That viral anti-Muslim message goes international. It is natural enough after the Mumbai bombings for Indian newspapers to be interested in the suggestion that Australia’s bushfires might be the product of a Muslim jihad and so it was that the story in the Melbourne Age of September last year ended up on page one of the Times of India.

Without mentioning that the story was six months old, the paper reported that Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has already spoken of “mass murder” after investigators said arsonists may have set off some of the wildfires which have already claimed 181 lives. “Now, there’s an even more chilling question: could it be the work of jihadis?” asked the report. “Experts on terrorism aren’t ruling it out. A report in Australian newspaper The Age points out that US intelligence channels earlier this year identified a website calling on Muslims in Australia, the US, Europe and Russia to ‘start forest fires’, claiming ‘scholars have justified chopping down and burning the infidels’ forests when they do the same to our lands’.”

The website, posted by a group called the Al-Ikhlas Islamic Network, argues in Arabic that lighting fires is an effective form of terrorism. The posting — which instructs jihadis to remember “forest jihad” in summer months — says fires cause economic damage and pollution, tie up security agencies and can take months to extinguish so that “this terror will haunt them for an extended period of time”.

Thankfully the Victorian police acted promptly to kill the story with the Times of India website soon reporting that Superintendent Ross McNeill dismissed the possibility of a Muslim link to the fires. There was no suspicion they were Islamic terror attacks. “None at all, absolutely nothing, zero,” Superintendent Ross McNeill said. “We usually rank possibilities on a scale of 0 to 10 — this would be on a negative scale.”

The unemployed numbers start to climb. The much expected signs of the economic slow down were shown this morning in the official employment figures. The number of jobs in January increased by only 1200 to 10,742,100 with full-time employment up by 33,700 to 7,670,700 in seasonally adjusted terms, and part-time employment down by 32,600 to 3,071,400. The Australian Bureau of Statistics had the number of unemployed rising 36,800 from the December figure to 540,200 or 4.8%.

So far there is nothing truly frightening about the unemployment figure, with the rate remaining well below the average level of 5.6% that Australia has lived with over the last decade without experiencing undue social unrest. Only in New South Wales and South Australia is the level now over the 5% mark.

The Government, nonetheless, will be using the increase for all its worth to justify the need for its $42 billion expenditure package and it is strange to think that it will actually be the Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull whose popularity suffers because people are losing their jobs.

A sad reflection on normal political behaviour. It has been a week off for the political theatre critics. The performances of parliamentary question time have been cancelled. That the normal ritual of meaningless questions being asked and answered is nothing more than play acting and not really an important part of the real parliamentary process was even admitted by Opposition Senator Nick Minchin. “We do believe,” Senator Minchin explained, “that at a time of national tragedy of this kind it is more appropriate for the parliament to get on with parliamentary business.”

And so Parliament House in Canberra has actually seen members and senators debating matters of substance in a generally civil fashion without, to quote Senator Minchin again, “the potential for things to occur during a parliamentary question time which would not be conducive or consistent with the national mood.” Of the major parties, only the Greens did not go along with the decision to abandon question time so that the nightly television news was not filled with the normal pictures of grown men and women acting like naughty school children rudely shouting at each other.

Greens Leader Bob Brown thought that question time should take place in every sitting of the Senate, “not least when there are national crises or matters of great moment which the government ought to be questioned about and information ought to be gained.”

What a strange fellow that Bob Brown is — believing that question time should be a place where politicians seek and gain actual information. Not to worry. He will be reminded again soon enough when the vaudeville returns next week that show business is only performed for the critics in the parliamentary press gallery.

Peter Fray

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