Australia's leaders are having to face their anti-Muslim rhetoric

by Bernard Lagan / 30 March, 2019
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Photo/Getty Images

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Photo/Getty Images

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Jacinda Ardern’s response to the Christchurch mosque shootings contrasts with Australia’s fractured relations with Muslims.

In the morass of trivia that passes for current affairs on most commercial television in Australia and New Zealand, Waleed Aly stands apart. The 40-year-old host of The Project on Channel Ten is a lawyer and academic, who lectures in politics at Monash University in Melbourne and writes regular columns for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age. He is also Muslim.

It was the telegenic Aly whom Jacinda Ardern said she wanted to hug – and she did – when the pair sat down for an interview in Christchurch in the week after the attack.

The atmosphere was far chillier across the Tasman. Just hours earlier, her Australian counterpart, Scott Morrison, had become so enraged by the television host that, according to Channel Ten, he threatened to sue Aly. The host had brought up a story almost a decade old about Morrison and Muslims, and the Australian Prime Minister was deeply peeved.

At issue was a widely reported intervention Morrison made at a 2011 shadow cabinet meeting of the then centre-right Coalition (Labor was in power). At least some of those present at the meeting interpreted Morrison as arguing that his side of politics should seek to politically exploit anti-Muslim feeling in Australia.

It doesn’t assist Morrison’s belated protests that the story, though widely reported at the time, had never been denied. Until now. Nor that the story was written by one of Australia’s most respected, serious print journalists, Lenore Taylor, now editor of the Guardian Australia, who firmly stands by it.

Why does Morrison protest so much? Perhaps because his own and his Government’s empathy and engagement with more than 600,000 Australian Muslims falls well short of the Ardern government’s standard – even before the Christchurch massacre – for dealing with New Zealand Muslims, who number fewer than 50,000. And the more Ardern is acclaimed internationally for her handling of the shooting crisis, the more apparent becomes Australia’s fractured relationship with its own Muslim community.

Ardern led the way for thousands of New Zealand women to cover their heads and honour those killed in Christchurch when she appeared wearing an elegant black scarf. It was she who went out of her way to embrace grieving Muslims – setting a standard for her nation.

As the prominent Australian political commentator Laura Tingle, of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, wrote after the Christchurch attacks, New Zealand asserted the belonging of its Muslim community.

Wrote Tingle: “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’.”

Morrison and some of his more prominent ministers have a history of low shots at Muslims. Last November, after a deranged man of Muslim background stabbed three people in central Melbourne, killing one, Morrison tarred the whole Muslim community: “We would be kidding ourselves if we did not call out the fact that the greatest threat of religious extremism … is the radical and dangerous ideology of extremist Islam,” he said. “If you’re an imam or a leader in one of those communities … you can’t look the other way.”

Peter Dutton, his powerful Home Affairs Minister, has questioned the wisdom of letting Lebanese Muslims into the country four decades ago because of their prominence in terror offence statistics.

Unsurprisingly, Dutton, the Morrison Cabinet’s arch-conservative who has charge of Australia’s Border Force and the domestic spy agency, ASIO, made the remark on Sky News, the home of a gaggle of right-wing commentators who’ve long rounded on Islam. Muslims hear these things. So do Australians who hate and fear Muslims.

New Zealander Bernard Lagan is the Australian correspondent for the Times, London.

This article was first published in the April 6, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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