It was an article with no subtlety, only bile. Australian columnist Andrew Bolt, one of the country’s most prominent right-wing voices and a key employee in Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, published a column last August with the headline “The Foreign Invasion.” In it, he argued that “immigration is becoming colonisation, turning this country from a home into a hotel.” Bolt’s column was syndicated in many newspapers throughout Australia; accompanying it was a cartoon with racist caricatures of Asians, Muslims, and other new arrivals.
The racism was blunt, and Bolt’s facts were wildly incorrect—yet it was just one of many examples of the mainstreaming of hate that has become routine in Australia. In the wake of the recent horrific massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, where an Australian man killed at least 50 worshippers at two mosques and live-streamed his violence for the world to see, the increased tolerance for and encouragement of bigotry in the Australian media and in Parliament is finally receiving scrutiny. Examples of such bigotry abound: Prominent TV personalities call for an end to Muslim immigration; a political cartoonist at a Murdoch-owned paper draws tennis star Serena Williams with ape-like features; and the nation has become a regular haunt for some of the United States’ most notorious alt-right figures, who tour and spew bile at the indigenous population. But while white supremacy has been a major strain in Australia’s long history (as well as anti-Muslim hate in more recent years), US-style far-right violent extremism is still relatively rare.
A lack of racial diversity in the media and among political elites goes a long way toward explaining the blinding whiteness of supposedly acceptable commentary on public affairs in Australia. One 2017 study found that “racist reporting is a weekly phenomenon in Australia’s mainstream media,” with hatred commonly directed at immigrants, Muslims, refugees, indigenous Australians, and other minorities.
It’s a model that has been perfected by Murdoch’s Fox News, although other media companies take part too, including the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), the public broadcaster that is the country’s equivalent of the BBC. The racial divide is also reflected in public opinion; in a documentary on free speech that he’s currently putting together, the Pakistani-Australian comedian Sami Shah tweets, almost “every white person interviewed…said their biggest fears were Political Correctness or identity politics. Every poc [person of color] said it was rise of Nazis and hate speech leading to attacks.”
The poison is not just in the media; the far right has also infiltrated one of the country’s major political parties. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has long believed in capitalizing on the electorate’s growing unease over Muslim immigration, and the Senate narrowly voted down a motion last year that said it was “OK to be white” (a meme popularized on 4chan and embraced by the white-nationalist movement). Australian Senator Fraser Anning, who once called for a “final solution” to immigration, said after the attack in Christchurch that “the real cause of bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place.” According to reporter Paul Sakkal of The Age, Anning, who is close to forming a new political party, says, “We can win seats on social media.”
Yet despite the daily media drumbeat that blames immigrants for crime, the facts prove otherwise: Australian-born citizens are by far the highest number of offenders.
The strain of white supremacy that made the Christchurch attack possible has very deep roots. Australia is a settler-colonial state, and, like other cases of settler colonialism, from Israel-Palestine to the United States, its past is bloody. The vast bulk of the country’s indigenous population was murdered by the invading British after they arrived in the late 1700s. It’s an ugly reality that to this day is still denied by many and defended by others.
Indeed, just recently, a small but vocal political party in the Australian state of New South Wales proposed requiring DNA testing for Aboriginal people who want to claim welfare payments. Much of the media lapped it up, willfully ignoring the scientific challenges of such a test, let alone its racist underpinnings. Indigenous incarceration in some Australian states is higher per capita than it was in apartheid South Africa.
But while the prevalence of racism in Australia unquestionably influenced Brenton Tarrant, the Christchurch killer, his ideology was largely borrowed from white-nationalist websites, theorists, and politicians around the world. Tarrant name-checked Donald Trump as an inspiration, as well as Norwegian extremist Anders Breivik, who massacred 77 people in 2011. Tarrant’s manifesto was titled “The Great Replacement,” most likely a reference to a 2012 book of the same name by French extremist Renaud Camus, who claims that Europe’s white population is being replaced by African and Muslim immigrants.
Revulsion over the Christchurch massacre was widespread in Australia, but I remain unconvinced that the country’s major media companies have any real interest in taking responsibility for their platforming of hate. It will be much easier to shed faux tears and then quickly get back to demanding that Australian Muslims show loyalty to their country (after the Christchurch killings, Murdoch tabloids found a way to try to humanize the murderer). Conservative media and their political mates have fanned the flames of racism for years, so don’t expect them to become self-reflective now. Eradicating this poison will require a sustained grassroots effort.Antony Loewenstein