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Issue #1490      23 February 2011


The ghost of One Nation

The federal Liberal Party is said to be in turmoil with its “left” and “right” factions at war over a series of “regrettable” public statements and media leaks. The most recent “gaff” was by shadow immigration minister Scott Morrison who complained that the flying of asylum seeker mourners from Christmas Island to Sydney for the funeral of victims of December’s boat tragedy was a waste of taxpayers’ money. Before that it was Tony Abbott who was shown in a TV interview in Afghanistan with a group of Australian soldiers lamenting that “shit happens” after hearing of the circumstances surrounding the death of Lance Corporal Jared McKinney.

Both statements were later said to have been taken “out of context”. A number of media commentators lined up with Liberal Party spokespersons in Mr Abbott’s defence but the crass remark had caused offence in many quarters, including to members of Jared McKinney’s family.

Unfortunately for Mr Morrison, the media received a leak from a meeting of the shadow cabinet where the member for Cook said that the Coalition should try to capitalise on the anti-Muslim feeling growing in the broader Australian community. Shadow finance spokesman Andrew Robb was one of the few to stand squarely with Scott Morrison and his outlandish statements about the asylum seeker funerals. “I wouldn’t normally comment on shadow cabinet but I can confirm Scott did talk about the strong feelings in the general community about Muslim immigration and he said that we as a party had to engage with that sentiment,” Mr Robb said. It was a creative, if unconvincing, defence.

Joe Hockey said flatly that Morrison was wrong to question the funeral expenditure, that his statement lacked compassion. Most others, including Opposition leader Abbott, stuck to the line that Morrison had, perhaps, gone “too far”. Too far down which path?

Australia is still haunted by the ghost of One Nation – the party that sought to harness the racism to be found in significant sections of the Australian people. The election of 1998 gave the traditional parties a scare with solid votes going to the stridently anti-immigration party. The Liberals subsequently pulled the carpet from under Hanson and her cohorts with what became known as the Tampa election of 2001. “We decide who comes into this country and the circumstances in which they come,” Howard insisted at his Party’s campaign launch. At the last federal election, Abbott stuck with the apparently successful formula with his pledge to “stop the boats”.

Labor has also felt constrained to appear “tough” on refugees over the years and the Gillard government now oversees a mandatory detention system imprisoning over 6,000 asylum seekers. The centres are marked by substandard accommodation, punitive conditions and distress for already traumatised people. Self-harm is common.

The ALP has sought to walk both sides of the street in the debate over boat arrivals. It has been pressing simultaneously for a large regional detention centre in East Timor and for the release of greater numbers of asylum seeker families into the community. Immigration Minister Chris Bowen recently unveiled a new “national anti-racism partnership and strategy” aimed at cementing the multicultural underpinnings of Australian society.

Motivations are hard to guess and don’t appear to mean much in the politics of the major Australian parties. Scott Morrison is not known to be particularly xenophobic but that didn’t stop him seeking to tap into the vicious anti-Muslim campaign being waged by fringe elements in the community at the moment. One widely circulated email complained about the $448 million given by the Australian government to Indonesia to help with the running of schools, including moderate Islamic schools. It compared this to what it claimed was only $1 million pledged by the federal government for the reconstruction of flood devastated Queensland. Tony Abbott took up this twisted cause against the advice of colleagues like Julie Bishop.

The Liberals are captive to the Right on these questions. That much is clear. But the lack of an unambiguous commitment on the part of the government to the values of acceptance and solidarity upheld by the majority of Australians has also taken a heavy toll. Emblematic of this was the treatment of nine-year-old Iranian boy Seena who was orphaned by the boat tragedy off the coast of Christmas Island in December. He was brought with 20 others to Sydney for the above-mentioned funeral and promptly returned to the scene of his devastating loss despite the protests of relatives seeking to take him into their care. An uproar from the community forced a backdown on Seena’s fate and it is obvious that the major parties will have to be pushed to shake themselves free of the malign influence of forces like One Nation.

Next article – Bahrain – Call for immediate solidarity action

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