Encouraging membership of ‘Team Australia’ must include active recruitment of Muslim players and consultation on the game plan. By Mike Seccombe.

When team building fuels racial unrest

According to former Republican speechwriter, conservative columnist and etymologist the late William Safire, the term “dog-whistle politics” is a relatively recent entrant into public political discourse.

Safire traced its first use to a 1988 article in The Washington Post. He defined the term as a subtle way of conveying political messages, so they “seem innocent to a general audience but resonate with a specific public attuned to them”.

It was a timely addition to the political lexicon, for 1988 was also the year that the resurrected leader of the federal opposition, John Howard, revived race as a political issue in Australia.

Since the end of the “White Australia” policy, both sides of politics –under Whitlam, Fraser and Hawke – had by tacit consent not gone there.

But on August 1 that year, talking about Asian immigration, Howard opined in his sly way, not quite taking ownership of the prejudice, that “in the eyes of some in the community … it would be in our immediate-term interests and supportive of social cohesion if it were slowed down a little so that the capacity of the community to absorb [it] was greater”.  

The words sound mild compared with the type of inflammatory rhetoric we hear these days on the subject of social cohesion, but at the time they caused uproar. Howard was widely denounced in the media – The Australian’s Paul Kelly leading the charge – and by senior Liberals including Jeff Kennett, Nick Greiner and Malcolm Fraser.

The Hawke government promptly introduced into parliament a motion opposing the use of race to select immigrants. Howard’s party split; three moderate Liberals – including Philip Ruddock – crossed the floor to vote with Labor, two others abstained, and Howard’s deputy, Andrew Peacock, absented himself for an “important meeting” in Melbourne.

But here’s the thing: opinion polls showed strong support for Howard’s position. 

Three weeks after making his comments, the opposition leader launched a new immigration and ethnic affairs policy. The title of the document, reportedly chosen by Howard himself, was “One Australia”.

The phrase sounds very like another two-word slogan, “Team Australia”, invoked by Prime Minister Tony Abbott as he proposed a suite of measures to combat terrorism.

It is not just the title that is similar. Howard stressed that under his policy, Australia would “welcome all those who share our vision and are ready to contribute to it”.

Abbott’s line is that “everyone has got to put this country, its interests, its values and its people first, and you don’t migrate to this country unless you want to join our team.”

Both are quite defensible statements, of course, but also carry the implication that some in the community do not share the vision of the rest of Australia, do not adhere to its values.

In fairness, it has to be said that Abbott’s invocation of “Team Australia” is in response to a far more genuine threat than that to which Howard was responding.

Terrorism, carried out in the name of Islam, is a real and pressing worry. Yet some, including a substantial proportion of the Australian Muslim community, detect the dog whistle.

Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane noted as much about a week ago, in a speech on Australia’s multicultural history.

He said he had heard “serious concern” from Muslim and Arab Australians that they were singled out by it and were having their national loyalty unfairly questioned.

He pondered whether the intent of the Team Australia rhetoric was to unite or divide the community.

“If Team Australia is simply shorthand for an Australian liberal democratic community, for a community of equal citizens, I don’t think any of us would have an issue with it,” said Soutphommasane.

 “But if Team Australia is meant to suggest something else, we are entitled to ask for an explanation. Manufacturing patriotism can sometimes do more to divide than to unite.”

Abbott’s comments have been ambiguous. In one example, broadcast on ABC Radio a week ago, the prime minister began by saying: “Extremism is the enemy, not Islam. Terrorism is being targeted, not the members of any religion.”

But he went on: “Terrorists’ tendency to justify themselves in religious terms could lead Muslims to rethink and rearticulate the real nature of their faith. Perhaps this might turn out to be the time when Islam, like Christianity before it, finally dissociates religion from the use of force.”

Thus he appeared to conflate the relative few extremists with the Muslim community, indeed the religion as a whole.

ASIO reckons there are maybe a couple of hundred among an Australian Muslim population of almost half a million, or about 0.04 per cent, who are of serious concern.

Abbott has periodically inserted his disclaimer that the counterterrorism initiatives are narrowly targeted, but has mostly not done so as he has invoked alarming imaginings of beheadings and “mass casualty terrorist events” in Australia.

These are not entirely fanciful possibilities, but nor are they likely. Australia’s official security threat level has not been upped. The relevant enforcement authorities suggest the threat is being managed.

It has largely fallen to others to provide the facts and nuance. 

The head of ASIO, David Irvine, told the National Press Club on Wednesday there is cause for concern. He recited the intelligence statistics: some 60 Australians fighting with extremist groups in Syria and Iraq, about 15 killed, including two young Australian suicide bombers, and about a hundred people here in Australia “actively supporting these extremist groups”.

But Irvine went on to say that the “strongest defence against violent extremism lies within the Australian Muslim community itself.

“Recent uninformed criticism of the leadership of Australia’s Muslim community ignores the fact that most Muslim leaders … have striven hard to address the problem of a few misguided people in their midst. I know from my own experience that the problem in Australia would be far greater without their efforts. We should thank them and continue to work with them.”

The fact is that the problem at this stage is mostly offshore, and the targets are mostly other Muslims. The insurgents in Iraq and Syria hew to a perversion of Sunni Islam, whose victims are primarily believers in other variants of Islam. It is remarkable in the circumstances that the sectarian conflict has been so little reflected in Australia.

As for the “uninformed criticism” to which Irvine referred, he was more precise in a long interview with a Sydney Islamic radio station.

He instanced a headline in the Murdoch broadsheet The Weekend Australian: “We’ll fight Islam 100 years”.

“…frankly it’s an outrage to my sense of being an Australian,” Irvine said of the headline, which misquoted former Australian Army chief Peter Leahy.

But he could easily have chosen any one of scores of equally incendiary examples in the Murdoch press, such as a couple of pieces vilifying the Islamic community of Lakemba, by Tim Blair. After the first sparked outraged responses, the second purported to convey “Sincere apologies to my Muslim friends.” 

It was not sincere, and the “apology” was for failing to warn Islamic converts that “un”-converting “may cause beatings, head loss and death by stoning. Looks like you’re stuck with it. Sorry about that.”

You might think Prime Minister Tony Abbott, the self-described “captain” of Team Australia, would take issue with such intra-team sledging, were he really interested in unity. But no.

When some Muslim community leaders boycotted a meeting with Abbott to discuss the proposed counterterrorism changes, he slighted them as “foolish” and “petty”.

A Murdoch media headline referring to that incident screamed “...leadership in chaos: Radicals reject Australia, boycott Tony Abbott.”

Tasneem Chopra, Muslim author and cross-cultural consultant, deplores what she sees. “The government often, by the language it uses, provokes a reaction in the public sphere,” she says. “It’s always in this binary of ‘us and them’.”

But it is not binary.

 “You’re talking 70 different ethnic cohorts and 135 linguistic groups, just in Victoria. There are vastly varying degrees of religiosity, of cultural practice,” Chopra says. “There is no one spokesperson for the Muslim community. Compared with other faiths, there is no real hierarchy. We have a grand mufti, but that is more of a functional role.”

This is a political obstacle, not only for politicians seeking to engage the community, but for the community in trying to exert political influence. Only in a small number of electorates where the Muslim population is concentrated, particularly in Western Sydney where the Lebanese are powerful, do they have any real clout. 

Overwhelmingly these are Labor-voting electorates; the conservatives have little to lose if they offend these Muslim constituencies. 

Chopra particularly resents Abbott’s repeated suggestion that the threat of extremism is connected to a problem of integrating immigrants.

“The labelling of the community through a paradigm of migration becomes really disingenuous,” says Chopra, who hails originally from Bendigo.

“It’s distancing elements of the community who come to feel that no matter what they do, they’ll never be accepted.”

Indeed the evidence is that the appeal of the extremists is strongest among the young, who were born here and who have grown up in a post-9/11 world, vilified and feared by shock jocks, tabloids and other sections of the community. 

“The greatest ally in the radicalisation process is some of the Australian media rhetoric,” says Sydney Muslim community leader and doctor Jamal Rifi.

He has a long record of bridge-building between the Islamic and wider Australian community. Notably after the 2005 Cronulla riots, he organised for 17 young Australian Muslims to graduate as surf lifesavers, to patrol the beaches at Cronulla. In 2009, he organised members of his community into a “mateship project”, walking the Kokoda Track with Labor’s Jason Clare and the Liberals’ Scott Morrison.

“It is in the Muslim community’s interest to be an active player, because it is our kids who are being targeted by these black, radical, cancerous ideologies,” says Rifi.

“We have mothers who have suffered by their kids going there. We have wives who have suffered by their husbands going there.

“We also at the same time want to stop this demonising of the whole community and religion.

“We want to be part of ‘Team Australia’, if only the government will consult us on the game plan.”

Alas, the evidence is that the game plan is the same one devised by Howard 25 years ago.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 30, 2014 as "Team building".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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