Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has not apologised yet. ‘What for?’ one might ask, considering the long list of grievances some hold against him and his party. On this occasion, he may want to apologise to my fellow Indian immigrants living in Australia for his remarks made in parliament recently — but not just for the obvious reasons.
On 26th February during question time, the treasurer responded to a query with a satiric routine — these apparently qualify as a valid answer in their profession. He portrayed the MP Dr Jim Chalmers as a sanctimonious know-it-all who descended bare footed from an ashram in the Himalayas, carrying incense, beads and striking yoga poses. He also made vaguely meditative “Ommm” sounds.
To be fair, the writing was passable, but the delivery was sloppy, and worst of all, he used a poster. As we can all agree, prop comedy is for hacks. Two stars.
But were the jokes offensive? When I asked a few Hindu Indian immigrants most were, as I predicted, unaware of the comments. Explaining the remarks and context elicited reactions ranging from eye rolls to blank stares. But clearly some people were aggrieved — members of the Hindu Council of Australia publicly condemned the comments.
To my shame, I wasn’t offended — and not merely because I am an ex-Hindu atheist. Not only was the attack never aimed at Hindus or Indians, it didn’t land anywhere close. If anything, the trope of visiting remote ashrams, returning with touristic paraphernalia, preaching platitudes and yoga is something Indians typically attribute (no offence to white people) to white people.
Yet there is offence to be taken here — not at the joke, but the hypocrisies of its context.
The first of these is easy to spot. Would Frydenberg, vocal critic of anti-Semitism, be happy for another politician to replicate his routine, instead employing Jewish caricatures? Highly unlikely.
But the Treasurer’s hypocrisy points to a deeper, more pervasive double standard at play in Australia.
Apart from Hinduism, is there another major religion that politicians can rhetorically exploit, (in the precise way that Frydenberg did — imagery, allusions, sound effects and all) without immediately paying a political price?
Certainly not Christianity, to which the coalition is beholden. And certainly not Islam or Judaism, perpetual victims of bigotry so vicious that similar mocking would be unthinkable. Sadly, Buddhism probably fits the bill here. But perhaps the lack of pushback and controversy would not be surprising — Buddhists are an ethnically diverse group in Australia who hail from various countries and continents.
However, Hinduism by comparison is highly racialised — most Hindus are Indians, and vice versa — so any perceived insults lands harder on a far more specific, homogenous group. Yet there is no wrath for Frydenberg here, nor for the next person who pulls such a stunt. Because that’s the way we, Indians in Australia, are.
A burgeoning population, Indians are the largest source of immigrants to this country since 2016 — an unusually fluent, skilled and educated diaspora who have transitioned to life here with tremendous ease and harmony. Hindu doctrine is remarkably elastic accommodating a variety of views, including atheism. Indian Hindu immigrants tolerate and embrace a vast variety of experiences, views, people and even jokes.
So Frydenberg’s jokes aren’t the issue here. It’s the fact that he couldn’t afford to make them at the expense of anyone else.
Arguably I would be less concerned if these comments were made by a serial provocateur like Alan Jones — a man who will sink to any depths. That’s the difference — Frydenberg will sink not to any depths, but precisely this depth, of invoking Indian culture as ammunition, and no other.
I noted that Frydenberg hasn’t apologised — I did not say he owes one. That is for him to decide. ‘Sorry’ is a risky word these days — culture is changing, and apologies made in good faith can fail to appease the mobs hounding at the gates. Instead, Trumpian politics proves that doubling down on the worst wrongs is good gamesmanship.
But Frydenberg does have a rare opportunity here. He’s made a small mistake, and there is no mob with pitchforks, just people who took notice and might appreciate the goodwill. I don’t know if there will ever be an easier ‘sorry’ to say.