Fifty people. That’s a large number of people, and it’s still difficult to comprehend this is how many died in the Christchurch shootings last Friday. The Islamic community is still grieving from the gravity of the events, but it’s best not to let up in the quest to apportion responsibility for one of worst peace-time gun massacres in history.
Who can we blame for the Christchurch killings?
The white nationalist who pulled the trigger, purportedly in revenge for attacks by Islamic fundamentalists in Western Europe? The relatively lax gun laws in New Zealand? Social media? Where can we look for solutions to ensure the chances of these events ever happening again are minimised?
Let’s not prevaricate or look for euphemisms. While they weren’t the ones pulling the triggers in New Zealand, we need to look at the senior political figures that have fanned the flames of discord and discontent for too long, aided by key figures within Australia’s conservative media.
The two key figures in Australian politics that have done their best to inflame discontent are the current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, and Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton.
They’ve constantly fuelled anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-asylum seeker sentiment for well over a decade.
While there are many contributing political players we can also apportion blame to, such as Senators Pauline Hanson, Cory Bernardi, and Fraser Anning, these are just riff-raff anti-intellects always on the look out for self-serving opportunities, and are part of a freak political circus act. They’re on the outer fringe, and will always remain there, no matter how many times fellow opportunists in the mainstream media promote them on breakfast television and try to validate their extremist views.
Morrison is the one who needs to be interrogated here for his actions and comments from the past, irrespective of how much the media is trying to deflect and provide cover for him. He entered Parliament in 2007 but his anti-Muslim and anti-refugee sentiment appeared a long way before this time.
Reaching for the worst in people
Irfan Yusuf was the Liberal Party candidate for the seat of Reid in the 2001 federal election and Morrison was the NSW campaign director. During the campaign, Morrison threatened Yusuf with disendorsement if he spoke publicly about the grief of an Afghan Australian who had lost two nieces when they drowned with the 353 other asylum seekers during the SIEV-X catastrophe.
Morrison allegedly said to Yusuf: “We both hate Pauline Hanson … the best way to destroy someone like Pauline Hanson is to express policies that make us look like her.”
During the 2004 federal election, a conservative Liberal group affiliated with Morrison (by now, he was the NSW Liberal Party executive director) distributed thousands of fake leaflets to smear Labor candidate, Ed Husic. The leaflets replicated official Labor campaign material and election slogans, but inserted the words: “Ed Husic is a devout Muslim. Ed is working hard to get a better deal for Islam in Greenway”. Husic, whose background is Bosnian Muslim, went on lose the election by 883 votes. The victor was Louise Markus who, like Morrison, is a member of the Pentecostal church.
In the preselection battle for the seat of Cook during 2007, Morrison was easily defeated in the Liberal Party ballot by Michael Towke. Dissatisfied with the result, Morrison highlighted Towke’s Lebanese background as one of the reasons for disendorsement and, the Liberal Party overturned the result and installed Morrison as the candidate.
In late 2010, when he was shadow immigration minister, he urged the Liberal Party to capitalise on concerns in the electorate about Muslim immigration, as well as questioning the role of multiculturalism. Although the Prime Minister’s office has issued a statement that this never occurred and is threatening legal action against anyone in the media making the claim, Morrison did acknowledge in 2012 there “are real tensions out there … my comments were more about, ‘Let’s not just write people off because they have strong views about this. We’ve got to listen to what their concerns are’.”
While there is some dispute about what Morrison actually said during that shadow ministry meeting, there is no doubt he has constantly brought up the issue of insecurity within the electorate about Muslim immigration, and his ongoing commentary ever since 2010 suggests he’s taken up his own advice, wholeheartedly.
Whether it be in the portfolio of immigration or treasury, or in the position of Prime Minister, Morrison has taken every opportunity to denounce Muslims, asylum seekers and refugees.
After the 2010 Christmas Island SIEV-221 disaster, when 48 asylum seekers died after their boat collided with the rocks at Flying Fish Cove, he attacked the Labor government for paying for the costs of the funeral services and said it was not reasonable for a single cent to be spent on holding the funerals in Sydney, when the victims had died at Christmas Island.
As shadow immigration minister, Morrison released a media statement: “Typhoid cases on latest boats highlight the risk of Labor’s border failures”, where he made comments about asylum seekers sick with typhoid and other communicable diseases as a reason why the Australian population should be fearful about allowing them passage to the mainland.
Morrison’s comments exaggerated the health risks out of all proportion and many health professionals at the time pointed out his factually incorrect information and reprimanded him for his base political opportunism.
In the lead up to the 2013 federal election, among other issues, Morrison claimed asylum seekers “may be carrying guns”, and that he’d seen asylum seekers carrying “wads of cash … large displays of jewellery and a lot of money floating around when these boats come in”. He also called for ‘behaviour protocols’ and mandatory police notifications of asylum seekers that were released into the community.
Morrison sings the same song in Government
After the Liberal–National Party won office in September 2013, the vilification didn’t stop. Morrison instructed the Department of Immigration to stop using the term ‘asylum seekers’, and introduced the term ‘illegal arrivals’, even though this is not factually correct according to the UN Refugee Convention and Australia’s Migration Act 1958.
The entire process of seeking asylum or refugee status in Australia was criminalised under Morrison’s watch, a process progressed by his successor, Peter Dutton.
Even after he moved into the position of Treasurer, Morrison continued. In 2015, he lashed out at teachers at a Victorian primary school in Cranbourne, accusing them of allowing Muslim children to refrain from singing the national anthem. “This was just pathetic. Some do-gooders trying to make a point,” Morrison said at the time, as well as announcing they had won his ‘Muppet of the Year Award’.
Some context: it was the holy month of Muharrum, and Muslims are supposed to refrain from singing and music at this time. The children, unsure of whether it was acceptable to sing the national anthem, decided, with the support of the school, to refrain. It was not a sign of disrespect.
Among the febrile anti-Islamic atmosphere at the time in Bendigo, where right-wing extremists were targeting Muslim communities and lobbying councils against building a new mosque in the area, Morrison’s comments were inflammatory and highly irresponsible.
Morrison was at it again in November 2018 in the week before the Victoria election. Hassan Khalif Shire Ali set fire to his car in central Melbourne and stabbed three people, resulting in the death of Sisto Malaspina, the owner of the Pellegrino’s Espresso Bar.
Following the incident, Morrison commented that Muslims in Australia were partly responsible for failing to report extremism and admonished community leaders: “If you’re an imam or a leader in one of those communities, you need to know who those people are in your community that might be doing that” and claiming, without proof, that “in many cases” imams and community leaders knew who was “infiltrating and radicalising members of their flock”.
He went on to talk about the “vile presence” of Islam and talked about the “shady character who is at the periphery of the mosque, the one talking to young people”.
He dismissed the “lame excuse” of Ali’s mental health issues: “This bloke, radicalised here in Australia with extreme Islam, took a knife and cut down a fellow Australian in Bourke Street”. As it turned out, Ali has not been radicalised and, indeed, was suffering from severe mental and substance abuse issues.
And, in his most recent effort, Morrison smeared the asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru, suggesting “child molesters, rapists and murderers” could come to Australia if the laws for evacuating sick asylum seekers from offshore detention are changed.
There’s clear evidence throughout his political life Morrison has actively sought to demonise asylum seekers and refugees and the attack the Islamic community, wherever possible.
A failed rehabilitation
Since the New Zealand attacks, Morrison has tried to rehabilitate his political image, again with the support of a compliant and absent-minded media, as if all the things he has said about asylum seekers, refugees and the Islamic community never happened. He’s announced $55 million in funding for security enhancements at places of worship, and pushed out a message decrying “us-and-them tribalism”, even though he’s been the most tribal of all politicians in federal parliament.
His Liberal Party colleagues are also adding to the collective amnesia and stepping up to offer their support in this rehabilitation.
On Morrison’s comments from 2011 to shadow cabinet, Minister for Health, Greg Hunt, is now disputing Morrison said them at all and now trying to argue the opposite in a fairy land speech: “I saw him [Morrison] in tears of sadness at the loss of beautiful young Muslim, and other, lives at the hands of the people-smugglers and he vowed then to protect them and that this tragedy would never happen on his watch. He cared then with every fibre of his being and that same compassion still drives him.”
Compassion? Where was this compassion when he said asylum seekers were “diseased”? Or when he besmirched their reputation when he claimed they had “wads of cash” and “large displays of jewellery”, implying they were rich criminals? Or when he complained about Labor covering the costs of funerals for victims that has drowned at Christmas Island?
Or when he accused asylum seekers of carrying guns? Or denounced the recent Medevac legislation that was meant to create safe passage to Australia for seriously ill refugees on Manus Island and Nauru?
No, there hasn’t been any compassion at all. Compassion might be something Morrison’s family and close parliamentary colleagues might see but, as far as any public evidence is concerned, there is absolutely nothing. Morrison has demonised asylum seekers and sought to gain political benefit by attacking Muslims at every opportunity.
He was lost for meaningful words last Friday afternoon in response to the New Zealand attacks because he is so used to seeking the political message that will provide benefit to him.
He tried to weave security and safety into the message, trying to find words and an avenue to attack Labor on border security but it wasn’t forthcoming. Morrison may have a loud mouth but he can’t speak unless he’s in attack mode. He is like the monkey in the two-part organ grinder act, seeking opportunity to appease the audience that will give his master the highest return, in this case, the Liberal Party.
While his counterpart in New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern spoke forcefully, truthfully and openly, Morrison floundered. Perhaps he was overawed. Perhaps. But it was more likely to be the realisation that the Australian export of terrorism who had just inflicted the biggest mass murder in New Zealand’s history might have been influenced to act because of the history of Morrison’s coded words and racist dog whistling. Just like a Manchurian candidate.
Criminologists and behavioural scientists suggest there are many factors that influence perpetrators of such violence and their decision to enact what initially commences as a fantasy, or in the case of the New Zealand killer, a manifesto.
In most cases, they are very average people that live out normal lives but are influenced by the magnification of key messages they either receive through mainstream media, or reach out for through social media outlets.
Like many people, they are susceptible to messages that appear from people in authority, such as politicians and media influencers such as shock-jocks and right-wing polemicists. Messaging that appears from politicians has the imprimatur of the electorate who elected then in the first place and the belief that whatever these people are saying – such as US President Donald Trump; UKIP leader, Nigel Farage; Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro; or Scott Morrison – has a further authority provided by the media.
Every time Morrison publicly complained about asylum seekers being “diseased”, or used the words “vile” and “shady” when referring to the Islamic community, someone else in the community added another thought about purchasing a bullet or a gun to take matters into their own hands, or enact their manifesto to inflict mass murder.
High office requires great responsibilities and, so far, Morrison has failed to show anything that might bring communities closer in Australia. To paraphrase his own language, historically, he’s been quite happy to bring some people down, so that other people can rise; in this case, white extremists.
Morrison might not have realised it at the time, but his endless over-blown commentary about the Islamic community, asylum seekers and refugees over the past decade influenced an Australian radical who enacted his fantasy and gunned down 50 innocent people in New Zealand.
Freedom of speech does have its limits and consequences, and we saw the end results of Morrison’s anti-Muslim rhetoric last week.
After the death of Princess Diana in 1997, the media was in a rare contemplative mood and reflected that perhaps they had gone too far in pursuit of a story, and they should be more responsible and considerate of people’s privacy. That lull in extreme paparazzi behaviour and invasive journalism lasted for several months, before they were at it again, and the public soon forgot about their disgust with the tabloid media and rekindled their voracious appetite for inane celebrity reporting.
Morrison will do the same, perhaps with the speed of politics in this era, wait a few weeks, falling over himself in the rush to get to the mosques he has mostly avoided during his time in politics.
And then it will be back to politics as usual, back to humiliating refugees and asylum seekers, and trying to capitalise on the “electorate’s growing concerns about Muslim immigration, Muslims in Australia and the inability of Muslim migrants to integrate”, just like he suggested to his colleagues in 2010.