Scott Morrison’s words following the Christchurch massacre were sensitive and well chosen, but how can they be read as ingenuous when they follow on from almost two decades of his party deliberately cultivating disunity and fear? By Mike Seccombe.

The Coalition and the race issue

In the immediate aftermath of the Christchurch terrorist attack, Jacinda Ardern announced that visas for the families of those killed or injured would be accelerated. She also announced that every family would be eligible for a grant of $10,000 to help cover funeral costs.

In allocating that money, she repeatedly stressed, “immigration status is not a factor – it is based on the event happening here in New Zealand”. She consoled the grieving and declared, “This is not who we are.”

When Kon Karapanagiotidis, chief executive of Australia’s Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, heard of those funeral grants, he was reminded immediately of the Australian response to another mass tragedy in 2011, when 48 asylum seekers died after their boat was dashed on the rocks off Christmas Island. Forty-two survived.

In the aftermath, the then Labor government decided 22 survivors would be flown from Christmas Island, where they were detained, to Sydney, so they might attend the funerals of family members.

The cost to this country was $300,000, or, by Karapanagiotidis’ calculation, “about two cents for every Australian”. It was about $200,000 less than what Ardern was offering families.

Scott Morrison, then the opposition immigration spokesman, loudly opposed the compassionate gesture as a waste of taxpayers’ money and attacked Labor for making it. He was supported in his stance by the opposition leader of the time, Tony Abbott.

Eventually, under pressure from moderate elements of the Coalition led by Joe Hockey, they backed down. But the fact that Morrison and Abbott reacted to a human tragedy by playing politics was telling about their morality, says Karapanagiotidis. It undermined the argument that their border security policy was motivated only by humanitarian concerns.

“How can you pretend to care about those lost at sea if you don’t give a damn about the grief of those that are living?” Karapanagiotidis says.

Though the circumstances of the two tragedies were different, they were not that different, even in legal terms. Those who died at Christmas Island were no less innocent than those who died in Christchurch. Despite the government’s efforts to pretend otherwise, it is not illegal to seek asylum.

And in human terms, they were identical. “We have people grieving, who have lost their families,” says Karapanagiotidis.

The death of a loved one is just as traumatic, whether by drowning or shooting.

Karapanagiotidis is firmly of the view that, like him, other Australians find themselves feeling envious of the leadership of our small neighbour nation.

“When you look at Jacinda and then you look at Scott, the contrast is so stark: between the one who seeks to unite us and to find a space where we come together in a sense of love, compassion and inclusion, and one who has sought to do the opposite, and spread fear, disunity and paranoia.”

He suggests that Morrison is aware harsh comparisons are being made, “because suddenly [he] is out there saying now is not the time to score political points. After we’ve had almost two decades of point scoring, ever since the Tampa.”

It’s a pertinent observation. Most often, when a politician says “it is not the time to score political points”, or words to that effect, it is because they are concerned the points will be scored against them. How else can you explain the startling change in Morrison’s tone?

Only a matter of weeks ago, he raised the spectre that “hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds” of single men, including child molesters, rapists and murderers, could come to Australia if laws were passed to facilitate the medical evacuation of sick asylum seekers from offshore detention.

In his first major speech after Christchurch, however, given to the Australia–Israel Chamber of Commerce on Monday, he called for everyone to ratchet back the rhetoric and return civility to public debate in this country.

Morrison borrowed a phrase from a conservative American writer, Arthur Brooks, of the American Enterprise Institute, about the need to “disagree better”.

“When we disagree better, we engage with respect, rather than questioning each other’s integrity and morality,” Morrison said.

“If we allow a culture of ‘us and them’, of tribalism, to take hold; if we surrender an individual to be defined not by their own unique worth and contribution but by the tribe they are assigned to; if we yield to the compulsion to pick sides rather than happy coexistence, we will lose what makes diversity work in Australia.

“As debate becomes more fierce, the retreat to tribalism is increasingly taking over and, for some, extremism takes hold ... It ends in the worst of places. Last week, it ended the lives of 50 fellow human beings, including children praying in Christchurch.”

Even allowing that his words were in part intended to inoculate his government against any “imputation” of a racial motivation in its decision to cut Australia’s immigrant intake next year by 30,000, these were fine sentiments.

It’s just a pity it took the circumstance of a massacre of Muslims to bring them out, a pity they came, in the view of Australia’s former race discrimination commissioner Tim Soutphommasane, decades too late.

The fact is, there was a time when Australians “disagreed better” about matters of race and culture. Up until the mid-1980s, national politics enjoyed a long period of increasing bipartisanship.

Beginning in 1949, the country’s appallingly racist White Australia Policy was gradually dismantled under a succession of Liberal prime ministers, before the Whitlam government delivered the final coup de grâce in 1973.

Under prime ministers Whitlam, Fraser and Hawke – all of whom understood the potential destructiveness of populist posturing on the issue – there existed a tacit agreement not to go there on matters of race. Australia had embarked on a path of non-discrimination and multiculturalism.

Then came John Howard.

His first challenge to the consensus came in August 1988, with the launch of his “One Australia” immigration policy, which echoed conservative historian Geoffrey Blainey’s contention that multiculturalism threatened to transform Australia into a “cluster of tribes”.

It didn’t go well for Howard, right from the start, when he gave a radio interview in which he suggested we were taking too many immigrants from Asia and that it would benefit Australia’s “social cohesion” if the intake was cut. His view was condemned.

Howard’s allies were less subtle. The then leader of the National Party, Ian Sinclair, for example, warned that an “undue build-up of Asians” risked “colour divisions” in Australia akin to South Africa or the United States.

“But,” says Soutphommasane, “Howard was roundly repudiated not only by Bob Hawke and Labor but also by the moderate side of his own party.”

Labor moved a motion in parliament reaffirming Australia’s commitment to a racially non-discriminatory immigration policy. Three Liberal MPs voted with Labor, while Howard and his remaining troops were left exposed, supporting an overtly racist policy.

“That was a big factor in Howard losing the leadership of the Liberal Party [in 1989],” Soutphommasane says.

Howard didn’t go away, however. He busied himself with other racial issues on which scare campaigns could be run. Native title was a big one. The veteran journalist Kerry O’Brien, in his recent memoir, recalls Howard appearing on The 7.30 Report and using a map to “argue that native title claims could veto development across 78 per cent of Australia”.

Six years after he was dumped, Howard returned to the Liberal leadership, and in 1996 he became prime minister. It was then, Soutphommasane says, that the “breakdown in the consensus really began”.

“Among the first administrative steps his government took was the abolition of the Bureau of Immigration, Multicultural and Population Research. He also restricted access to unemployment benefits and the Adult Migrant English Program to new migrants, and reduced funding and consultation of ethnic organisations, among other things.

“That reflected a clear desire on his part to dismantle the policy architecture of multiculturalism that was embedded during the Hawke years.”

The other thing that happened in ’96 was the election of Pauline Hanson, who campaigned against alleged preferential treatment of Indigenous Australians, and against Asian immigration.

For months after her election, Howard resolutely refused to condemn her racist and xenophobic positions. Six months elapsed before she gave her first speech to parliament, famously declaring Australia in danger of being “swamped
by Asians”.

Then Howard did condemn her but a few days later, in an address to his party’s Queensland state council, he walked the other side of the street.

Howard told them that “one of the great changes” in Australia in the six months following the election was that people could “speak a little more freely and a little more openly about what they feel. In a sense the pall of censorship on certain issues has been lifted.

“I welcome the fact that people can now talk about certain things without living in fear of being branded as a bigot or as a racist…”

Thus, hateful sentiment was conflated with free speech. Later, with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the coincident arrival of large numbers of mostly Muslim asylum seekers in boats, it was conflated with national security.

A whole new set of shorthand terms entered the political lexicon to describe the shift: “dog whistling”, for coded appeals to prejudice; “culture wars”, for the new conservative emphasis on social, rather than economic issues; the related concept of the “black armband view of history”, describing the right-wing determination not to engage with the dark aspects of Australia’s past racism, dispossession of Indigenous people’s land and children; and the euphemism “Pacific Solution” for the offshore imprisonment of people fleeing persecution in their countries of origin.

Howard lost government in 2007 but his formula lived on with only minor changes. When Pauline Hanson re-entered the parliament in 2016, her second maiden speech was little different from her previous one 20 years before, except in whom it targeted. Instead of Australia being swamped by Asians, it would be swamped by Muslims. For Hanson and her ilk, the focus was no longer race but religion. The language, though, the “othering”, was the same.

As Soutphommasane points out, the right-wing push to sanitise hate as free speech continued. He has no doubt the Abbott government’s attempts in 2013 and 2014 to weaken section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act, even though it failed in the senate, “encouraged extremists to believe they could indulge in hate speech”.

“And we know there is a connection between hate speech and political violence,” Soutphommasane says. “That’s well-established.”

None of this is to say that all the politicians who have fostered the current climate are themselves bigots, although some clearly are. For others, it has been simply a convenient way to gain power.

As the author, journalist and screenwriter Amal Awad says, Christchurch has been a rude awakening for them.

She refers to Morrison’s “atrocious” efforts to stir fear about the consequences of allowing medical evacuations from Manus Island and Nauru.

“Of course he didn’t want people to die. He just wanted to win an election.”

The same applies to the media, says Awad. There are genuine bigots but there are more who simply want to foster controversy. She nominates, for example, the Seven Network’s Sunrise program, which regularly features Hanson as a commentator.

“David Koch is not one who sympathises with the extreme right but I know as screenwriter that an essential part of every story is conflict.”

And conflict equals ratings, equals power.

Her point is well made, and it applies to politics in this country as much as it does abroad.

The May 11 edition of The New Yorker magazine includes a long article by Jane Mayer, headlined “Trump TV”, about the relationship between Rupert Murdoch and the United States president. It makes the same point, at great and forensically reported length.

Two decades ago, when Murdoch was deciding to set up what is now America’s most-watched cable “news” channel, Fox, he told the then director of the US Federal Communications Commission, Reed Hundt, at a meeting at his palatial Californian home, that it would be “unapologetically lowbrow”.

The plan Murdoch revealed – to target a disaffected working-class audience – left Hundt feeling as if he
had become part of “a scene from Faust. What came to mind was Mephistopheles.”

The chief of staff at the FCC at the time told Mayer that Murdoch’s “genius was seeing that there’s an attraction to fear-based, anger-based politics that has to do with class and race”.

Said Hundt: “Murdoch didn’t invent Trump, but he invented the audience. Murdoch was going to make a Trump exist.”

Fox was not established to reflect Murdoch’s ideology. It was done as a commercial venture. Murdoch despised Trump as a huckster but they established a symbiosis of wealth and power. And, says Mayer, Murdoch modelled his US venture on the success of his newspapers in Britain and Australia.

The commodification of fear, anger and hate is manifested elsewhere, too, notably in the big tech and social media companies through which information virally spreads.

We see now where it leads. In the US, FBI data shows an 18 per cent increase in racially motivated hate crimes, to 4131 in the first year of the Trump presidency. Religiously motivated hate crimes are up 22 per cent to 1564.

The Anti-Defamation League reports a 73 per cent rise in “extremist-related killings” during the past four years. On Thursday, the ABC carried an interview with the head of Britain’s national deradicalisation program, chief constable Simon Cole, who confirmed a surge in right-wing extremist attacks since Christchurch. Referrals to Cole’s program, relating to right-wing extremism, were up 36 per cent this year.

Australia has no reliable statistics on right-wing attacks, but we do at least – unlike the US – have a leader calling for us to “disagree better”.

The message does not yet seem to have sunk in with some. In Monday’s edition of The Australian, Janet Albrechtsen was as intemperate as ever, blasting “ratbags” on the left as being as bad as Senator Fraser Anning, who blamed the victims of Christchurch for their own deaths, simply because they were there.

She found it “sinister when smart people engage in blame games for political purposes,” and named the usual Muslim suspects, including Yassmin Abdel-Magied and Waleed Aly, as well as the ABC’s Annabel Crabb.

She also attacked The Washington Post for running an article in which experts suggested Australia was “fertile ground” for terrorism, in part because of the dominance of the Murdoch media.

Such attempts “to tar the centre-Right with the lunacy of the far-Right is wicked, politically driven and wrong in fact”, she wrote.

She suggested equivalence between the left and right in fomenting hostility.

In The Sydney Morning Herald on Wednesday another apologist for the Australian political right, John Ruddick, argued a similar line.

“What,” he asked, “does conservatism have in common with the shooter? Nothing.”

But none of those accused by either Albrechtsen or Ruddick has suggested a direct link. The suggestion is, as Abdel-Magied put it, that “the othering, the scapegoating and demonising of Muslims” serves to foster a climate of hostility.

As for equivalence? In New Zealand, 50 innocent Muslims are dead. And in Australia one racist has had an egg broken on his head.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 23, 2019 as "Reinventing the spiel".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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