Malcolm Turnbull’s Assistant Minister for Multicultural Affairs has declined to criticise the Reclaim Australia movement, despite the government flagging a change in tone and more consultative approach with Muslim communities.
In an interview on ABC radio this morning Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells talked up her close relationship with community leaders and groups, but ducked for cover when asked whether the government’s shift should include public condemnation of anti-Muslim groups like Reclaim Australia.
“I have publicly condemned extremism, violent extremism in any of its forms,” Fierravanti-Wells said.
When interrupted by host Fran Kelly to clarify whether this included Reclaim Australia, Fierravanti-Wells continued in a similar vein, drawing the conversation back to radicalisation and ‘Daesh’, the government’s preferred title for ISIS.
“I have condemned extremist groups on both the right, the left, the religious, the non-religious, because there is no place for extremism in Australia. And that’s it what brings you back, I want to bring you back to the point that I made earlier Fran, that when you do look at the reasons why young people do take an extremist view you have to go back and understand why they are becoming disengaged, and they become disengaged for any number of reasons, and when they do they turn to drugs, alcohol, gangs, or any number of any other destructive activities,” she said.
Contacted to clarify the comments and the Senator’s views on Reclaim Australia, a spokesperson declined to comment further, pointing New Matilda back to the ABC interview.
Mariam Veiszadeh, President of the Islamophobia Register Australia, said the Reclaim Australia movement had emboldened “backyard bigots”.
“The Federal Government’s continued silence on the movement speaks volumes, particularly given the involvement of one of their own MPs in the rallies,” Veiszadeh said.
“The movement has no doubt led to an increase in Islamophobia which continues to plague the Australian Muslim community and in turn, adversely impacts upon community harmony and social cohesion.”
Despite banning some government members from appearing on the ABC’s Q&A program at the time, the Abbott government allowed Nationals MP George Christensen to appear at the Mackay leg of the Reclaim rallies in July.
Speakers at the rallies have hit out at a range of perceived wrongdoings by the Muslim community in Australia, from the building of mosques in regional areas to the certification of halal food, and rallies have attracted members of openly racist far-right groups and swastika-tattooed supporters.
Michelle Rowland, Labor’s Shadow Minister for Multiculturalism, said it was clear the Reclaim movement was “anti-Muslim” and had “a very negative impact on social cohesion and community harmony”.
“Whilst I welcome the Assistant Minister’s engagement with the Muslim community, it is disappointing that she could not bring herself to expressly condemn the Reclaim Australia movement and a Liberal-National colleague of hers who has addressed one of their events, as Labor has done,” Rowland said, in a written statement.
In the radio interview Fierravanti-Wells acknowledged disenchantment and marginalisation were being felt by Muslims in Australia and pointed to events overseas, rather than the Abbott government’s rhetoric or policy, as the cause.
She said an open dialogue with Muslim community groups would be needed from the government to earn their trust and respect.
In a speech at the University of Western Sydney in July, Fierravanti-Wells also acknowledged “negative feelings” towards Muslims in Australia had resulted in incidents of harassment.
“From the post-war migration boom, Italians and Greeks were targeted, followed by Vietnamese and Lebanese communities in the 1970s. More recently, Muslim communities have been subject to prejudices,” she said.
Despite so far failing to call out Reclaim Australia, the Coalition government has regularly targeted and threatened radical Muslim groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir.
Government members also succeeded in establishing a Senate Inquiry into food certification, championed by Cory Bernardi, which has largely targeted Muslims and the halal process, and a force women wearing burqas sit in a glassed enclosure when visiting the Parliament. That move was eventually dumped, with Fierravanti-Wells describing the focus on burqas as a “distraction”.
Veiszadeh joined Rowland in cautiously welcoming any change of rhetoric.
“A Federal Government need not be congratulated for ceasing to use inflammatory language and simply treating a minority community (which has been weathering a rather big storm in recent times) with respect,” she said.
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