New Zealand artist Ruby Jones shared a simple drawing online last week after the massacre in Christchurch. It depicts a Muslim woman being embraced by another woman in grief . “This is your home and you should have been safe here”, the message says. It is an image that has gone viral online and now adorns buildings all over Christchurch.
Morrison has a history of low shots. He has form in this sort of politics.
Among the most moving images to emerge amid New Zealand’s grief and horror are the symbols of a country asserting the “belonging” of its Islamic community: human chains standing protectively behind people kneeling at prayer in a park; grim-faced policewomen standing guard outside a cemetery wearing the hijab in a sign of solidarity and respect.
In Australia, news of the murder of 50 people, and the injuring of another 50, by a coward who chose to attack a group of people on their knees in prayer, may have sent a jolt through the too-common perception of an entire community as perpetrators of violence rather than victims of it.
It may have created a sudden realisation that racist extremism on the right poses just as much of a threat as the risk of jihadi violence that has been such a steady diet of our national security discussion.
But it seems it has not stretched to our government being able to do anything to either persuade us, or capture that kiwi spirit that says to our Muslim community, “this is your home and you should feel safe here”.
Nor does it seem to have fully registered that there are consequences to any sort of politics that plays with the targeting, excluding, or vilification of any one group, whether that be Muslims, Asians, or Indigenous people.
Platitudes aren’t enough
On Monday, the Prime Minister called for an end to tribalism: a welcome development which would have been more potent if his side of politics had not made it their standard modus operandi in the past 25 years.
We have to learn to disagree better, Scott Morrison said. Also true.
And it is true that the tribalism, whoever started it, has become too endemic across our political spectrum.
But if you are really trying to stop it, you don’t immediately respond to someone else attacking you with dodgy moral equivalence that begins in sentences like “I’m not going to be lectured by a party that…..”, rather than acknowledging possible fault, or at least arguing your own position rather than simply attacking the other side.
And you don’t, just now, try to find the positive side to a politician who refers to Islam as a disease.
The Coalition’s track record when it comes to its preparedness to, at the very least isolate, and often tar the Muslim community in a way which excludes it has been in the spotlight all week in the wake of the Christchurch murders.
Morrison has a history of low shots
That focus rightly starts at the top, with the Prime Minister.
Mr Morrison did all the right things in terms of going to a Sydney mosque after Christchurch. He called for national unity.
But his history of taking low shots is too obvious to most people to allow him to be able to really exercise leadership in this space.
That history includes his questioning of taxpayers’ dollars being used to fly families to Sydney to attend the funerals of loved ones killed in a horrific shipwreck off Christmas Island in 2010. It was an intervention that so outraged even some of his own colleagues at the time that they leaked against him over interventions he had made at a shadow cabinet meeting in February 2011, which at least some of those present interpreted as an argument that the Coalition should seek to politically exploit anti-Muslim feeling in the community.
The clear intent of the leak was to paint Mr Morrison as someone who had form on this sort of politics.
On Thursday night, the Prime Minister aggressively denied that this is what he had done at that meeting, though acknowledging the subject of anti-Islamic sentiment had been discussed.
“What is suggested is that I said that we should exploit concerns about Islam in the community to our advantage”, Mr Morrison told Waleed Aly on The Project.
“I was concerned that we needed to address them, which is what I have been doing inside and outside of the Parliament for the last 10 years of my life.
“I was acknowledging that there were these fears in the community and that we had to address them, not exploit them.”
“You implied that Muslims couldn’t feel safe because they had a Prime Minister who somehow had been prejudiced against them and I don’t believe that’s true,” Mr Morrison said.
Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.
‘Our party is a lot of individuals’
But apparently the Prime Minister believes that, even if he is not prejudiced against Muslims, it is still a right of everyone else to be so, starting with his own party, and that he has no role as a leader in trying to signal that that is not okay.
Mr Morrison said he did not believe the Coalition had a problem with Islamophobia.
“I don’t think the Liberal Party does as a total group. And I don’t think the National Party does either,” he said.
“Our party is made up of a lot of individuals and in our parties individuals have a lot more freedom to say what they think than other parties.
“It’s not for the party to answer for every single member on every occasion.”
One Nation preference deals a squandered opportunity
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten had responded to the Prime Minister’s call for an end to tribalism with his own call for an end to “dog whistling by political leaders about immigration and asylum seekers” and for the major parties to “form a ring, a bond” to stop “the crazy extremists from getting oxygen, both by our commentary and by our preferences at the next election”.
Putting that into practice, Mr Shorten said Labor would put Pauline Hanson, or Senator Fraser Anning, last on all its “how to vote” cards.
That is, of course, a lot easier for him to do than the Coalition: while Labor has sometimes benefited from One Nation preferences in some electorates, it does not depend on them as the Coalition now does across a swag of seats in Queensland.
But this has highlighted the real-world choice Mr Morrison must make.
Asked repeatedly this week whether the Coalition would also put One Nation or Mr Anning last on “how to vote” cards, he rather disingenuously answered that the Coalition wouldn’t do any deals with the minor party.
When pressed, he said it was up to party organisations on the ground to determine preferences.
Apparently there is no role for leadership here. No role for a prime ministerial intervention to say “enough is enough”, “tribalism” means trying to improve the quality of our debate, not give hate speech the legitimacy of a parliamentary voice.
No room, it seems, for a potent symbol to the Muslim community — and all the others vilified by the likes of One Nation — that they can feel safe in the country they call home.
Laura Tingle is 7.30’s chief political correspondent.