Australian politics undergoes post-Trump rise in racist rhetoric

Immigration minister Dutton says 1970s government wrong to resettle Lebanese refugees

Australia’s immigration minister Peter Dutton (left) and prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.  Labor leader Bill Shorten called on Mr Dutton to apologise for comments he made  on immigrants. Photograph: Lukas Coch/EPA

Australia’s immigration minister Peter Dutton (left) and prime minister Malcolm Turnbull. Labor leader Bill Shorten called on Mr Dutton to apologise for comments he made on immigrants. Photograph: Lukas Coch/EPA

 

When it comes to race, Australia has often been the land that political correctness forgot, but up until now mainstream politicians have used dog-whistle phrases and weasel words to get across their ethnically coded messages. Not anymore. Not since Donald Trump won the US presidential election and emboldened other conservatives around the world.

Australia’s immigration minister, Peter Dutton, said a previous Liberal-National coalition government under prime minister Malcolm Fraser made a mistake by resettling refugees from Lebanon’s civil war in the 1970s. Conveniently for Dutton, Fraser died 18 months ago and had long since left the Liberal party anyway (precisely because of views such as those held by Dutton).

Questioned in parliament by the opposition Labor party to explain himself, Dutton singled out one group. “The advice I have is that out of the last 33 people who have been charged with terrorist-related offences in this country, 22 of those people are from second- and third-generation Lebanese-Muslim background.”

Arrivals in Australia of people born in Lebanon peaked at 4,906 in 1977. Since 1992 arrivals have fluctuated between 883 and 1,368 annually. In total, about 200,000 Australians come from a Lebanese background. Just as with other immigrant communities, Lebanese Muslims have established themselves in business, sport, politics, academia and all aspects of modern life.

Labor leader Bill Shorten called on Dutton to apologise for the “disgraceful comments he made about migrants in Australia”.

“Enough is enough . . . our hardworking migrant communities shouldn’t have to tolerate this kind of ignorant stupidity and he needs to immediately apologise. It’s time for [prime minister] Malcolm Turnbull to show some leadership and pull his immigration minister into line,” he said.

‘Arse-covering’

Though Fraser is not around the defend himself, another former Liberal leader, John Hewson, accused the coalition of “cheap political arse-covering” in attempting to link 1970s immigration policies to criminal activity and Islamic radicalisation. “Why make this point now? Is this a cheap attempt to appeal to the anti-immigration, anti-refugee movement? [It’s] time for forward-looking leadership, time to rise above the mire,” said Hewson.

The president of the Lebanese Muslim Association, Samier Dandan, said Dutton was exploiting bigotry in a “toxic, assimilationist, nationalist agenda”.

“Let us not beat around the bush here, what Mr Dutton said was racist, what he implied was racist and the lack of outrage in parliament reflects on the racism underscoring much of how we talk about minorities in Australia,” he said. “The Australian Lebanese community is not political fodder.”

Dandan was wrong about the lack of political outrage, though. Labor’s Anne Aly – who is the federal parliament’s only female Muslim MP – has received death threats for condemning Dutton.

Death threats

Aly, who lectured in counterterrorism before entering politics, told parliament: “I don’t worry about myself because in this place I am afforded the protections that not many people are afforded. But these were death threats against my family. Someone came out and said they would like to kill my family. Where are my rights?”

Aly said she received an email saying Dutton was right and she needed to go home and “take all her terrorist friends with her”.

“Now if I’m getting those kinds of emails, you can be sure that there are people out there in the communities, people out there in Liberal-held seats of Arab, or Muslim, or Lebanese background, or just any kind of migrant background who are also going to be getting comments like that in the streets,” she said.

While Dutton didn’t mention Donald Trump in his comments, there is little doubt the president-elect has emboldened him. But Pauline Hanson, leader of the far right One Nation party, is less shy. She said Trump was just “saying what I was saying 20 years ago”. (In 1996, in her first stint in parliament, Hanson said, “I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians.”)

Australian politics is getting nastier and grubbier. The dog-whistle Australia is accustomed to is becoming far more overt.

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