Two weeks after the massacres of worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealanders held a moving multilingual commemorative service emphasising unity. Among the speakers was Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel who said that it was important that each of us looks into our hearts to acknowledge and eradicate any prejudice. Successive speakers emphasised the importance of beginning the quest for peace by changing ourselves. This is a challenge for Australian politicians unused to critical self-analysis.
In the intervening fortnight, the people of New Zealand, led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern embraced the survivors of the massacre, including the victims’ loved ones, grieved with them and assured them they were not alone. The speeches by leaders of the Muslim community made it clear that those assurances had been effective. They succeeded precisely because they were sincerely offered.
Despite supplying the murderer whose actions outraged the world, we in Australia have been less than willing to look into our hearts with sincerity. This reluctance was identified precisely and fearlessly by five Muslim women who were guests on ABC television’s ‘The Drum’ on 18 March. All participants gave credit where due but they also displayed some anger. These are women who have been subject to Islamophobia and who have identified the origins of the prejudice against them in the ‘dog whistle’ politics of some parliamentarians. They mentioned particularly comments about African gangs, about paedophile asylum seekers and about medical evacuees causing ‘Australians’ to lose positions in the hospital system.
Their bitterness was deepened by the fact that they have repeatedly spoken out about this building Islamophobia and by the refusal of Australia’s political leadership to admit the effects of such statements. Indeed, as soon as anyone pointed to the possibility that the repeated irresponsible statements by Ministers such as Peter Dutton contributed to Islamophobia, Prime Minister Morrison responded aggressively. Morrison suggested that such critics were seeking to exploit Christchurch for political advantage and that tribalim of the Left was as bad as that on the Right. Speakers on ‘The Drum’ described Morrison’s attitude as disingenuous and mendacious. In these circumstances where insincerity dominates the Liberal Party’s reaction, anger is an appropriate response.
Another interesting feature of the analysis which emerged from the Drum discussion was the readiness with which speakers identified the underlying problem of racism inherent in a land where the Indigenous peoples remained dispossessed. They noted the prejudice against ‘brown bodies’ and ‘black bodies’. A disingenuous attitude was obvious in the response of then Prime Minister Turnbull to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Turnbull told delegates that the broader community was not ready to implement the Statement’s proposals but that he would campaign for the statement when he returned to Canberra. He did nothing and probably did not ever intend to. Victims of Islamophobia are ideally placed to diagnose the broader context of Australian racism.
When a story emerged about One Nation seeking funds from the US firearms lobby, Prime Minister Morrison was finally forced to make a statement about Liberal Party preferences at the next election. He had earlier, in an interview with Waleed Aly, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-03-21/scott-morrison-attacks-waleed-aly-editorial/10927226
declined to make any such commitment. Since he made the announcement, at least two of his Ministers have said that the Greens are as extreme and dangerous as One Nation and that they could be preferenced lower in some seats. Clearly, the Prime Minister’s preference decision was one of expedience rather than of principle.
It is notable that much of the leadership shown in New Zealand has been by women. So too the intrepid analysis on ‘The Drum’ involved women, most wearing the hijab. By contrast the begrudging response of the men in positions of political power in Canberra has been insincere and lacking in the qualities of compassion and humanity. Whether the lack of female influence in the Liberal Party is part of the explanation for the Prime Minister’s priorities is debatable. What is clear is that having one eye on the power and electoral implications of the Christchurch challenge diminishes the Government’s response.
Slogans such as ‘love conquers hate’ can sound fine, but they can also ring hollow. When Australia’s Government responds so begrudgingly to the call by the Christchurch Mayor to look into our hearts, it seems unlikely that the general population will bother to make major changes to their attitudes. Racism, including Islamophobia has worked well for some politicians. Their lack of sincerity creates a huge obstacle to change.
Dr Tony Smith is a former political science academic with interests in elections, parliament and political ethics.