On Populism and Politics

In August 2016, I entered the Australian Race Discrimination Commissioner’s Student Prize, and was awarded a High Commendation for my entry. Today seemed like a good day to publish this.

The existence of institutionalised racism amongst Australian society significantly challenges how its people view ideas of fairness, justice, and equality. While already prevalent among some sectors, it appears that further displays of bigotry by those in positions of power can lead to the marginalisation and radicalisation of some groups, while empowering far-right extremism and white nationalism, and replacing best political practice with populist thought.

Across a two-week period in October 2014, Parliament House in Canberra enacted a ban on the wearing of facial coverings, including the burqa and niqab worn by some women of Muslim faith, outside of “glass enclosures” separated from the public viewing gallery of the parliamentary chambers. While such a measure was, according to Senate president Stephen Parry, designed to “ensure the identity of those people in the public gallery” on a date of expected protest, the “interim” ban instead added to public sentiment about the garments in question.[1] Public supporters of the ban included Senators Cory Bernardi, who had previously described the headpieces as “flag[s] of fundamentalism,” and Jacqui Lambie, who later that month would draft legislation for a public ban of the burqa.[2] While some academics — such as La Trobe University Research Associate David Tittensor — state negative public opinion on such garments to be “du jour” — great, yet temporary — they warn of “[strengthening] unwanted stereotypes and cultural rifts”.[3] Instead, the commentary of some in positions of political power fail to heed those warnings. Action and comments made by those like Senators Bernardi and Lambie fail to justly address the legitimate concerns of extremist beliefs expressed by small populations of Australian society, and instead risk further alienating some in the Muslim population. The danger of such social alienation is in encouraging separatism, by socially excluding those who fail to assimilate, and therefore fail to meet the expectations of an archetypal conformist.

Such danger also expands to far-right nationalist groups, such as Reclaim Australia. While the movement promotes itself on Facebook as “standing up to radical Islam, Political correctness and the threat of home grown terror”, supporters have beared signs at their rallies demanding Muslim populations “integrate or immigrate”.[4] Keynote rally speaker — and former leader of splinter group the United Patriots Front — Sherman Burgess said in a 2015 interview that he believes “Muslims living in Australia are planning to establish a caliphate”, in a similar fashion to terrorist organisation ISIL.[5] The rise of groups like Reclaim Australia and the United Patriots Front is not just a domestic phenomenon — in the United Kingdom, the use of “respectable racism” has been attributed by the likes of the Baroness Sayeeda Warsi as a key driving force in the new found power of right wing extremists.[6] Following the ‘Brexit’ referendum in June, in which a slim majority of voters supported the United Kingdom breaking away from the European Union, ethnic and minority groups feared the rise of “ignorance, racism and intolerance”, citing the likes of UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage.[7] The Baroness’ attribution can also apply to the Australian example; former United Patriots Front leader Blair Cottrell told a 2015 rally that “you can either be a Muslim or an Australian… because the two do not correlate.”[8] Instead of comments like Cottrell’s being condemned, they are championed under the guise of ‘free speech’; a stark contrast to the intimidatory nature of such commentary, which could be considered unlawful under Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Comm.)[9]

The success of groups such as Reclaim Australia and the United Patriots Front can be linked to a new wave of populist politics. The rise of so called ‘Hansonism’ in the late 1990s, spurred by One Nation party leader Pauline Hanson, provided arguments against Asian migration to, and Indigenous rights in, Australia. By deliberately misguiding economic fears into suppressing the legitimacy of immigration and reconciliation, the then-Member for Oxley appeared as an “every woman”, a non-establishment candidate. At the 2016 Federal Election, Hanson and One Nations stood on a party platform decrying Islam as “fraud[ulent]”, “intolerant”, “discriminatory” and “deceptive”, securing four seats in the federal Senate — Hanson herself with a six-year term.[10] While One Nation appears to have the power of a minor party, her previous tenure in the House of Representatives may show otherwise — Hanson’s appeal allowed the then-Howard government to increase restrictions on those migrating to Australia, including the turn back of refugee boats.[11] Despite appearing to act against the establishment, Hansonism instead supported and helped further influence ingrained racism and xenophobia in Australian culture, a “triumph of emotion over reason” as described by author Clive Hamilton.[12] There are fears her tenure in the Senate may lead to similar outcomes, with a divided government in an ever more populist climate.

Without a doubt, Australia is a nation where systemic racism is displayed at both the public and parliamentary level. The rise of populist politics and the growing power of nationalist extremist groups risk leading to further marginalisation, opening doors for radicalisation. Such a concern is not unique to the Muslim community in Australia — frighteningly, it is but one example of many.

[1] Latika Bourke and James Massola, “Controversial Parliament House burqa ban dumped,” Sydney Morning Herald, October 24, 2014, accessed August 29, 2016, http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/controversial-parliament-house-burqa-ban-dumped-20141019-118j5h.

[2] Jennifer Rajca, “Palmer United Party Senator Jacqui Lambie to introduce legislation to ban burqa, full face coverings in public,” News.com.au, October 28, 2014, accessed August 29, 2016, http://www.news.com.au/national/palmer-united-party-senator-jacqui-lambie-to-introduce-legislation-to-ban-burqa-full-face-coverings-in-public/news-story/6568b4a66794304ea2befcadf271a4bf;
Latika Bourke, “Parents face jail and $34,000 fines under Jacqui Lambie’s burqa ban proposal,” Sydney Morning Herald, October 28, 2014, accessed August 29, 2016, http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/parents-face-jail-and-34000-fines-under-jacqui-lambies-burqa-ban-proposal-20141028-11cyzr.html.

[3] David Tittensor, “Australia’s burqa fallacy,” La Trobe University, August 3, 2011, accessed August 29, 2016, https://www.latrobe.edu.au/news/articles/2011/opinion/australias-burqa-fallacy.

[4] “Reclaim Australia Rally — Australia wide,” Facebook, accessed August 29, 2016, https://www.facebook.com/Reclaim-Australia-Rally-Australia-wide-762398587169729/;
“Reclaim Australia, No Room For Racism rallies clash in Melton,” ABC News, November 22, 2015, accessed August 29, 2016, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-11-22/reclaim-australia-no-room-for-racism-rallies-clash-in-melton/6961942.

[5] “The Great Aussie Patriot wants to reclaim Australia from Islam,” YouTube, accessed August 29, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zPfdGvW_Pos.

[6] Anushka Asthana, “Politicians to blame for rise of ‘respectable racism’, says Lady Warsi,” The Guardian, July 22, 2016, accessed August 29, 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jul/22/politicians-blame-respectable-racism-lady-warsi.

[7] Carmen Cracknell, “Brexit: Britain’s Arab community fears rise in racism and far right sentiment after EU vote,” International Business Times, June 24, 2016, accessed August 29, 2016, http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/brexit-britains-arab-community-fears-rise-racism-far-right-sentiment-after-eu-exit-1567302

[8] “Inside the United Patriots Front, Australia’s growing far-right anti-Islam movement,” YouTube, accessed August 29, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUhDHu1NdTg.

[9] “RACIAL DISCRIMINATION ACT 1975 — SECT 18C,” Commonwealth Consolidated Acts, accessed August 29, 2016, http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/cth/consol_act/rda1975202/s18c.html.

[10] “Islam — Policy”, One Nation, accessed August 29, 2016, http://www.onenation.com.au/policies/islam

[11] Jerome Small, “The odious spectre of Hansonism is reborn,” Red Flag, July 3, 2016, accessed August 29, 2016, https://redflag.org.au/node/5366.

[12] Clive Hamilton, “Hansonism and the politics of spin,” CliveHamilton.com, September 4, 1998, accessed August 29, 2016, http://clivehamilton.com/hansonism-and-the-politics-of-spin/.

Jake Stevens is a writer, broadcaster and voiceover artist based in Melbourne, Australia.

Jake Stevens is a writer, broadcaster and voiceover artist based in Melbourne, Australia.