In 1968, British Conservative Enoch Powell warned of ‘blood in the streets’ if immigration to the UK from Commonwealth countries continued. In Australia, we chose to differ.
Recognising that immigration, much less migrants themselves, is not the problem, Australia has adopted policies such as multiculturalism which have been remarkably successful in preventing Powell’s racist prophecies becoming reality in this country. But those strong foundations are steadily being undermined.
Last weekend, Defence Minister Senator Robert Hill endorsed an assessment that terrorism was the ‘greatest threat’ facing Australia. He is wrong. Far greater than the threat of criminal terrorism is the disintegration of our society as a result of ethnic mistrust and hatred. For those who scoff that ‘this couldn’t happen here’, look beyond the violence in Cronulla to the torching of Sydney mosques after the September 11 attacks, the increasing violence and intimidation endured by Muslim women wearing headscarves, and the bigotry and odium that is the currency of local talkback radio.
The history of the 20th century is thick with examples where intolerance took violent forms against groups who had believed they were accepted and valued.
People take their lead in large measure from the characterisations of their society made by its leaders. So when those leaders focus on fear and difference, not commonality, the result is an ‘us and them’ society and the beginning of social decline. On several fronts, the Howard Government has contributed to the inflammation of prejudices ignited by the terrorist attacks of 2001.
First, a succession of laws aimed at preventing and punishing terrorist activity has been introduced and passed. Australians of Islamic background have expressed concern that members of their community will be disproportionately targeted by the extra powers granted to police and intelligence agencies, such as preventive detention, surveillance and control orders. The Government has made little effort to reassure that this will not be the case.
Then there was Howard’s famous 2001 statement that ‘we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.’ Again, this tough approach was perceived to be and was directed at people from certain backgrounds, namely people from predominantly Muslim countries in South Asia. Howard’s apparently suspicious attitude towards people from particular backgrounds was also revealed that year when he said, ‘I don’t want people of that type in Australia,’ in reference to asylum-seekers who were (wrongly) accused of throwing their children overboard.
And this year, a number of members of the Howard Government spoke in favour of a ban on Muslim girls wearing headscarves to school. Victorian Liberal MP Sophie Panopoulos said,
My personal view is I would put a ban on headscarves as governments have overseas. That’s up to individual schools and State governments but if a school has a uniform that’s pretty much it.
Bronwyn Bishop was one of several other Liberals who agreed, saying that,
They should not wear them. They should wear the school uniform because it’s a great leveller and a great integrator and part of building a cohesive society.
Displaying an extraordinary lack of political guile (an anomaly which might reveal his agreement with the sentiment), John Howard refused to confront the MPs, defending their right to express their views:
Oh look, somebody’s entitled to express a view. I don’t think, I mean I don’t support it. Let me make that clear I don’t support it. But somebody’s got a right to express that view.
Finally, the Prime Minister refused to label the behaviour at Cronulla beach on the weekend racist, saying,
I’m not going to put a general tag [of]racism on the Australian community. I think it’s a term that is flung around sometimes carelessly and I’m simply not going to do so.
Fair enough. After all, it would be wrong to label the Australian community as a whole as racist. But it would not be ‘careless’ to say that many people at Cronulla at the weekend engaged in racist behaviour and speech. News footage shows it all. People screaming, ‘Fuck off Lebs!’ Mobs attacking innocent beachgoers who looked as if they were of ‘Middle Eastern appearance’.
Those at the receiving end of the violence will take little comfort from Howard’s careful use of words.
The effects of an isolated act of terrorism, while shocking and possibly deadly, are limited compared to the long-term effects of a society in which violence has become an acceptable form of addressing problems. Unless we make at least the same efforts in resisting the breakdown of community cohesion as we are committing to prevent the comparably limited effects of an isolated act of terrorism, Australia faces an ugly future.
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