Former PM Malcolm Fraser is leading a campaign to discredit the Howard Government on multiculturalism, claiming that senior Government figures are manipulating anti-Muslim sentiment for electoral gain.

Crikey understands the former PM has joined with a group of more than 40 leading Australians to establish a soon-to-be launched website to promote fairness and justice as a direct rebuke to what he believes is a cynical form of politics of fear being fostered by John Howard.

The website aims to address divisions between the West and Islam that he believes have already led to fear and alienation.

The former PM told Crikey last night that the Government had used the Tampa incident to “create and manipulate a fear that we faced a flood of immigrants” in 2001 and it was now repeating the strategy using anti-Muslim sentiment.

“In Australia we’re now getting into a discussion of values. The suggestion from the Government is that followers of Islam have a different set of values. I’m old enough to have heard Protestants saying the same things about Catholics,” he said.

“I’ve believed for some time that comments coming from senior government spokesmen have been saying to the public that Muslims are different. Cautious language has been used, but it can be a code for saying unacceptable behavior is acceptable.”

When Pauline Hanson said turn the boats back, a lot of people condemned her at first but, he said, the Government quickly started to say she had a right to her views — “code for saying she’s got a responsible, respectable argument.”

“The Government has appealed to the worst in our natures, rather than the best. From my point of view the rednecks were released and felt justified and felt for the first time in many decades their views were respectable.”

He said the Government was now creating a fear so it could claim it is best placed to protect us from it: “Australia has been very lucky in the 50 years post the second world war. Politicians did not play politics with race or religion. Billy Hughes has played politics with religion in the First World War which left a Protestant/Catholic divide which was still alive in the 1950s.”

The former PM is directing his campaign at the Howard Government, but said he believes Labor and some sections of the media are equally culpable for playing along with the divisive approach.

“I think there have been more column inches given to this than it deserved. That has been a widespread understanding that influential people from within the Muslim community believe these comments [by Sheik Hilaly] were totally out of court and don’t agree with the comments at all. I’d have hoped that in a constructive society government and media would make it as easy as possible for the issue to be handled appropriately.”

Fraser said he expected to be attacked by former members of his party but “I’m not going to withdraw from this particular battlefield. I hope the next election can be fought on proper policy grounds and not on issues of race and religion.”