Former Telstra boss Sol Trujillo punched a hole in Australia’s fragile ego when he said had experienced racism in Australia and that working here was “like stepping back in time.” Speaking to the BBC in San Diego, Trujillo said Australia’s isolation meant it had a “different operating climate” from most countries but was slowly evolving and maturing. In the week where the “bogus bogan” Clare Werbeloff got her 15 minutes of fame by blandly talking about “fat wogs” and “skinny wogs”, it would appear that maturity is materialising very slowly.
Meanwhile Australian reaction to Trujillo’s criticism is typically thin-skinned. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s spokesperson called the statements “ridiculous” and said they will disappoint Australians who welcomed him to this country. The disappointment part may be true but are the comments really ridiculous? More ridiculous, say than Rudd’s single word reaction to Trujillo’s resignation from Telstra: “adios”, or the constant media cry of the “three amigos” that greeted Trujillo (and his two offsiders Greg Winn and Phil Burgess)? Trujillo, like Winn and Burgess, is American not Mexican, and may feel rightly aggrieved at being defined (no matter how playfully) by his heritage.
Back in March, marketing expert Dr Stephen Downes wrote an article in Crikey about Trujillo’s racial stereotyping in the media. Downes said Trujillo’s name and ethnic background became more important than his qualifications and experience. He quoted Eric Ellis who noted how cartoonists always depicted Trujillo in a sombrero astride a donkey, while shock jocks mimicked an imagined Mexican accent, even though his family came to the US 200 years ago. “Did cartoonists feel compelled to draw former CEO Ziggy Switkowski (born in Germany) in lederhosen and eating a bratwurst?” asked Downes rhetorically.
So let’s look again at what was said in Trujillo’s BBC interview. The reporter said: “I noticed reading the papers there that when you were referred to they would always point out that you were, had a Hispanic background or whatever...in Britain and in America it would have been neither here nor there. In Australia it was invariably pointed out. And the Prime Minister when asked what his parting words to you would be, he said, "Adios". Was that racism?” Trujillo responded to the last question first. “I think by definition there were even columnists that wrote stories that said it was,” he said. He then addressed the broader point: “But you know, my point is, is that you know that does exist and it's got to change because the world is full of a lot of people and most economies have to take advantage, including Australia, of a diverse set of people. And if there's a belief that only certain people are acceptable versus others, that is a sad state.”
A team at University of Western Sydney and Macquarie University have done considerable research into this “sad state” of acceptability. In 2001 they conducted a telephone survey of 5,000 people in NSW. This was backed up by a further sample of 4,000 Victorians in 2006. Overall, the researchers found that racism is quite prevalent in Australian society though its occurrences differ from place to place. If you were older, non-tertiary educated, only spoke English, were born in Australia, and were male, you were more likely to be racist.
While these findings appear to back up Trujillo, that is not to say he is beyond criticism. His time at the helm did little to halt Telstra’s slide. Shares in Telstra fell 38 per cent under his leadership, compared with a 13 per cent drop by the S&P/ASX 200 index in the same timeframe. Telstra was also excluded from the $4.7 billion original tender process to build a broadband network after it submitted a non-compliant bid and found itself further on the outer when the government announced a new company would deliver the $43b National Broadband Network. Trujillo quit his job early, leaving Australia six weeks before his publicly announced end date of 30 June.
The Australian’s former senior business correspondent Michael Sainsbury said Trujillo’s problem is one of perception. He says Trujillo did not show a lot of interest in Australia or understanding Australia. “I think that's why he's kind of got that perhaps a little bit wrong,” he told the ABC. BBY Telecoms analysts Mark McDonnell was also unsympathetic saying there was an element of jocularity about the “three amigos” jibe. “I don't think there was anything demeaning or malicious intended by it,” he said. But even if that is true, and it is debatable, it does not excuse the amount of racially motivated mocking Australians dished out to him. Sol Trujillo may not be the world’s best businessman but that does not entitle Australian politicians or the media to rob him of his dignity.