Australian Prime Minister John Howard has used the Pope’s association of Islam with violence as another opportunity to target Muslims, criticising them for overreacting. This fits into a pattern. Since July 2005, his conservative Coalition Government has been explicitly generating hostility to Muslims in Australia.
Shortly after the attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001, however, the Prime Minister said ‘I think the most special of all measures is for me to use the authority of my office to remind all Australians that our quarrel is not with people of Arab descent, our quarrel is not with people of the Islamic faith.’ And his Government stuck to this stance for almost four years.
What has changed?
It is not that the Howard Government has recently begun to use racism to build support. Appeals to racism have long been part of John Howard’s political arsenal. As leader of the opposition in August 1988, he raised concerns about the level of Asian immigration to Australia. This did not go down well in his own party. Howard lost the Liberal leadership within a year, only regaining it in 1995.
But claiming that Aboriginal landrights were a threat and that the Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Commission was corrupt proved much more successful during and after the 1996 election campaign. The Coalition won, thanks to this racist tactic, widespread disillusionment with the Labor government’s neo-liberal economic policies and the appeal of the conservative’s contrasting claim that they would make Australian’s ‘comfortable and relaxed’.
Howard soon expressed understanding for the concerns raised by the right-wing populist Pauline Hanson, as her support for her grew between 1996 and 1998. She railed against immigration and allegedly preferential treatment given to Aborigines and Asians in Australia.
The Tampa and ‘children overboard’ affairs, together with the attacks in New York and Washington on September 11 were key episodes in the Coalition’s 2001 election campaign. The government did not allow refugees, picked up from a small, sinking boat by the Norwegian freighter Tampa, to land on Australian territory. Instead they were sent to an Australian-funded concentration camp on the independent Pacific island of Nauru. Later Howard and his ministers falsely claimed that refugees on another boat threatened to throw their children into the sea if a nearby Australian naval vessel didn’t pick them up. In fact they were signalling for help because their boat was sinking.
Kevin Dunn’s research has demonstrated that racism in Australia is particularly directed against Muslims, who make up about 1.5 per cent of the population, roughly 300,000 people. A large proportion of the refugees arriving in Australia by sea were Muslims. So the government’s encouragement of public paranoia about them could invoke anti-Islamic racism without being explicit.
‘I certainly don’t want people of that type in Australia’ John Howard said during the ‘children overboard’ affair, leaving Australians to draw their own conclusions about the ‘type’ he was referring to. It was left to other commentators to connect the dots, for those slow on the uptake.
Despite an economic slow-down, the Government won the election and wedged the Labor Party.
The Government knows that questions of race, especially when tied to supposed physical threats to Australians, is good ground for it, especially compared with industrial relations, privatisations and cuts in social welfare.
The concrete message of Australian participation in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the preparations for them was that the Muslim inhabitants of Afghanistan and Iraq did not have the right to themselves settle accounts with their oppressive rulers; these incompetent (Muslim) people needed the strongest state in the world and its allies, with an agenda primarily driven by issues of strategic power and oil rather than terrorism, to impose new rulers on them.
From 2004, the Howard Government’s ability to mobilise support on a racist basis, one of its strongest policy assets, declined dramatically.
The prolonged campaign by activist groups against the harsh treatment of refugees and their imprisonment was turning public opinion around, to the extent that even Liberal parliamentarians started raising public criticisms. Then the scandals of the detention, as an illegal immigrant, of Australian permanent resident Kornelia Rau and the deportation of Australian citizen Vivienne Solon to the Philippines erupted.
The inquiries into these events thoroughly discredited Australia’s immigration detention policy and administration. The Government initiated reforms and released a large proportion of the imprisoned refugees.
It was now much harder to generate fear of refugees. In August this year, a revolt by some Coalition members of parliament even forced the Government to drop legislation designed to shove all asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat into camps on Pacific islands.
But the turning point was a year earlier, in 2005. John Howard used the London bombings to recast his manipulation of racism. He attacked Australian Muslims explicitly for the first time, claiming that some mainstream Islamic leaders in Australia were not ‘as strong in denouncing these acts as they should have been’.
His summit with Australian Muslim leaders, on 23 August 2005, was designed to demonstrate that the Government regarded Muslims as a problem and security threat.
Treasurer Peter Costello chimed in with talk about expelling radical Muslim clerics. Brendan Nelson, then Minister for Education, said that special steps were being taken to teach Muslim children about ‘Australian values’, especially about Simpson and his donkey. People who ‘don’t want to live by Australian values’ could ‘clear off’.
The new method of generating racial fears was soon deployed to good political effect. Just before ACTU mass rallies against new industrial relations legislation, on 15 November, the Government staged raids on Muslims allegedly plotting terrorist acts and scheduled debates on anti-terrorist legislation.
Government policy helped to create the political climate that led to the mob violence against Muslims and Arabs in the Sydney beach-side suburb of Cronulla, on 11 December. Just as John Howard denies that his own policies have anything to do with racism, in commenting on the Cronulla riot he denied that there is ‘underlying racism in this country’.
In February this year, evidence presented to the inquiry into the bribes paid by AWB, the monopoly marketer of Australian wheat, to secure sales to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq became very embarrassing for the Coalition. The Prime Minister and Treasurer again criticised Muslims.
But John Howard shifted his campaign against Australian Muslims into high gear a few weeks ago, to distract attention from issues that are heavy going for the Government: a jump in petrol prices, higher interest rates, the privatisation of the state-owned telecommunications giant Telstra and the health insurer Medibank and slower growth.
Howard raised concerns about the ‘integration’ of Muslim migrants and their acceptance of Australian values. As usual, the nature of these values was left vague. He focuses on the tolerance, attitudes to women or democratic beliefs of ‘a small group of Muslim migrants’ is an appeal to prejudice. Much higher numbers of Australian-born, Anglo-Celtic Christians have bigoted attitudes towards and even physically assault people they regard as different; harass or rape women or, more genteelly, oppose women’s right to control their own fertility; and support the authoritarian right.
On the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, he again raised concerns about Muslim integration.
It seems to be the special task of former director and election campaign manager of Howard’s Liberal Party, parliamentary secretary Andrew Robb, to maintain the anti-Muslim momentum. He has tied fear of Muslims into a discussion of tightening Australia’s citizenship laws.
He recently said ‘Muslim communities in Australia have been stigmatised unfairly.’ So Muslims must take the lead and assume ‘primary responsibility’ for their own integration. In other words, if Muslims are suffering it’s their problem and not a responsibility of government to stop encouraging attacks on them.
Explicit targeting of Muslims in Australia indicates that the government is worried about its prospects and the declining effectiveness of its racist appeal. Particularly if the economy falters, in the run up to the next federal election, John Howard will stoke up anti-Muslim racism as an issue that is good for it. But, during August, there were demonstrations, of up to 50,000 people in Sydney, against Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and the Howard government’s support for it. These rebuilt the self-confidence of Australian Muslims and Arabs. They and their allies are now better placed to combat Howard’s latest racist tactics.
RICK KUHN is the author of Henryk Grossman and the recovery of Marxism and editor of Class and struggle in Australia and a contributor to Socialist Alternative. He can be reached at Rick.Kuhn@anu.edu.au.