LIKE a good red wine, Malcolm Fraser gets better with age. In Sydney last Tuesday, in the midst of the mounting national hysteria over Sheik Taj el-Din al Hilaly, he gave a speech to the NSW Law and Justice Foundation that was possibly the finest of his public life.
Grounded in our history, resonant with reason and compassion, it was an elder statesman’s call for a return to the humane and rational Australia that we, all of us, have flung overboard in the panic of the war on terrorism.
Here is a flavour of it:
“A civilised society is judged by its adherence to the rule of law, to due process and the ease with which all people would have access to the law. It is judged by the way it treats minority groups.
“Australia would be – is – judged badly. Today for a variety of reasons, but not least because the Government has sought to set Muslims aside, discrimination and defamation against Muslims has been rising dramatically. Too many have taken the easy path and accepted the Government’s contentions that Muslims aren’t like us and therefore it doesn’t matter if discrimination occurs and if access to the law does not apply.”
In sum, Fraser delivered a blistering condemnation of so much that is rotten about John Howard’s Australia: our subservience to the United States and the folly of joining the Iraq war; the abandonment of David Hicks; the persecution of refugees; the new security laws, which “diminish the rights of all Australians”; the arch-conservative rewriting of our history; the threat to what has been, until now, the world’s most successful multicultural society. Here is some more:
“What we do not know we often fear. What we do not understand we fear. People from a different religion we often fear. And what we fear becomes a threat. The politics of these issues has bitten too deeply into the Australian psyche and it will take many years to remove it.
“This reminds me of the bitterness, even hatred, between Catholics and Protestants generated very significantly by Prime Minister Billy Hughes during the First World War. His action over the conscription debates in attacking the Catholic Church, and the Irish and Archbishop Daniel Mannix in particular, was irresponsible and scarred Australia for over 50 years. The bitterness against Catholics was extreme and in some quarters has still not entirely died.
“Those in charge of our affairs today seem not to understand this experience. There are already suggestions that this next election will be a Muslim election, as a while ago it was the Tampa election. It would create a terrible and unnecessary divide between Islam and the rest of the community. There is a responsibility on those in authority not to repeat the mistakes made by Prime Minister Billy Hughes.
“But the omens point in another direction. Because if we look at statements already made over a period, the groundwork has been laid for an increase in fear and concern for the followers of Islam.”
Your strident Howardistas these days are pleased to scorn Malcolm Fraser as a mad old has-been nattering away to himself in the Liberal Party attic. How wrong they are. When it comes to true liberalism in the Jeffersonian tradition, John Howard is not fit to tie Fraser’s bootlaces.
MALCOLM was not the only voice of sanity in the frenzy. The Federal Police Commissioner, the thoughtful Mick Keelty, struck a similar note of restraint in a speech to the South Australian Press Club last week.
It went largely unreported, almost certainly because a fair bit of it was critical of the media’s often disgracefully irresponsible role of shedding more heat than light on the Muslim thing.
Keelty singled out a recent News Ltd front-page fantasy about a supposed al-Qaeda plot to kill the Australian cricket team with sarin nerve gas during last year’s Ashes series. His point was that shock horror media beat-ups serve the terrorist strategy of spreading fear and confusion.
“One of the things that really does need to be addressed is, are the headlines now creating the opportunity or the motivation for other people to embrace these [terrorist] ideas?” he asked.
Damn good question. And the answer is yes, far too often. Hilaly’s remarks on rape were indeed ignorant and offensive, but much of the media campaign against him has been blatant racism and religious bigotry.
“If we are not careful, we risk raising a generation of Australians who have a bias against Islam,” Keelty warned. “As I travel around the country and speak to different Islamic communities, you hear more and more stories of treatment of the Islamic community by members of our own wider community that really is substandard vilification.”
Sadly, too true. So stand by for next year’s Muslim election. Howard, Downer, Ruddock, Abbott and Co will whip up the fear and loathing as they did at the Tampa poll and the Labor Party, terrified of being seen as soft on terrorism, will jettison any remaining shreds of principle and go right along for the ride. This will not make us safer. It will place us at greater risk than ever.
The text and audio of Fraser’s speech is at www.lawfoundation.net.au. You will find Keelty’s at www.afp.gov.au.
- 2006 Law and Justice Address – “Who Matters? How Many”
- Quote of the Month – Daily Telegraph Reader
- Australian Government Steps Up Attacks on Muslims – 21 Sep.06
- Terrorist laws to lock up objectors – SMH (What a lucky country)
- A betrayal of trust and liberty – Malcolm Fraser – The Age – 20 Oct.05
- A cultural paradox stripped bare – SMH – 27 Feb.06
- Be Australian? Not at the expense of integrity – SMH – 11 Mar.06