Soft-hearted ScoMo, Hard-line ScoMo and Islamophobia In Australia

Paul Tyson

In response to the atrocities at Christchurch, the grief and solidarity expressed by Ms Ardern has deeply moved us all. She has led her nation in rejecting a sense of otherness towards their traumatized Islamic fellow citizens. Instead, we see their suffering human sameness. Through Jacinda, New Zealand embraces and seeks to console her grieving Muslims. In an unprecedented act of identification, many non-Muslim Kiwi women wore a hijab as they attended a memorial service at the Al Noor mosque. This act directly inverts the way this item of dress has so often been a focal point of Islamophobia. Jacinda led the way in this act of visible solidarity. In her very person, New Zealand’s national leader repudiates the incubation of hatred towards Muslims that led to the massacres at Christchurch. Her example will change the collective norms of her people. But what about our Prime Minister? What about our policies? And what about Australian society and Islamophobia? The terrorist was, after all, an Australian.


I am sure that the vast majority of Australians felt the same disgust that Prime Minister Morrison expressed in response to Senator Anning’s obscene comments in the wake of the Christchurch atrocities. Undoubtedly our Prime Minister really does repudiate Senator Anning’s comments, and he really was genuinely horrified by the Christchurch terror killings. But I am not persuaded that Australia is on the same footing as New Zealand when it comes to rejecting Islamophobia. Neither am I persuaded that our Prime Minister is as Islamophilic as he wants us to believe.


A signature feature of how our Prime Minister approaches power is his distinctive combination of strong personal conviction with hard headed political pragmatism. The effect is to give a heavy sheen of decent and moral sounding justification to whatever politically necessary action Mr Morrison takes. This is, I stress, the very opposite of disingenuous. Mr Morrison sincerely believes in his own moral rightness, and he sincerely upholds a sharp individualist and secular division between the public necessities of practical power and the personal freedoms of inner conviction and belief. That is, morality and power are here substantively differentiated but they are sentimentally integrated. Power, to the political pragmatist, is about necessity, ‘the possible’, careful attention to public image, and party and pole machine calculations. Conviction is about personal moral and religious feeling. Here, the two realms are conceptually and often operationally distinct, but formally united by the object-subject unity of the conviction pragmatist himself. In regard to Islamophobia, Mr Morrison presents himself to us as a man of impeccable humanitarian rectitude, a bridge builder, and as unwaveringly decent and compassionate in his motivations. And yet, as illustrated in the logic of Operation Sovereign Boarders, his personal feelings can be readily coupled with our fear of the other. But does this type of substantive separation and sentimental integration really work? Are the warm and humanitarian inner convictions of our Prime Minister actually contradicted by his political actions? Are there, in fact, substantive continuities between explicitly Islamophobic stances in our parliament, and the actual policies and politically pragmatic actions of our Prime Minister?


Senator Anning’s claim that being denounced by the Prime Minister on Muslim immigration amounts to “a flogging with a limp doily” seems to eerily reflect the same ‘too soft’ rhetoric that Mr Morrison himself is comfortable using when justifying his own harsh stance. Unbending boarder protection (from whom?) and overt Islamophobia may not be that disconnected in reality. Despite diametric rhetoric coming from Prime Minister Morrison and Senator Anning on Christchurch, could there be closer tough-man ties between the extreme right and mainstream conservative politics than Mr Morrison wants us to believe? Here, perhaps, actions speak louder than words.


Mr Morrison’s boarder security regime ‘protects us’ from largely non-white, largely Muslim, largely poor, boat arrival asylum seekers. The ‘firmness’ of his commitment to boarder sovereignty won’t let our indefinite detainees settle in New Zealand, and makes life saving medical treatment in Australia as hard for them to receive as possible. This regime is the brain child and proud achievement of Mr Morrison. For by this regime he has “stopped the boats” and demonstrably achieved his goal of “making Australia safe.” Clearly Senator Anning wants to exclude all Muslim immigrants, whereas, in practice, Mr Morrison’s exclusion is only of one class of would be Muslim immigrants. I say “in practice” because, of course, Mr Morrison’s exclusion policy is not officially connected to any religion at all, but is only concerned with “illegal” invaders of our territorial sovereignty. However, we all know that international law under the Geneva Convention explicitly recognizes no such category as an “illegal asylum seeker,” however they travel and whatever territory they “invade” in their search for safe asylum. In reality, these irregular transit asylum seekers are mainly Muslims, and the extent to which Mr Morrison goes to keep our boarders strong against them is profoundly dehumanizing and in direct violation of our signed UNHCR obligations. Does this harsh exclusionary treatment of “illegal” Muslim asylum seekers bear a family resemblance to Islamophobic attitudes comfortable among far right Australian politicians? This is a serious question. For clearly, Operation Sovereign Boarders is as harsh as it is possible for the Australian parliament to make it.


Indefinite offshore detention is a brutally tough policy, designed, by Mr Morrison, to be an iron clad deterrent. This policy produces mass resignation syndrome and even suicide in children and adult detainees, by design. This, it seems, is the necessary means of safeguarding our territorial sovereignty which is apparently under threat from displaced people who have fled their homes in fear for their lives by whatever means they can find. Clearly Mr Morrison has the ticker to dream up and implement these resolutely inhumane policies towards that very vulnerable global class of Muslims. Clearly Mr Morrison has the firm resolve to give us strong leadership that will make Australians “safe” from this terrible threat. Even though the UN Human Rights Commission has roundly and repeatedly denounced Australia’s indefinite offshore detention policies and practices, particularly after the implementation of Operation Sovereign Boarders, Mr Morrison and the Australian parliament (not just its far right fruit cakes) are unmoved.


Given the rigidly harsh treatment which many hundreds of asylum seeking Muslims have received at his policy’s hands, how seriously can we take our Prime Minister’s claims to be a man of sincere Islamophilic humanity? Are the strong feelings and noble words of our Prime Minister in the wake of the Christchurch atrocity a good match with his policy actions?


To reiterate, Mr Morrison is undoubtedly a man of very strong personal convictions. His unshakeable moral self-confidence was on clear display in his school principal styled dressing down of the Turkish ambassador recently. Mr Morrison’s great displeasure was produced by comments made by the Turkish President that Mr Morrison found both incendiary and deeply insulting to the sacred memory of our ANZACs. President Erdoga is himself a very problematic figure, and yet he does have a valid point about the dark side of our ANZAC story. For actually, invading Australians went to Turkey to kill Turks in World War One. Our soldiers did not sacrifice their lives to protect Australian soil from a Turkish invasion. We were the invaders. In the Christchurch killer, the echoes of a rampaging gun-wielding Australian on foreign soil would be bound to cause Turkish anxiety. Indeed, even though the Turks beat us at Gallipoli, World War One was a much bigger disaster, with a much higher overall mortality rate, for them than it was for us. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire was a profound wound for all the peoples of that part of the world. But in relation to the ANZACs, it was the Turks who sacrificed lives to fend off a blood-thirsty foreign invader (us). Bizarrely, our ANZAC legend seems to be entirely ignorant of why we were in Turkey and how the Turks and the various weeping fragments of the imploded Ottoman Empire experienced World War One. That war was, to this day, catastrophic for the Armenians. The ignorance and foreign arrogance of ‘our’ Turkish national identity legend is breath-taking. Why are we sensitive about the sacred “sacrifice” made by death intending Australian aggressors in Turkey 100 years ago? The current state endorsed civic cult around the catastrophic blood bathed blunder of Gallipoli is a very strange story. Apparently, this act of pointless carnage in jubilant voluntary aid of the fading British Empire was the birth of our glorious national identity. (Personally, if we must have legends, I prefer the vagabond suicide myth of Waltzing Matilda.) Historical reality and the political creation of legends need have very little direct relationship with each other. If anyone is interested (which I doubt), the manner in which John Howard largely invented a 21st century martial ideology for Australians out of the ANZAC legend is well documented in Henry Reynold’s 2010 book “What’s Wrong with ANZAC?”


Does Mr Morrison’s firm conviction about what a nice Islamophilic man he is match the facts and actions of his policies and their effects? Are we always the good guys? Have our post 9/11 mainstream politicians in general promoted an ideology of unbending vigilance in national security that knowingly fans the embers of underlying Australian xenophobia into a steady background Islamophobic flame? In rejecting the very possibility of such a thing, is Mr Morrison simply believing his own propaganda? Or might he be sensitive about his public image in this area because he has a sub-conscious anxiety, maybe even some supressed guilt? Perhaps, after all, he has skilfully harnessed the electoral energy of Australian Islamophobia for his own political gain?


On a number of occasions in recent days Mr Morrison has been very quick to take strong offence at being thought anything less than fully sincere in his solidarity with Australian and New Zealand Muslims. Externally he projects unflinching moral conviction on this front. Even so, he is very touchy about this. Mr Morrison’s response to Waleed Aly’s statement of being gutted and scared, but not shocked by a white Australian callously murdering praying Muslims, is a case in point. In that statement Mr Aly linked the policies, statements and press reports of Australian parliamentarians over the past two decades with the legitimizing of Islamophobic feeling in the broader community. Historically and sociologically, this is a no brainer. And – in the age of insular unhinged social media – it was bound to have its extreme violent expression at some point. As a sociologist, with Mr Aly, I too was not shocked by the horrifying events at Christchurch. But such obvious sociological truths cannot be admitted by our Prime Minister. In fact, when observations of this nature are put to Mr Morrison, he rejects them on the grounds that they are personally offensive lies.


As a function of political style, the flip side of the affable ScoMo is highly adept at using personal offense as a powerful debating and image projection tool. He is a skilful politician. He is also a threatening and aggressive tough-man, and a calculating pragmatist.


Mr Morrison’s initial response to Waleed’s statement was very aggressive. But then, after ‘generously’ backing down from the threat of legal action, Mr Morrison decided to engage Mr Aly in a lengthy interview. His body language in that interview was astonishing. His stance displayed total self-confidence. Clearly, he had nothing to learn from Waleed, would concede nothing to Waleed, and expected that he would simply nip this misguided Waleed’s disgusting lies in the bud. In that interview Mr Morrison emphatically rejected any insinuation that there were any Islamophobic mistakes in any of the policy decisions, political discussions and public leadership roles he had ever been involved in.


How did we get to this place in Australian politics?


Back in the early 1990s Nick Greiner delivered a Deakin Lecture titled “Australian Liberalism in a Post-ideological Age.” This lecture pointed out that politics was no longer defined by inflexible commitments to political ideologies of the Left or Right. In the early 90s, Mr Greiner assured us, government was firstly concerned with successful economics and cost effective infrastructure management. Voters now had little interest in political theory and just wanted to know which team of politicians would best make Australians as individually wealthy and personally happy as possible. Would it be the red ties or the blue ties? Elections were now largely about which team of public management CEOs could better market themselves to voters. Australians were now too mature for dogmatic commitments to old hat political ideologies. This did not mean that the older socialist and conservative categories would entirely disappear, but they had become backgrounded to questions of successful economic management and were not treated as sacrosanct by politicians or voters any more. In the early 90s, we had entered a great and promising new age of ideologically flexible and economically focused pragmatism.


In general terms, I think Mr Greiner accurately discerned the vibe of Australian political culture in the early 90s. After the ‘greed is good’ 80s, we had all become material girls, interested in consumption, profit and personal gratification above anything else really. Under these conditions, securing economic prosperity for ideologically disinterested individual Australians, by whatever means worked, became the first concern of politicians. Until 9/11.


With the War On Terror, national security became as electorally important to Australians as the accumulation of personal wealth. But note, this move to a culture of fear and security was strongly led by our political class. As Paul Virilio points out, “the administration of fear” is a populist game winning tool in conditions of social instability that few success focused politicians can resist using. And we do have instable social conditions.


The relentless workplace and policy ‘reforms’ of the neo-liberal age have been accompanied by the demise of Australian manufacturing and a general policy shift from public to private wealth. This has produced widespread social upheaval. It has produced a new underclass of inherently workplace and income insecure working poor. The divide between rich and poor has increased exponentially. The shift to speculative investment has rocket boosted rising house prices and made home ownership for the young nigh on impossible. Going back a little further, the sexual revolution and the rise of women in the academy and the workplace – particularly from the 1980s – has destabilized familial norms and undone many existing gender based workplace norms. This has not displaced white male privilege, but it has made this privilege an elite and highly competitive arena, leaving many non-elite white males surplus to requirements and bereft of power, leadership and dignity. The large social transitions from the egalitarian post-war boom to the financialised speculative economy of 2008 notoriety, has been a passage of great cultural upheaval in Australia. This upheaval has produced our two speed economy of high flying winners in the top gears and insecure structural losers in the bottom gears. There are many left behind working class white males trapped in the lower gears. In this context, finding an external focus for white male resentment is a political necessity. Violent entertainment is a useful pressure valve here, but with this kind of cultural priming there is always the risk that some unhinged individual will actually act out their fantasy of resentment fuelled redemptive violence on some suitably powerless victim. Alas, many are the contributing factors in resentment fuelled white male violence. Our politicians are playing with matches and petrol when they take electoral advantage of the resentments of white male discontent.


It is worth noting that our Islamophobia has almost nothing to do with Islam itself. There is very little interest in or understanding of Islam among white Australian Islamophobes. This is really about white ‘Christian’ working and middle class identity fragility, dignity displacement and economic insecurity, looking for a scapegoat. So after 9/11, explicitly in bin Laden, and tacitly in our local foreign, job robbing and free loading refugees, Muslims became the threatening ‘Other’ that we must protect ourselves from. Further, under John Howard a renewed state sanctioned commitment to a martial 1914 British Empire styled cultural identity politics was strongly amped up (the new ANZAC legend). In this context a radical shift in post 1970s immigration policy was effected. The commitment to universal human rights as applied to boat arrival asylum seekers shown by Malcolm Fraser was heavily revised under Mr Howard, and ultimately reversed under Mr Morrison, with continuous help from the ALP along the way.


By the time of Operation Sovereign Boarders, the central political goals of good governance were personal wealth, national security and nostalgic flag waving tribalism. In moral terms, these goals are pretty selfish and prone to being savagely callous towards the poor and the alien. That is, they are not easy to promote to the electorate as good goals. So they need to be sold to us as practically necessary goals, and preferably sold to us by someone who can enable us to feel good about ourselves whilst pursuing the necessary hard line pathway of strong government. Hence the rise of a new breed of politicians: conviction pragmatists. Scott Morrison was born for this moment.


This historical passage also produces conviction pragmatist voters. It is now entirely possible for us to be personally sentimental at the same time as being ruthless collective pragmatists. Like Mr Morrison we also feel how terrible the Christchurch massacre was – and we should, for it was an unspeakable atrocity. And yet, if we do not address the underlying ‘tough’ anti-Muslim ‘safety’ politics that has worked like a charm harnessing the fears of the Australian polity for electoral gain since 9/11, this sentimental conviction has no public moral relevance.


It is quite likely that little will really change in terms of Australian Islamophobic security politics because we largely agree with Scott Morrison’s neat division between inner (deeply sincere) personal conviction and callously effective (tough) practical power. We largely agree with John Howard’s nostalgic vision about what a noble race of (largely white and culturally Christian) self-sacrificing warriors we are. We largely agree with Nick Greiner that we are all happy post-ideological wealth accumulators now (hence our competitive fear of ‘economic’ immigrants). We largely agree with Bill Clinton that the first thing about politics is the economy (this is a good definition of morally “stupid” politics). In short, we share Scott Morrison’s basic self-congratulating, sentimental, conviction pragmatist sympathies. We too like to feel good about what decent people of human feeling we are. At the same time we too can be deeply personally offended should any one dare to suggest that we have an unaddressed and underlying heritage of violent racism and religiously framed fear that is strongly shaping our politics. We indignantly reject any “black arm-band” sense of national shame. But ask our Aborigines, ask our Muslims, ask our Asians, ask our Jews, Europeans, Lebanese, Africans… what are we (dominant white Australia) really like? Is Australia really a place of generous toleration characterized by a warmly hospitable, open and inclusive spirit? Using gentle but probing humour, Damian Callinan’s film “The Merger” asks exactly these questions, and with some hope. But when are our politicians going to ask these questions? When are we going to get leadership with any depth of moral introspection? When are we going to get leadership that is courageous enough to make human compassion anything like as non-negotiable as boarder security currently is?


Conviction politics and Islamophobia are easy partners in contemporary Australian politics. Perhaps we need is a bit less rock certain inner conviction. And really, what on earth is wrong with some probing introspective ambivalence about ourselves? Perhaps we need a less sentimental but more genuinely hospitable and vulnerable politics of humanity. Perhaps we need to back down from the tough and tribal politics of collective fear and conformist belonging. New Zealand is well in front of us on all of these fronts, even though they have just as brutal a colonial back story as we do. Yet their Māoris are harder to ignore than our Aborigines. In that light Kiwis, like Murray Rae, are very aware that any talk of lost innocence after the Christchurch massacres is astonishingly false in the brutal light of how both our nations were birthed. Professor Rae notes:


“The massacre on Friday was not unprecedented in New Zealand. Atrocities like that have struck us before… [To take one example…] in 1864, during the land wars in New Zealand, about 100 Māori women, children, and the elderly took refuge in Rangiaowhia in the face of Governor Grey’s attempts to conquer Māori settlements in the Waikato and seize their land. The women, the children and the elderly took refuge while the men prepared to engage in battle elsewhere. Bishop Selwyn was told, and was asked to convey the message that Rangiaowhia would be a place of sanctuary. But on a Sunday morning the crown forces went to Rangiaowhia and slaughtered all those who had taken refuge there.”


Australia too has an unspeakably barbaric history of frontier massacres, of systemic rape, dispossession, poisoning and cultural destruction towards the original Australians. And we are not talking ancient history here either. In the 1860s all blacks who refused to be rounded up in the newly ‘opened’ pastoral regions of Queensland and ‘relocated’ (in chains) to Palm Island, could be shot on sight with the blessing of the law. And then, ask the Irish about the barbarities of our convict past. The true origins story of our nation is very hard to look at squarely, let alone own. There are obvious reasons why we prefer nostalgic and noble colonial identity myths over the historical facts.


In the context of our times, New Zealand’s Prime Minister has shone forth as a much needed and genuine moral beacon. As deeply convinced of his own moral virtue as our Prime Minister is, it is hard to see how the policies, tone and intentions of these two leaders could be favourably compared. And then, our opposition seems morally paralysed in regard to taking any serious leadership in revoking Operation Sovereign Boarders and returning us to the UNHCR fold. With Mark Latham now a leader in One Nation, the fact that a former Labor leaders is now in ‘fringe’ politics gives pause to consider what relationship there might really be between the fringe and the mainstream, on both the Right and Left sides of parliament. And how far beyond the pale of an ‘acceptable’ Australian politics of white male Islamophobia is our Australian on trial for 50 murders in New Zealand?


There is always a genuinely hard choice to be made between the politics of love and the politics of fear. There is always a genuinely hard choice to make between pragmatic self-interest and genuine moral virtue. We teach our children about these choices, but when are our political leaders going to square up to them?







Dr Paul Tyson is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland.

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