part of this interview; he licks his fingers aggressively rather than use a napkin, he heaps sugars into his cappuccino. Waterson’s sweeping generalities and unaware fallacies quickly reduce any credence he had (“I personally think that left-wing people are more cruel than the right – as we all know, Chairman Mao was responsible for the deaths of between 30 and 60 million people” – “I’m more green than the Greens, probably – global warming is just not there”). More frustrating though, is his insistence that the AFP’s policies – a core one being the “abolishment of multiculturalism” – are rooted in economic terms. The frequent refrain from Waterson is that, just as the White Australia policy was economically based, so too are the AFP’s current ideals. When I ask him if this isn’t counteracted by charges of racism, he insists, “we can’t take responsibility for the world’s ills”.
The lilting, directionless interview changes tack when I mention Labor’s candidate for Bennelong, Jason Yat-Sen Li. A businessman and lawyer of Chinese descent, Yat-Sen Li is evidently a contentious topic with Waterson – his body language changes drastically, leaning in slowly, conspiratorially, he announces every word like the reading of a charge sheet. “You’ve actually got to look into what Jason Yat-sen Li’s background is. We’ve got something coming out right now, that could be concerning”, he tells me, and leans back smugly. When I ask what exactly the concern is, he admits he’s light on details, but tells me that “it’ll be posted on the AFP website, possibly today or tomorrow”. He will reveal no more, but with this, the interview veers into wholly new territory. Waterson, evidently pleased with himself, throws himself into issues that he’d previously treaded lightly on.
The soundbites come thick and fast. Without prompting, Waterson covers LGBT rights (“it’s just about difference. It needs to be called something different. Why does it even have to be called marriage? Why do gay people have to be called gay?”), women’s rights (“a woman says ‘I don’t want to be raped’, but she actually puts herself in a position where it happens”) and Children Overboard (“I believe there was a lot of truth in it”).
“I certainly hope that all the Chinese people that have adopted this country are ready to kill their own people,” Waterson asserts. “The whole idea of multiculturalism is about one world government,” he continues, idly claiming as an aside that most refugees don’t have legitimate concerns for their safety in the first place. He tells me that “Afghanistan’s probably nearly a stable place now” and that “there’s no civil war in Sri Lanka anymore”. When pressed on how, in a suburb as diverse and prosperous as Epping, he can truly question the worth of multiculturalism, he tells me ominously “I wouldn’t want to be the parents of Mr Lee Rigby”. He defends the informal relationship the AFP has with the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party in Greece, and says “he has no data” on their campaigns of violence against ethnic minorities. “I believe in Greece for the Greeks”, says Waterson.
His diatribe on the end game of multiculturalism ends up in a predictably absurd place, asking me if I could permit Papua New Guinean tribesmen to practice cannibalism in Australia, informing me that, had I fought in WWII, “the Japanese would have cut your head off likethat!” (“Go and have a look at the Australian soldiers that they cannibalised!”) Most unpalatably, he refuses to back down from a declaration that some ethnicities are more predisposed to violence than others – he tells me to look at the figures of African-Americans in prison, to look at the violence in the Middle East, asks me if I’d like to see a Sri Lankan man rape my wife. I draw the line, finally, and call an end to the interview – though the transcript runs for another ten minutes or so: Waterson’s interviewing etiquette is not particularly polished.
At the conclusion of the interview, what strikes me most about Waterson is his lack of relevance. His sole credential to the AFP is his Whiteness. He doesn’t speak in terms of policies or political terms, because the AFP doesn’t have policies. What sustains Waterson, and the slew of minor right-wing parties founded on racial lines, is their ideology. Waterson wouldn’t know what to do if he did attain power – it suits him perfectly to stand on the political edge and gesture maniacally for attention. That question of journalistic integrity versus moral integrity emerges – in pushing him for answers, and controversial ones, have I simply validated Waterson’s rantings by giving him press.
I religiously check the AFP website for the supposedly damning press release on Jason Yat-Sen Li. It goes live two days after my interview. It enthusiastically details Li’s time working for the United Nations in the late 1990’s, his receiving of an Eisenhower Scholarship, his recognition by the World Economic Forum in 2003. The presser, accompanied by a photo of a crowd of Asian people, concludes “so, it seems that our ‘simple’ local Labor candidate for Bennelong is part of a globalist system of patronage and power, one which looks to the Chinese market as its salvation”.
I run into Yat-Sen Li at West Ryde station a couple of days later. I am struck by his warmth, and by his accent, every bit as broadly Australian as Waterson’s. Of course, it doesn’t particularly matter what accent he speaks with. Our last Prime Minister was born in Wales, our probable next one in England. For all his talk, Waterson never seemed particularly threatened by those immigrants who shared his skin colour. As the AFP website proclaims, with no hint of irony: “given that Mr. Li is an ethnic candidate who demands a certain Asian future for Australia, we would urge all Australians to also consider voting on ethnic lines!”
Where Waterson and the AFP imagine huge, faceless threats, the rest of us see potential friends and already-existing countrymen. I came away from the interview feeling much less threatened by the presence of the AFP in my electorate. And Waterson? Does he think he can grow his vote from 0.85%? Well, he believes the AFP is erroneous in their data, and claims, “in 2010 I got 2.7%”. He is wrong, of course, as the Australian Electoral Commission – and the thriving, diverse electorate of Bennelong – attests to.
This post was originally featured in University of Sydney weekly Honi Soit under the title Australia First, Minorities Second. It was highly commended by the editors of Honi 2013 in the ‘best feature piece’ category.