Akuol Garang, from Tarneit, said she paid the fine rather than voting in the 2016 election. (ABC Central Victoria: Emma Nobel)
At the last federal election, Melbourne resident Akuol Garang was one of thousands of Australians who did not show up to the polling booth.
- A young human rights law student says she didn’t vote at the last federal election because she felt she wasn’t wanted
- The electoral commission says voter turnout at the 2016 federal election was the lowest since 1925
- Advocates say politicians need to watch their racist language in parliament, and refrain from racist jokes
The young community advocate and human rights law Masters student said she felt alienated from Australian society because of her background.
“Last [federal] election, I didn’t vote because I felt like nobody wanted me to be part of this country, so why should I even exercise my right to do that in the first place?” she said.
According to the Australian Electoral Commission, voter turnout at the 2016 federal election was the lowest recorded since compulsory voting was introduced in 1925.
Although low voter turnout has been widely attributed to the 2016 campaign clashing with the school holidays, Ms Garang said her disillusionment lay in not feeling like she was acknowledged as an Australian.
‘Jokes’ in parliament filter to the street
Marcella Brassett, campaigns manager at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, said there was still a way to go for Australian politicians to consider the impact of their words.
She cited recent comments by Liberal Senator Ian Macdonald linking Labor senator Penny Wong to Chinese billionaire Huang Xiangmo as an example.
“It was a deliberate, racist joke,” Ms Brassett said.
“There are people in parliament who still continue to use racist language and hate speech to humiliate people who don’t agree with them or are not in their political parties.
“It’s very concerning because it gives permission to other people in Australia to do the same to the people in the streets, to the people in their workplaces, to humiliate and bully with hate speech.”
Labor and the Greens recently called for an end to hate speech in parliament by introducing a code of conduct.
The Race Discrimination Commissioner Chin Tan said he welcomed a conversation about a code of conduct for parliamentarians about how they debated issues that might have an impact on race relations in Australia.
“We must draw the line against racial and religious bigotry, prejudice and hatred,” he said.
“Publicly elected figures should be held to the highest standards.
“Free speech is an important human right but it must always be exercised in a way that does not impinge on other rights.
“We know that there is a link between hate speech and violence.”
Us and them
For some voters from diverse backgrounds, the commentary around “African gangs” in the lead up to the Victorian state election was still front of mind.
Dr Ghazarian said identity politics “a recipe for disaster” this close to the election. (Supplied: Dr Zareh Ghazarian )
More recently, Ms Garang remembered when Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton told Sydney radio that Melburnians were frightened of going out to dinner because of gang crime.
“He was saying that it was not safe for people to go out at night in the streets of Melbourne and I’m just like, which Melbourne do you live in? People literally go out all the time,” Ms Garang said.
Zareh Ghazarian, a political scientist and author at Monash University, said politicians used language to create a problem and solution rhetoric.
“Politicians have used labels and terms for a very long time now that seek to create a perception that there is ‘the other’ in society and ‘the other’ is seeking to cause, what they would consider to be mainstream or ordinary Australians, either economic, social or physical harm,” Dr Ghazarian said.
He pointed to the 2018 Victorian state election as an example.
“We saw at the Victorian state election, the so-called African gangs issue was very prominent,” he said.
“That leads into those ideas that politicians identify a group of people in society and they argue that they are out to cause some disruption, and so it’s their role to step in and use the power of the state to make sure that such groups don’t get the chance to cause harm.”
How language can impact
Ms Garang moved to Australia from Sudan with her family when she was a child. She said many people left Sudan for political reasons, but could be left feeling ostracised in Australia.
“They’re hopeful, coming to a country like Australia, thinking they’ll be able to now exercise their political rights and freedom of speech, but then, hearing things in the media, it’s like you’re also being oppressed as well,” she said.
“Watching the media and the government rhetoric and a lot of the things that you hear, people don’t often realise the language that they use and the impact that it has on our day-to-day lives.”
Author and former counsellor at the Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre, Christine Cummins, said language — even in political debate — had real potential to harm and disengage voters from diverse backgrounds.
“We’ve allowed the use of really divisive language on a pretty grand scale at times,” she said.
“It’s not only times such as the horrible response that we saw from [Queensland Senator] Fraser Anning to the Christchurch murders, but it’s also very subtle language that really draws half the community one side and half the other — it’s polarising language.”
The convenor of the Bendigo Rural Australians for Refugees planned to visit Canberra later this month to request politicians to be held accountable for the language they used.
“It’s about drawing attention to that language that we hear and to make people accountable for [their] actions and what they say very publicly, and the detrimental effect that has on our community,” she said.
Other advocates hoped the recent terror attack in New Zealand made politicians think more about the message their language sent.
“I’m really hoping that politicians have learnt their lesson from the Christchurch terror attack, because I think that kind of language incites hate,” Ms Brassett, herself from a migrant background, said.
“I think Scott Morrison set a really good example during that time and I’m hoping that the Liberal Party has changed its strategy to not use that kind of language.
“Especially with Islamophobia as well, the way the Prime Minister was called out on using Islamophobia as a political strategy — hopefully we won’t see that language this election.”
With fewer than five weeks to go before voters head to the polling booths, Dr Ghazarian said it would be a mistake for politicians to bring up topics that could turn away voters.
“It is a recipe for disaster for any of the major parties to start talking about identity issues relating to race or religion because those sorts of issues only divide, and certainly do not unite, supporters,” he said.