Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
The politics of hate

The Australian white supremacist who allegedly massacred 50 Muslims while they were at Friday prayers in Christchurch, New Zealand has recast the political debate in this country. The cowardly, hate-filled attack has shaken both nations to their core, and exposed the lethal consequences of Australia’s political obsession with playing to people’s fears and prejudices.

This is a dramatic shift, more potent than the demonising of the Tampa mercy ship with its cargo of 443 asylum seekers in 2001. Any attempt to apply the same desperate tactics as John Howard did then to save an embattled government will work against the perpetrators this time.

And no one knows that better than the prime minister. His almost instant response on Twitter was evidence of that: “Australia shares the grief of Muslim communities the world over. We will not tolerate the right-wing extremist ideology that has fuelled this terrorist attack.” On Wednesday, after Turkey’s Islamist president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seized on the massacre to attack Australia and New Zealand for being party to what he called “rising hatred and prejudice against Islam”, Morrison hit back hard.

The PM called in the Turkish ambassador and demanded Erdoğan stop using the gunman’s video at his political rallies and that the Turkish president apologise for his deeply offensive remarks, particularly his inflammatory warning that anyone who visits Turkey with anti-Muslim sentiments would meet the same fate as those who died in the Gallipoli campaign. “They would be sent back in coffins,” Erdoğan said.

Mindful of the looming Anzac Day commemorations, when thousands make the pilgrimage to Gallipoli, Morrison said his actions were measured “to de-escalate, to not engage in a cycle of recklessness … but to focus on the key issue before us, and that is to reach out ... and provide comfort and support to those who have been the victims of these horrific crimes.”

Morrison joined New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern in calling on the social media giants – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google – to stop broadcasting atrocities and violent crimes. He said if they can build algorithms to sell ads, they can “find ways to prevent terrorists spreading horrifically violent videos” such as the one livestreamed by the Christchurch gunman. Morrison has written to the G20 countries ahead of their next meeting in Tokyo, seeking an international ban.

Not everyone is impressed by Morrison’s new look as a champion of national unity. There is simply nowhere for him to hide from his record of exploiting race and Islamophobia for political gain. In a heartfelt commentary on the night of the killings, Waleed Aly, co-host of The Project, held Morrison and his colleagues to account for helping to create a climate of fear and loathing of Muslims. Aly, a Muslim who regularly attends Friday prayers, referred to a 2011 report in The Sydney Morning Herald that said Morrison had suggested using community concerns about Muslims in Australia failing to integrate as a political strategy.

Morrison was asked about the story during several interviews as he blitzed breakfast media to announce a cut in migrant numbers. The prime minister bristled angrily on ABC TV and denied the story. “Absolutely not, it is a disgraceful smear and an appalling lie,” he said. Although his office threatened to sue Network Ten for defamation, Morrison has thought the better of it. He simply wants people to report the truth, he says. The journalist who broke the story, the respected Lenore Taylor, sticks by it and says she had multiple sources. Some of those sources also briefed her then colleague Peter Hartcher and The West Australian’s Andrew Probyn.

Much to Morrison’s discomfort, there have been a number of media reports this week documenting his and Peter Dutton’s demonising of Muslims and asylum seekers in the years since – including falsely claiming that Manus detainee Reza Barati was killed after engaging in “very violent protests”, where in fact Barati was bludgeoned to death while fleeing for his life.

There was more evidence that the Christchurch tragedy may prove the circuit-breaker of prejudice during the final week of the New South Wales election campaign. Morrison was on the defensive when he brought forward from the budget an announcement of a cut in the cap for permanent migrants. He told ABC Radio it had been long planned. It had been, but it was to be seen as a response to Liberal premier Gladys Berejiklian’s call for migrant numbers in the state to be cut in half. This was her answer to overpopulation straining infrastructure and services in NSW.

Morrison didn’t quite deliver. Apart from the fact the new national cap of 160,000 is what the intake has been held at for the past two years, it is no quick solution to congestion. The reasons for that are the historically high number of temporary visa holders who stay for years, as well as a backlog of about 80,000 unprocessed eligible permanent visa applicants.

If this was a dog whistle, an attempt to appeal to the anti-immigration sentiment in the electorate, it was more muted than we have seen in the recent past. But social researcher Rebecca Huntley, in her Quarterly Essay Australia Fair: Listening to the Nation, leaves little doubt that any message about limiting migrant numbers will resonate with voters, for a variety of reasons. Among those is, of course, racial and religious prejudice. Huntley says much of the issue has to do with a lack of trust in our political leaders to manage cultural change.

Undoubtedly caught in the post-Christchurch political shift was NSW opposition leader Michael Daley. The Liberals warned Labor’s decision to preference the Shooters Party was a sure sign a minority Daley government would be forced to weaken gun laws. Gun law champion John Howard was wheeled out to hammer the point. Daley crossed his heart that it would only happen over his dead body. He would quit parliament rather than capitulate.

Daley was in more trouble when the Liberals dug deep into their “dirt file” and came up with a video of Daley from last year, before he became state Labor leader, telling a politics-in-the-pub audience that Asians were “taking local jobs”. Daley apologised after the quote was reported this week, saying he had clumsily misspoken. Just how much it derailed his momentum will be gauged in today’s polling booths. A Galaxy opinion survey midweek found the Liberal state government and Labor tied, 50-50. That suggests something of a recovery for Berejiklian – in November the same poll was 52-48 Labor’s way.

Pauline Hanson is definitely not for turning on immigration, race or anti-Muslim bigotry. She is standing by her senate maiden speech claims that “Islam is a disease” and the “country is being swamped by Muslims”. On RN Breakfast this week she said she agreed with Donald Trump that “we should only bring into this country people who have the same values as we do”. Hanson sees an equivalence between the New Zealand mosque attacks and similar atrocities against Christian worshippers in the Middle East.

Her chauvinism and intolerance prompted Bill Shorten to call for Scott Morrison and the Liberals to put One Nation last on their how-to-vote cards. Shorten says it’s time to put words into action and that Labor, the Liberals, the Nationals and the Greens “have got to form a ring, a bond which stops the crazy extremists from getting oxygen both by our commentary, and by our preferences at the next election”.

This week, Morrison was repeatedly asked if he would follow Labor’s call. He stuck to his formula: “We won’t be doing any preference deals with One Nation.” But he did not say the Liberals would not preference Hanson candidates. Morrison was particularly testy when pushed. He said he won’t be taking lectures from Labor, which did a preference deal with One Nation that saw the NSW seat of Dobell going the opposition’s way. He also claimed Labor preferenced One Nation on their senate tickets.

This drew a swift response from Shorten’s office: “It’s a lie.” In the 2016 election Hanson’s candidate in Dobell, Carter Edwards, was put last on the ALP ticket. A spokesperson said Morrison can’t blame Labor if there is a leakage of One Nation preferences in the senate or anywhere to the opposition.

Hanson is far from impressed with Morrison’s equivocation. She condemns his “kneejerk reaction to rule out giving preferences” to her party. She says he deserves to lose the next election for his ingratitude, pointing to her support in the senate for government legislation. She says she has been praised for her co-operation, not only by Morrison but also by Malcolm Turnbull when he was prime minister.

Hanson also says she has had very worried LNP members in Queensland contact her to say, “They’re very disgusted with the prime minister’s comments.” The suspects are particularly in regional Queensland seats. The member for Dawson, George Christensen, was at one time toying with joining One Nation but in the end settled for winning over Hanson by convincing her they were soulmates. Without One Nation preferences, he would definitely be in jeopardy of losing his seat, as he was last time.

Revulsion at racism and bigotry only goes so far when self-interest is involved.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 23, 2019 as "The hate you give". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.