This week, John Wren grapples with the pure senselessness of the Christchurch tragedy, imploring all to take action against the seeds of racism and hate.
'First they came for the socialists and I did not speak out — because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade
Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.'
Martin Niemöller, 1955
I FIRST READ these words at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Jerusalem in 1989. They have stayed with me ever since. The essence of Niemöller’s poem is that horrors such as the Holocaust must be stamped out in their infancy.
On Friday, an abomination in Christchurch took place. An Australian white supremacist terrorist killed 50 Muslims at prayer in their mosques, another 30 are injured in hospital, many critically. He had planned the attack for some time. He executed his plan with ruthless efficiency.
The events in Christchurch hit me very hard. For those who know me, I was raised in NZ and lived part of my childhood not far from Christchurch. A friend of mine is a police officer and one of the first responders. I saw him briefly on the TV in the background, conducting traffic after the event, with his assault rifle slung across his flak-jacketed chest.
I spoke to him on Sunday and he was still audibly shaken. He may never fully recover from the horrors he’s seen.
The scenes I saw on my TV on Friday were not those of my New Zealand. I have now lived in Australia longer than I lived in NZ. I visit regularly. I have many friends and family the length and breadth of the country. The great Kiwi musician Dave Dobbyn sums up my NZ in his great song, Welcome Home. The lyrics and accompanying video highlight how NZ treats its migrants compared to Australia. Chalk and cheese.
Why did I start this week’s column with Niemöller’s poem you ask? Violent racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and other bigotry (from now on I will refer to the blanket term, xenophobia, meaning fear of "foreigners") always starts with words.
But what is the end goal of those words? When you hear racist comments, there is always an end goal; the elimination of the stranger. That can be expulsion, conversion or extermination: but that is where hate leads.
“Go back to where you came from!” is a common refrain on the streets of our cities.
Most people do not act on these statements, but a few will. They will seek out like-minded individuals either in person (through extremist neo-Nazi groups like Melbourne’s UPF) or internet groups via the so-called dark-web. I’ve not ventured into this part of the web, but by all accounts, it’s horrendous; infested with alt-right conspiracists, racists, paedophiles and women haters.
It’s a support group for the dim-witted and marginalised.
Racism and bigotry are endemic in Australia. I have seen it, heard it both informally, casually and explicitly over the years. Australia was settled by white supremacists who stole the land from indigenous people. They regarded aboriginal people as sub-human and implemented the White Australia Policy.
The xenophobia died down a little under Whitlam and Fraser, but it still simmered below the surface.
John Howard shook up the racism bottle and opened the cap with Tampa. He let the racism genie out of the bottle to despicably win a race-based election. Since then other politician followed him. Pauline Hanson has built her ignominious reputation on bigotry, attacking Asians and more lately Muslims.
Over the last five years, the Liberal Party has made constant xenophobic statements, mainly anti-Muslim, but African gangs have also featured heavily. The dog whistling has been near constant. The main culprits have been Scott Morrison, Peter Dutton, Tony Abbott and George Christensen. To be fair those who have not sought to win votes through xenophobic statements are in the party’s minority.
This near constant miasma of xenophobia that surrounds these leading politicians has the effect of normalising bigotry. When something is normalised, its perpetrators become more enabled. A few may even take up arms to achieve the end goals of the “harmless” racist comments.
Christchurch showed it only takes one individual, inspired by these comments to cause carnage. Those politicians and media who have made these comments in the past must bear some responsibility for Christchurch. Their rhetoric psychologically enables and gives tacit approval (in the mind of a monster).
Niemöller tells us if we don’t stamp xenophobia out at the start, it can grow into something far more dangerous. I will call out xenophobia when I see it. There are many dog-whistles the Coalition uses in its campaigns that have these undertones. “Stop the boats” is one such refrain. This has at its core “we will stop the strange brown people arriving”.
When a Liberal Party politician says Labor will be soft on borders or will have “open borders”, they are suggesting that Labor will allow the strange brown people in.
Christchurch shows this has to stop.
The Liberal Party was building its election campaign on its usual racist rhetoric. We saw this only in the last week with the Medevac debate, the near constant refrain of “open borders under Labor".
The divide and conquer campaign was locked and loaded.
But then Christchurch happened. Not a Muslim terrorist as some in the Liberals would've expected, but a white supremacist. It has had the effect of a reverse-Tampa, leaving their election strategy in tatters.
The Liberals have suddenly found themselves trying to pretend they aren’t Islamophobic, that they never said those things. There are photo-ops with Imans littering the media. They all look phony.
Morrison expects us to believe he has suddenly changed his spots after assaulting us with unkind speech for years. Further, Australians are looking across the Tasman at the dignified, genuine, compassionate, yet steely leadership of the NZ PM, Jacinda Ardern. And we're unfavourably comparing Morrison to her. He hasn’t a chance.
Ardern’s response has been lauded by all sides of politics. She is not seeking it, but I suspect there is a Nobel Peace Prize having her name etched onto it as we speak.
The bottom line is that Christchurch should be a watershed moment in Australian culture. The xenophobia must stop now. Both the overt statements and the covert dog-whistles. We are better than this.
As Ardern stated, those victims were Kiwis, and by extension, they are Australia’s cousins. They are us.
Prejudice, racism and bigotry must be invariably and unwaveringly called out.
Support independent journalism Subscribe to IA.