Amid the smoke and mirrors of the Coalition’s federal budget, the Senate voted to formally censure far-right Senator Fraser Anning on April 3.
The vote came after a “Remove Fraser Anning from Parliament” petition on Change.org garnered close to 1.5 million signatures following his comments on the far-right terror attack in New Zealand on March 15.
In a statement issued on the day of the terrorist attack on two mosques that left 50 dead, Anning said: “The real cause of bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration program that allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place…”
“Today’s shootings in Christchurch highlight the growing fears within our community in both Australia and New Zealand over the increasing Muslim presence.”
Though Anning was censured, not sacked, petition co-author and Sydney neurologist Kate Ahmad told Green Left Weekly that she is not overly bothered by the final outcome.
Impact of Christchurch
The tone of the current election campaign has been noticeably less tinged with race fear than looked likely just a few months ago.
Less than a year ago Coalition senators “accidentally” voted for a Pauline Hanson’s One Nation motion that claimed there had been a “deplorable rise of anti-white racism and attacks on Western civilisation” and stated “it is OK to be white” — a catch cry of the racist alt-right.
Christchurch changed all that.
Anning’s sympathy for the killer’s cause and his attempt to blame the victims sparked outrage.
One of the myths of the right is that there is a “silent majority” who share its views but are “silenced” by “political correctness”. The equal marriage rights debate shattered this myth.
Now, the reaction to an act of terrorism by a white extremist has shown that the silent majority is in fact progressive, not conservative.
Ahmad believes that while “Islamophobia remains an issue, most Australians believe in equality and decency.
“New Zealand is our closest neighbour and the murderer was an Australian. People feel the desire to reach out when tragedies occur, to show empathy, to do something, anything.”
Ahmad said her position as a specialist in a busy hospital “exposes me to people from all walks of life and cultures.”
She also believes that “to be a good physician, it is necessary to be an advocate and an activist for the health and wellbeing of all people.
“Doctors, like politicians, are in a somewhat privileged position. With that privilege comes responsibility.”
The Christchurch killings had a personal impact on Ahmad because she married into a Muslim family.
“I have attended Friday prayers, and have always felt safe and welcome in the mosque,” Ahmad said, but was left shocked by “the deliberate killing of unarmed people, including children and the elderly, in a peaceful place of worship where people felt safe.
“It alarms me that so many people online seek to justify the terrorist’s actions or fail to show any empathy to people they see as ‘other’.”
Media fuels racists
Ahmad said that she has “noticed a right-wing creep in our media, in the way our politicians speak, and in the acceptance of extreme views.
“The media now give air time to people who identify as white supremacists. Bashing Muslims is a national sport presently.”
Conscious “of years of anti-Muslim sentiment,” Ahmad said that “the Murdoch-controlled media feeds the public a regular diet of propaganda aimed at demonising and dehumanising Muslims.
“It is always about fear: ‘Muslims will introduce Sharia law’, ‘African gangs’, ‘Muslims are terrorists’.
“All of this rhetoric provided fertile ground for white supremacists like Anning and Hanson to make explicit statements which discriminate against Muslims.”
But the support for the petition showed that “the time was right for an effective push-back.”
Support for the censure motion was bipartisan but there was politicking behind who agreed to receive the petition.
Ahmad said “the [Liberal] party declined the opportunity to receive the petition.
“[Labor leader Bill] Shorten called to congratulate me on the petition, but was clear that Anning could not be removed from the Senate under current law,” Ahmad said, adding that while factually correct, Shorten’s comment missed the point.
Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi — Australia’s first woman Muslim senator — agreed to accept the petition and tabled it in parliament.
The final censure motion “calls on all Australians to stand against hate and to publicly, and always, condemn actions and comments designed to incite fear and distrust.”
It also formally “censures Senator Anning for his inflammatory and divisive comments seeking to attribute blame to victims of a horrific crime and to vilify people on the basis of religion, which do not reflect the opinions of the Australian Senate or the Australian people.”
Moved by all parties — Hanson was absent for “medical reasons” — the motion makes it harder for any party to play the race card.
Reversing the race to the bottom
When asked what help is needed from activists, Ahmad suggests that “activists should sign the petition calling for a parliamentary code of conduct.
Ahmad also believes “we should continue to call out hate speech, we should all be campaigning to end offshore and mandatory detention for refugees and we should pressure the media to report more responsibly.”
Opportunistic leadership that resorted to the race card led us to this moment.
There have been many milestones in this race to the bottom, not least Hanson’s burqa stunt in parliament in 2017 and then-attorney general George Brandis’ call in 2014 to water down racial vilification laws to protect people’s “right to be bigots.”
The horror of Christchurch has brought right-wing terrorism into new focus and shifted the tone of the debate.
In contrast to Australia, Ahmad pointed to the different kind of leadership demonstrated across the Tasman by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
“The fact that nearly 1.4 million people have spoken against hate speech surely must mean that a groundswell of hope and decency is just around the corner.
“And we have Jacinda as a beacon and an example.”
It remains to be seen whether our would-be leaders can rise to this challenge or whether elements of a desperate government will prefer to once again rely on the race card.
[John Shute is a Melbourne teacher in the public system who writes mainly on educational matters, including the radicalisation of youth through social media.]