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Courier-Mail, Brisbane, August 15, 1998

Secret army races to spy on fellow Australians

by Heather Brown


I SUPPOSE I've been a racing woman all my life. Well, at least since I was fed copious quantities of hot pies and cherry cheer by a whiny-voiced strapper on a bush track somewhere. Whatever the formula, it worked, because I've been addicted ever since.

So I know about racing. I also know about the bookies and the TAB and Sky Channel, about magazines and TV shows and breed organisations. But I drew a blank the other day when I was asked what I thought about Racewatch. Was it something on Sky Channel, I ventured brightly, or maybe the latest column by Tony Arrold or Bart Sinclair?

Neither, it seemed. So my friend sat me down and showed me a replay of a recent ABC Four Corners programme. And I was left gobsmacked, speechless, hit between the eyes, because Racewatch doesn't have a single thing to do with racing: instead, a simple turn of phrase that has been associated with the racetrack for 200 years has been hijacked and transformed into something a good deal more insidious indeed. Because Racewatch, launched this week, really does have the potential to change the way that we, as Australians, will view each other - and trust each other -from this day on.

You see, Racewatch - created by a partnership between Community Aid Abroad and B'nai Brith, the Jewish anti-defamation organisation - has opened a can of worms that seems, at best, dangerous and, at worst, the most frighteningly un-Australian organisation created in a long, long time.

In one sense, of course, it might be argued that, in the current vicious political climate, there is a real need for an organisation that has been created for the purpose of monitoring racism in this country. Despite widespread protestations to the contrary, racism is certainly alive and well: have a good listen to a few of the conversations around you or take a look at the graffiti - from toilets to public monuments - and you will get what I mean.

But Racewatch's potential for long and lasting damage is unimaginable, since it lays the groundwork for the creation of blacklists and outright character assassination. Racewatch will ask for volunteers - to be known, somewhat offensively, as race-watchers - who simply have to sign a form to be eligible for recruitment. Their task will be to search for politicians, members of their staffs and supporters who make "racist remarks" during the coming election campaign.

While Danny Ben-Moshe, a spokesman for B'nai Brith told the media earlier this week that while Racewatch "aims at lowering the current level of racist rhetoric", he says it won't be prying Into people's private lives or eavesdropping on them in their living rooms (says who, one might ask? And who gives that guarantee?). According to Jeremy Hobbs, from Community Aid Abroad, politicians don't have the right to "play the race card to win office".


IT SEEMS any remark made aloud to a handful of people will count. Tip-offs from organisation members will then be sorted by the staff of B'nai Brith and "serious expressions of racism" will then be passed on to a special tribunal of three: Justice Marcus Einfeld, of the Federal Court: former federal race discrimination commissioner and present New South Wales Ombudsman Irene Moss; and former Taxation Office head Trevor Boucher, who is now president of Racial Respect, an organisation he started after he retired.

While all three will be acting in their private capacities on Racewatch, any racial statements on which they put their seal of disapproval will then go into B'nai Brith's database, which will then be issued to the media at the end of every week of the election campaign. Names will be named and the guilty no doubt tarred and feathered in the media.

Apart from the fact this is happening in Australia, a country that once prided itself on its free speech, its ethos of a fair go and a genuine sense of democratic freedom, the really chilling part is there no longer is any simple definition for what actually constitutes racism in these turbo-lent times. If you examine the letters pages of any major newspaper, for instance, the things that offend some individuals are found amusing by others: the laws demanded by one group of extremists is considered an effrontery to the civil liberties of others.

This week, for instance, I read a letter published in a newspaper that claimed the very notion of assimilation - which was, you might remember, the very thing we used to pride ourselves on back in the days before multiculturalism arrived - is now considered deeply offensive.

Columnist Frank Devine took up the Racewatch issue in The Australian earlier this week and pointed to the fact Hobbs had actually declared on the ABC radio programme PM on August 3 that "assimilationist policies" - expecting one cultural group to suborn their interests to a dominant group - were "clearly racist".

Devine continues: "Ben-Moshe says Racewatchers will be on the lookout for derogatory or vilifying racial statements made "with malice and aimed at inciting hatred". Racewatchers will overlook "naive and impulsive" remarks, he said, and "we will give everyone the benefit of the doubt".

But, as Devine rightly asks, how do we really know how this new army of Racewatchers will behave? On what basis will they be selected for such a dangerous level of power, except on self-nomination?

But given the venomous mood that has taken such hold across the nation these days, it would seem Racewatch is a dangerous invention, the beast that can consume the very lamb it was meant to protect. Have we really reached the level of the Brownshirts, of private armies of secret, self-appointed pimps ready to snoop and spy?

One might argue that while legislation might be instrumental in the enforcement of laws, it does little to change hearts and minds - or, most importantly, influence the understanding, the acceptance or the tolerance of the wider Australian public.

Beyond this, it seems the stealing of such a well-loved and generic term as Racewatchers will do nothing for the image of the racing industry or its millions of followers. Surely the term belongs back on the track and not in darker, more insidious places?

The thought of a secret army being specifically created to spy on its fellow Australian citizens underlines one frightening truth: that Australia, 1998, is no longer the kind of place I thought I was living in.

Heather Brown is a regular columnist of the Brisbane Courier-Mail, a leading Queensland newspaper

Our opinion

HOW ill-advised the self-appointed Jewish community leaders are. In the name of protecting their communities from anti-Semitism, their organisations around the world have arrogated to themselves the task formally appointed to Himmler's Gestapo -- secretly "monitoring" (their word) their fellow-citizens for inappropriate thoughts, and for careless remarks which will suffice to have the unfortunates cast into prison if possible, -- into Pentonville, -- or failing that at least into penury. In England the busybodies are the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and its two-tousand strong vigilante army of hired thugs, the Community Security Trust. It seems there is one such hidden "army" in each country now.

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