“Be alert but not alarmed, the Federal Government’s $15 million anti-terror advertising campaign tells us. Some $1.4 billion is being spent on strengthening Australia’s counter-terrorist capabilities.

A recent Taverner Poll shows about 80 per cent of Australians believe the country is a genuine terrorist target; more than a quarter now suffer fear of attack or what some have called “general paranoia”.

Prime Minister John Howard recently conceded that the Bali bombing and 11 September, 2001, have changed the easygoing Australian mentality.

The government’s “Let’s look out for Australia” advertising campaign is an attempt to ease such fears – fears the government believes have been foisted on Australians by international terrorists. Yet a glance at the historical record suggests that, as a community, wartime paranoia and bigotry are as familiar to Australia as are diversity and tolerance at other times.

In 1940 more than 2000 German and Austrian Jewish refugees were deported from Britain to Australia, on the Dunera, as aliens – in spite of having fled Nazi persecution. They were interned on arrival.

Australian Italians endured worse in the 1940s, with many sent to alien conscription camps, others accused of spying, disloyalty, of making money while “good and loyal” Australians were fighting abroad.

Historian Michael Hogan in The Sectarian Strand argues that one of the myths of Australian history is that the experience of Gallipoli “cemented a new unity and national resolve”. In fact, so strongly felt was sectarianism in the first decades of Federation that it was a period, Hogan tells us, of “great social division . . . especially on the bases of class, ethnicity and religion”.

In an interview for the Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society in 2002, former prime minister Malcolm Fraser recalled how his father, a reasonable man, was convinced by Billy Hughes’ arguments about “Irish Catholics opposing the war being traitors”.

In 1919, during the flu epidemic that claimed 12,000 Australian lives, Victorian health minister John Bowser accepted Catholic archbishop Daniel Mannix’s offer of the services of the Sisters of Charity from St Vincent’s Hospital to work in the temporary hospital in the Exhibition Buildings.

However, the Reverend Henry Worrall of the Wesley Church attacked the offer, rejecting “the garb worn by the nuns and the brothers, the ceremonies they observed, the customs they followed”. These were things, he said, “that should not be introduced into a state hospital”.

Letters to newspapers reflected dismay at Worrall’s remarks but this did not stop a bitter public stand-off between Protestant clergy supporting Worrall and Mannix who refused to bend to sectarianism. It got so bitter that Mannix had to cancel his offer.

This story is echoed in New South Wales MP Fred Nile’s tirade last year against Muslim women wearing veils in public.

In spite of the celebrations of Christmas and New Year, Australians have a sense of foreboding at the beginning of 2003. But it is worth considering our own part in that unease.

The subliminal message of “Let’s look out for Australia” is its attempt to hose down a growing community bigotry surrounding Australian Muslims. But, in spite of the anger following the Bali bombings, intolerance in Australia to Middle Eastern migrants has been building for years. This suspicion was exploited by Peter Reith when Defence minister during the Tampa incident in 2001.

Just hours before the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York, Reith told journalist Steve Price of 3AW that the Australian Defence Force was needed to stop “people coming into Australia who have no permission . . . who have breached a lawful direction”, undermining claims of refugee status by the unwanted humanity on the Tampa by saying they had “paid very large money to people traffickers”. Two days later, Reith did four interviews in which he connected the government’s clampdown on boat people with efforts to combat terrorism.

Not surprisingly then, even before the full impact of the New York tragedy, most Australians believed their government acted in Australia’s best interests over Tampa, with many being encouraged to confuse (as with Jews in the Dunera case) Muslims fleeing aggression with those who might perpetrate acts of terror.

After a year of such confusion, there have been outbursts of intolerance reminiscent of Melbourne’s sectarianism in 1919. A proposal to build a Muslim place of prayer in Sydney’s Annangrove was voted down after 5000 letters of objection and weeks of protests from residents.

This new year the Prime Minister has encouraged Australians to embrace Muslims as part of mainstream society. The fact that he needs to say this is telling enough. Perhaps though, if that had been Mr Howard’s message at the start of 2002, Australians would feel less paranoid today.”

Article published in The Age