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The dog whistle becomes a clarion call

Dutton legitimates racism and may be signalling the end of the Liberal Party

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Australian Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton speaks during House of Representatives Question Time at Parliament House in Canberra, Thursday, Nov. 24, 2016. Photo: AAP Image/Lukas Coch

25 November 2016

The Minister for Immigration Peter Dutton blamed the former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser for the 22 cases of alleged terrorist activity by Muslim Lebanese Australians. How were these activities Fraser's fault?

Mr Dutton said that Fraser was responsible for allowing the entry of Lebanese Muslims as refugees from the Lebanese Civil War 1979-90. So the crime of the children and grandchildren needs to be visited on the parents and grandparents.

"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," he said in parliament.

According to Dutton, Lebanese Muslim immigrants and their offspring are still linked to the politics of Lebanon's civil war, thus Fraser's failure was his liberal immigration policies. Such an absurdist argument, a slur on a people who have contributed immensely to Australia since the 1970s, a people whose cohorts have been in Australia since the late 1800s, would have been totally unacceptable a few years ago. Yet a mainstream politician, and the minister of immigration no less, had the fortitude to utter racial nonsense with no opprobrium from his leader or his peers.

The prime minister, who was once married to the liberal politics of former Liberal prime minister, the late Malcolm Fraser, came out in anodyne support for Minister Dutton, arguing he "did an outstanding job", and that the minister was reflecting on issues of migration in the past, when immigration policies were based on humanitarian principles and not on skilled migration.

Dutton's comments were a bullet from the right of the Liberal Party in its ongoing attempt to undermine the legacy of the former Liberal PM. They reemphasised the lack of power Turnbull has over his party and to mainstream racism in political discourse in the wake of Donald Trump's victory in the United States, Brexit and a resurgent One Nation in NSW and Queensland.

The right of the Coalition since 1996 under former prime minister John Howard's stewardship has been attempting to erase Malcolm Fraser's legacy.

Fraser enshrined and augmented Labor leader Gough Whitlam's multiculturalism by instituting SBS, funding Migrant Resource Centres, developing the Bureau of Immigration and Multicultural Research, and much more. Importantly, Fraser refused to accept the Immigration Department's advice to set up refugee camps. He facilitated the arrival of Vietnamese and Lebanese refugees. The right of the Liberal Party have to a large degree been successful. The late Malcolm Fraser renounced his membership of the party on the grounds of our cruel refugee program; former premier Ted Baillieu, a genuine liberal, was destroyed by the right of his party; NSW Premier Mike Baird is increasingly hamstrung and Prime Minister Turnbull has become a shadow of his former self. Worse, right-wingers like Eric Abetz, Cory Bernardi and George Christensen have become the go-to people for the media on social issues. Rarely have outlier politicians been able to garner so much profile in contrast to their leader and cabinet. His tugging of the forelock to President-elect Donald Trump highlighted Prime Minster Turnbull's almost complete loss of moral authority. Rather than highlight our multiculturalism and our values, as he often does, as did German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was judicious in her recognition of Trump's victory by pointing to the values of diversity, Mr Turnbull was obsequious in his congratulations of the US President-elect. So, rather than an ally, a conduit to Asia, or an equal friend, we became a supplicant.

Dutton's comments on Lebanese immigrants and their offspring reveal the shift away from 'dog whistle' bigotry to mainstream bigotry. Bigoted dog whistling was part of former prime minister Howard's agenda to transform the Liberal Party into a big 'C' party, dog whistling (to a lesser degree) was part of former Labor prime minister Julia Gillard's approach on refugees when she tried to assuage fears in Sydney's west of traffic bottlenecks and housing shortages, while a hairy-chested anti-refugee approach was led by Tony Abbott with his 'stop the boats' mantra. No doubt the election of nativist and populist Donald Trump has provided moral legitimacy to racism from once mainstream political parties. Brexit, the rise of nationalist and nativist parties in France, Austria, Hungary and Netherlands are part of an unfounded fear of economic liberalism, a liberalism that has been good for most people, not least those in India, China, Vietnam and other parts of the developing world.

Now is the time for liberals to reassert Whitlam's, Fraser's, Hawke's and Keating's values of multiculturalism as a bulwark against right-wing nationalism, irrational attacks on economic and moral liberalism, and equally repressive 'identity politics'.

We need to reengage with the important aspects of multicultural policy as drafted by Australian political pioneers in the '70s and '80s. We need to reassert a respect for people's cultural, linguistic and faith identity; we need to provide equitable services to all regardless of language, race, faith, sexual preference or gender; we need to assist with the integration of all Australians into civic society; allow for the aspiration of Indigenous people and immigrants; repeal the inhumane treatment of refugees and retake our place on the world stage as a model multicultural and humane society. The Liberal Party will in the end suffer tremendously if liberalism is not re-injected in it, the right will lose the next election, as people flock to One Nation, the Greens and Labor for what they feel may be traditional economic protectionism.

Finally, both the Liberal and Labor parties need to reassert the bipartisan values of multiculturalism, a multiculturalism for all Australians, not only those of non-Anglo background.

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