What's wrong with Australia?
The Christchurch massacre and the Australian state of mind. A cocktail that has been years in the making.
The Christchurch terrorist carnage serves as a stark reminder that Australia is not only the home of funny beer commercials ("Fosters is Australian for beer") and strange ways to play football, it is also home to an increasingly aggressive nativist movement, in and outside the political arena. In the days after the Christchurch terrorist act, one of its most outspoken representatives, the independent senator Fraser Anning, made international headlines after releasing a number of incendiary statements in the wake of the massacre, blaming New Zealand's immigration policy for the carnage.
One might dismiss Anning as one of those people who just don't get it and never learn were it not for the fact that he is hardly an isolated case. Ironically enough, the reason Anning sits in the Australian senate is not because he won his constituency, but because the person who had won it was declared ineligible to fill the seat because of his dual citizenship. Anning had run on the One Nation ticket for Queensland, but entered the senate as an independent.
One Nation is the political vehicle for Pauline Hanson, arguably Australia's most colorful and brazen politician on the far right. Pauline Hanson won election to the Australian Senate in the July 2016 federal election, almost exactly twenty years after first bursting onto the national political scene as one of the most controversial politicians in the country’s history. Newly elected to the House of Representatives, Hanson quickly established herself as a quintessential populist cum nativist, lashing out against the political establishment, multiculturalism, Aborigines, and (Asian) migrants.
Hanson quickly established herself as a quintessential populist cum nativist, lashing out against the political establishment, multiculturalism, Aborigines, and (Asian) migrants.
Haunted by legal problems after her failure to win re-election in 1998, and expelled from her own party in 2002, she lingered on the margins of Australian politics. Under the circumstances, her political resurrection in 2016 was all the more remarkable, with One Nation winning four Senate seats.
Hanson owed her success primarily to the ability to adapt her xenophobic rhetoric to the new opportunities offered by the growing fear of Islamist terrorism both at home and abroad. Adopting key tropes prevalent in the anti-Islam discourse of the western European radical populist right, she projected herself as standing up for traditional (white) Australian culture, values, and way of life. Surfing on a wave of anti-Islamic sentiments, Hanson’s campaign promised to severely curb the visibility and influence of Muslims in Australia, by, among other things, halting the construction of mosques, preventing the introduction of Sharia Law, and barring Muslim refugees from entering the country. Together these measures were supposed to stop “the Islamisation of Australia,” which, she implied, was well under way.
Hanson’s success was remarkable, but hardly surprising. It was the political reflection of a protracted campaign by Australian media, radio and television commentators, and segments of the political class to construct Muslim migrants as the dangerous Other and Islam as thoroughly alien and fundamentally incompatible with Australia’s dominant culture. Its origins go back to the heydays of the White Australia Policy (gradually abandoned in the postwar period). Its biases and prejudices resurfaced during the 1990s, most notably in the wake of the first public conflicts over the construction of mosques in major Australian cities.
In the process, Muslims were characterized as intolerant fanatics, mindlessly following their faith, intent on taking over, one neighborhood at a time (Dunn 2001). At the beginning of the new century, highly publicized cases of drug-related gang violence and young Muslim men committing rape reinforced the negative image of Muslims, leading a well-known radio talkback presenter to charge that “White Australians were losing their rights to Muslims who were supposedly unwilling to adopt Australian customs” (Jakubowicz 2007, 271). Odious comments by Australia’s most senior Muslim cleric in 2006 partially blaming women for being raped, only seemed to confirm the perception that Islam was inherently misogynistic and therefore incompatible with Australian values.
A proliferation of anti-Islamic groups
This was the central point of departure of a number of groups and fringe parties that organized in the years that followed, each pursuing an explicitly anti-Islamic agenda. The Australian Liberty Alliance, for instance, charged in its manifesto that Islam was “not merely a religion” but a “totalitarian ideology with global aspirations” (Australian Liberty Alliance 2014, 6). Q Society, a voluntary association with international ties, characterized Islam as “a theocratic ideology, veiled in religious veneer,” which more than any other ideology “spawns discrimination, division, and violence” on a global scale. Reclaim Australia, a movement organizing anti-Islamic rallies in major Australian cities, was founded to defend Australia’s “traditional values” against the advance of Islam – exemplified by halal certification. Finally, Australia First, another fringe party, depicted Islam as “an absolute system of life” which “expounds barbarism, dogmatism and imperial colonization” and pledged “to ban and evict Islam from Australia.”
The activities and statements of these and similar groups, publicized by the media, were primarily designed to raise public awareness of the alleged threat posed by the “Muslim invasion.”
The activities and statements of these and similar groups, publicized by the media, were primarily designed to raise public awareness of the alleged threat posed by the “Muslim invasion.” With some but limited success. A comprehensive study on Islamophobia from 2015 found that only about ten percent of the Australian population harbored highly Islamophobic sentiments (Hassan and Martin 2015). A study from early 2016, however, found more than a third of respondents agreeing with the statement that with respect to refugees, Australia should accord preference to Christian and other religious groups over Muslims (Lowy Institute 2016, 14). One reason for the rather limited echo of anti-Islamic sentiments found in these years might be that at the time, there still was broad support for multiculturalism. In 2015, more than 80 percent of the population agreed with the statement that multiculturalism was good for the country (Markus 2015, 41).
In the years that followed, public opinion appears to have turned more negative on immigration. In 2018, almost half of respondents thought "Muslim immigration" should be reduced. At the same time, there was a "sharp spike" in anti-immigrant sentiments with a majority of respondents agreeing that the number of migrants was too high and raising concerns with respect to the impact of migrants on Australian national identity. A poll conducted by the Australian National University earlier this year substantiated some of these findings. The survey revealed a large majority of respondents feeling that Australia no longer needed more people. One of the main reasons given was the negative impact of a large population on the environment, given the fact that Australia is the "world’s driest inhabited continent with unique flora and fauna," unlikely to be able to cope with "rapid population growth." One important reason was that respondents felt that instead of importing skilled migrants from abroad, Australia should skill its own people first. A third concern was that Australia already had "too much cultural diversity."
The left behind
A recent study from 2018 shows that the increase in anti-immigrant sentiments has coincided with a dramatic decline in popular satisfaction with political institutions, the political establishment, and the working of democracy in general. As in other advanced liberal democracies, the political establishment is faulted for failing to keep their promises, failing to address the issues that "really matter" to ordinary people, and being too subservient to big business. The study's most alarming finding, however, is that a significant portion of the Australian electorate appears to have almost completely lost trust in the democratic institutions, politicians and democracy itself. Comprising about 20 percent of the electorate, they tend to be (predominantly male) citizens who have "been left behind economically or are feeling very economically insecure, a significant proportion are on welfare or low incomes, and are increasingly politically alienated and angry just like Trump and Brexit voters."
Already twenty years ago Pauline Hanson railed against the "new class" of "cognitive" elites allegedly selling out the country.
This is the group most likely to be attracted by nativist politicians such as Pauline Hanson and Fraser Anning, who have been most vocal in seeking to cater to and mobilize white-male angst and rage. As Pauline Hanson put it in 2018, "The most demonised person in this country is the white male." It is this group which Anning addressed in his "maiden speech" evoking images of the past when "working blokes could get good, well-paying jobs actually making products for us to buy;" when, through statutory and orderly marketing, farmers were not bled white by rapacious corporations or forced to sell to Chinese carpetbaggers;" when "you could say what you thought without being charged with a crime." This is a politics that banks on nostalgia for a lost golden age where men were still men, marriage a union between a man and a woman, Australia still a "cohesive, predominantly Anglo-Celtic nation" and where the main political parties "recognised the importance of our predominantly European identity."
If the golden age is lost, it is not because of secular structural developments such as technological innovation, financialization and globalization, but because of the pernicious influence of left-wing intellectuals. These are cultural revolutionaries who successfully subverted Australian culture and values, by, among other things, introducing the " 'gender fluidity' garbage being peddled in schools" which goes completely against common sense.
This rhetoric is nothing new. Already twenty years ago Pauline Hanson railed against the "new class" of "cognitive" elites allegedly selling out the country. In the meantime, the political climate has considerably worsened, popular resentment significantly increased and political rhetoric become even more incendiary than two decades ago. Under the circumstances, it should perhaps not come entirely as a shock if in an unhinged mind the combination of resentment, white panic, and phantasies of revenge erupt into deadly violence.
Australian Liberty Alliance. (2014). Manifesto and Core Policies. Wembley : Australian Liberty Alliance.
Dunn, Kevin M. (2001). Representations of Islam in the Politics of Mosque Development in Sidney. Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie 92 (3): 291-308.
Hassan Riaz and Bill Martin. (2015). Islamophobia, social distance and fear of terrorism in Australia: A preliminary report. Adelaide: International Centre for Muslim and non-Muslim Understanding, University of South Australia.
Jakubowicz, Andrew. (2007). Political Islam and the Future of Australian Multiculturalism. National Identities 9 (3): 265-280.
Lowy Institute. (2016). The Lowy Institute Poll 2016. Sidney: The Lowy Institute for International Policy.
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