Australia is a significant nation in world affairs and has been at least since the start of World War I in 1914. But it is fair to say that Australia is not well known, even in western Europe and North America.
This places a special responsibility on Australia’s politicians and commentators to speak with consideration and without exaggeration when talking to non-Australians about the nation’s past and present.
On May 10, CNN’s Amanpour led with a segment on today’s federal election. Christine Amanpour’s only interviewee was commentator and academic Waleed Aly. This is how she introduced the segment: “Upcoming elections in Australia could reshape a political narrative. I speak to a leading voice there about how xenophobia and intolerance are on the back foot after an Australian mowed down Muslims in two mosques in New Zealand.”
The implication here was that, before the massacre in Christchurch, allegedly by a right-wing extremist Australian, Australia was a land of rampant xenophobia and intolerance. But since the mass murders in New Zealand on March 15, tolerance is making a comeback.
Now many would regard Aly as an example of the success of multiculturalism in Australia. Born in Melbourne in 1978 to Egyptian-born parents, he went to school in Wesley College and studied law and engineering at the University of Melbourne. A practising Muslim, Aly is a lecturer at Monash University. He writes a fortnightly column for Nine newspapers and co-presents The Project (on Network Ten) and The Minefield (on ABC Radio National). A brilliant career, to be sure.
Yet a viewer watching CNN in New Delhi, Berlin or Baton Rouge might get the impression that Aly has lived for four decades in a nation blighted by xenophobia and intolerance. When referring to the Tampa incident on the eve of the 2001 election, he spoke of a “xenophobic strain (that) will occur as part of political campaigning and particularly anti-immigrant, anti-refugee sorts of (sic) discourse”. He then suggested that because of “that horrible event in Christchurch” our political leaders have moderated their language.
It’s accurate to tell CNN that, in 2001, the then prime minister, John Howard, refused to allow a group of asylum-seekers to arrive in Australia on the Tampa. But it’s also correct to state that, then and now, Australia accepts more refugees per capita each year than most other Western nations, including New Zealand.
Moreover, it’s quite misleading to suggest that the Howard government was in any sense anti-immigrant. Immigration was at historically high levels during the Howard years and it remained high during the time of his successors Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull. Scott Morrison is committed to reducing immigration levels, but from a high base.
Aly’s point was that Morrison had spoken out strongly against the initiative of the independents — late last year led by Kerryn Phelps — to introduce legislation requiring that refugees and asylum-seekers detained on Manus Island and Nauru be sent to Australia for urgent medical attention independent of the wishes of Australian authorities. His position was that Morrison had moderated his language in response to the murders in the Christchurch mosques.
This is misleading. Not all refugees and asylum-seekers in detention are Muslim. Also, the anticipated surge of asylum-seekers into Australia consequent on the Phelps legislation appears not to have occurred. The debate has toned down due to circumstances. If unlawful boat arrivals had taken place in Australia in recent months as a result of people-smugglers’ response to the Phelps legislation, then boat arrivals would have been an issue in this year’s election campaign.
Amanpour then cited the Essential Research poll, released on March 26, which revealed that 63 per cent of Australians agreed with the proposition that “white extremism is every bit as dangerous as Muslim fundamentalism”. Aly agreed that this was a consequence of the new moderation. However, it’s reasonable to expect that Australians will regard all kinds of terrorism as dangerous. It’s just that the overwhelming number of successful and thwarted terrorist attacks in Australia since September 2001 have been undertaken or planned by Islamists. So it was reasonable for Australians to focus on Islamist terror rather than extreme right-wing terror — before the Christchurch massacre.
At the invitation of Amanpour, Aly went on to state that Australians were “pretty much unanimous in expressing their admiration for the way that Jacinda Ardern responded to” the Christchurch massacre. He queried whether “there’s something actually about New Zealand specifically that makes it possible for a prime minister to behave in that kind of way”.
Certainly Ardern reacted to the killings with empathy and a resolution to prevent another such incident. However, it is an inconvenient truth that such an attack is unlikely to have taken place in Australia. First, unlike New Zealand, Australia has had very strong gun laws since the 1996 Port Arthur massacre. Second, unlike New Zealand, Australia’s intelligence services have been monitoring extreme right-wing groups for decades.
Aly could have told CNN viewers this but refrained from doing so. Instead he embraced the line of some disillusioned Australian commentators that New Zealand is the better governed nation. At a recent post-function budget in Sydney, ABC presenter Ellen Fanning declared that “every time a New Zealand leader walks into the country we sort of grab them by the ankles and say: ‘Don’t leave, don’t leave us.’ ”
No nation is devoid of racism or intolerance. But, broadly, Australia is an accepting nation. This is best judged empirically. Australia has a relatively low level of ethnic-motivated crime and a relatively high level of marriage, or partnerships, between ethnic groups.
This is unlikely to change, whatever the result of today’s election. However, such unexciting news would not see Aly star at the top of an Amanpour program.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute. His Media Watch Dog blog can be found at theaustralian.com.au.