It’s not surprising why quite a few prominent Australians refuse to appear on ABC TV’s Q&A. Including Prime Minister Scott Morrison who declined an invitation in the lead-up to the 2019 election. Despite a warning of sorts from presenter Tony Jones that appearing on Q&A would provide the prime minister with a great opportunity to get “a sense of” what the public is “thinking”. The invitation was declined and the Coalition increased its seats and votes.
The problem faced by a mainstream conservative or social democrat is that on Q&A a panellist can easily be berated by a fellow panellist or audience member and not have an opportunity to respond.
This was the case last Monday when the panel comprised the president of the Senate Scott Ryan (a Liberal), shadow foreign affairs minister Penny Wong (Labor), Professor Hugh White (Australian National University), Centre for Independent Studies director Tom Switzer and Diana Sayed who was introduced as a human rights lawyer. Sayed said that she is a “Muslim woman”.
The Q&A panel was better balanced than is often the case and the discussion was informative. Until what turned out to be the final question about the plight of some one million Uyghur Muslims who are currently being held in camps in China. It was put to the panel that Australia’s failure to impose sanctions against China with respect to this matter was a case study of our trade relations prevailing over our moral conscience.
Responses were called in the following order – Switzer, Sayed, White, Wong and Ryan. Switzer and Wong pointed out that they had publicly raised the plight of Uyghurs. White and Ryan also expressed concern about the issue. But all four made the pragmatic point that if Australia alone imposed sanctions on China it would not resolve the problem.
Sayed did not agree and stated her case with conviction. But Jones also gave her “the final word”. She used the occasion to state: “What you essentially all said on the panel here today is that Muslim lives don’t matter.” Ryan and Wong had time for a brief dissent – not so Switzer and White.
Sayed claimed that the Q&A audience and viewers at home agreed that her fellow panellists believe that Muslim lives don’t matter but provided no evidence for her claim. Whereupon Jones quickly wound up proceedings due to the program being out of time.
The likes of Switzer, Wong, White and Ryan are considered individuals who are making an important contribution to the political debate. Yet they had to sit on the Q&A panel while being (falsely) accused of racism in general and hostility to Islam in particular – while Jones said nothing in their defence.
Yet the matter does not end there. The question is what to make of Sayed. It is one thing to put forward abusive and inaccurate comments on live television. It is quite another matter to make a positive contribution to the public debate.
Australia is an accepting nation which has welcomed many Muslim refugees and many more Muslim immigrants – Sunni and Shia alike. Sayed herself is a child of refugees. To most Australians, the allegation that they and their elected leaders do not think that Muslim lives matter is just self-indulgent hyperbole. The challenge for a human rights activist is to engender as much support as possible. This is never achieved by the tactic of abuse and confrontation.
It’s much the same with the identity-driven debate on history. On Tuesday, Mehreen Faruqi, the Greens senator for NSW, put out the following tweet: “It’s breathtakingly hard trying to feel proud walking around seeing statues of people that my old people have told me have declared martial law on us. The colonial dudes club of statues just doesn’t represent the truth of Australian history.”
Senator Faruqi immigrated to Australia from Pakistan in 1992. Her father previously studied at the University of New South Wales under the Colombo Plan which was set up in the 1950s by the Robert Menzies Coalition government to provide free tertiary education to young students from Australia’s northern neighbours.
The nation where Faruqi’s father studied and to which she decided to migrate did not suddenly occur circa 1950 or circa 1990. First there were Indigenous Australians. And, from 1788, European settlement. By the mid-19th century, the Australian colonies were developing democratic forms. By around the turn of the 20th century the Commonwealth of Australia presided over universal suffrage (including votes for women), the secret ballot and so on.
It is an easy put down for a Greens senator to dismiss some of those who were involved in the building of what became the Australian nation as “colonial dudes”. But it is an unfair attack on a soft target. If their output was so insignificant, why is it that so many persons want to settle here?
Faruqi’s attack came off the back of a criticism by Nathan Moran of the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council of the statues in Sydney of Captain James Cook, Governor Arthur Phillip, Governor Lachlan Macquarie, explorer Matthew Flinders and Queen Victoria. Whatever their sins of commission and omission, all were important figures in their time.
There is plenty of room in the Australian states and territories for the construction of statues to former Indigenous leaders and more besides. In recent times, there has been a surge in statues of the dead and some living sports men and women. You don’t have to pull down one statue to build another.
In the past, various new arrivals from the likes of Ireland, Italy, Greece and Eastern Europe and, in more recent times, Asia, Africa and the Americas have readily accommodated themselves to the history of their chosen land. In time, they will become part of this shared history.
No nation can be perfect. But it makes little sense for Australians – whatever their cultural heritage – to disparage the nation in order to throw the switch to alienation. Modern Australia was not created by dudes. And contemporary Australian leaders do not hold the view that Muslim lives don’t matter. This is mere abuse posing as analysis.
Gerard Henderson is Executive Director of the Sydney Institute. His Media Watch Dog blog can be found at www.theaustralian.com.au