It’s extraordinarily hard to believe that a number of Liberals aren’t engaged in a deliberate campaign of blatant Islamophobia, and have been for some time.

Yesterday’s effort by Scott Morrison to politicise the funerals of the victims of the Christmas Island boat tragedy was another example of the barrel bottom standards of the Member for Cook since he was moved to the immigration portfolio and tasked with exploiting asylum seekers as much as possible.

The irony was Morrison was doing so on the pretext of cost, while we’re still waiting for him to tell us how many hundreds of millions of dollars his resuscitated Pacific Solution will cost taxpayers, an issue he ducked in the election campaign and have ducked ever since.

A Pure Poison reader received a pro forma response from Morrison’s office, which concluded “all Australian residents and citizens should be treated equally in these matters” — a fair summation of the blatant appeal to prejudice indulged in by Morrison. But his dog-whistling was in fact the subtlest we’ve seen from Liberal MPs lately.

The broader context for Morrison’s exploitation of the funerals is a steady drumbeat of anti-Muslim commentary that has been coming from sections of the Liberal Party over an extended period.

Just this week there was Gary Humphries’s extraordinary petition, signed by only three people, calling for a 10-year moratorium on “Muslim immigration”. Humphries employed the “just following orders” defence, saying he presented petitions regardless of whether he agreed with them or not. It was a strange thing to say given the petition appears to have sprung from a Baptist church in Earlwood in Sydney, which last time I checked wasn’t in the ACT.

Last week Kevin Andrews lashed out at “extreme Islam” and warned of “enclaves”.  Andrews has run this line on “enclaves” before, demanding Muslims “disperse” into the community. Interesting context, of course, for Andrews’s disastrous handling of Mohammed Haneef’s case.

But Cory “ban the burqa” Bernardi is the Coalition’s most persistent Islam obsessive, regularly blogging about the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalists. He joined in with Andrews last week, declaring — presumably on the basis of the looming law to force-feed us all halal meat: “I, for one, don’t want to eat meat butchered in the name of an ideology that is mired in sixth-century brutality and is anathema to my own values.”

Bernardi position here is well-informed. He’s an ardent Catholic and, courtesy of transubstantiation, every Sunday eats meat butchered in the name of an ideology that is mired in not sixth but first-century brutality.

And Bernardi, it should be remembered, is Tony Abbott’s parliamentary secretary. Abbott himself last week, in announcing his highly-successful savings measures to replace the government’s flood levy, carefully made sure everyone understood he was cutting funding to “Islamic” schools in Indonesia. Abbott backed Morrison yesterday, describing people attending the funerals of their children, fathers and mothers as “rellies … being flown around the country”.

In this fetid environment, Joe Hockey’s statement of the bleeding obvious, that “we as a compassionate nation have an obligation to ensure that we retain our humanity during what is a very difficult policy debate”, came as a breath of fresh air.

Twice now in a fortnight, Hockey has clearly stood apart from his leader, implicitly rebuking him, by making statements of simple truth. First he admitted that asinine fundraising email was a mistake, after Abbott had twisted and turned and hemmed and hawed to escape responsibility for it. Now he has cast Morrison and Abbott in a wholly unflattering light by showing some common sense and compassion.

A conspiracy theorist might think Hockey is preparing the groundwork for the road to the leadership, and might think he is doing a rather better job than that of Malcolm Turnbull. But it’s hard to be sure when all Hockey is doing is talking like a decent, common sense politician. It’s not his fault that’s such a contrast with many of his colleagues.

Hockey’s remarks were also a far more effective takedown of Morrison than anything on offer from Labor. Craig Emerson finally emerged this morning to give a serve to Morrison, but Chris Bowen deliberately avoided going on the attack over the issue yesterday, saying he wanted to avoid a slanging match with Morrison on the day of the funerals. That’s a fair call, but Labor has never responded strongly to this ongoing campaign to stir up Islamophobic sentiment, not even via a backbench bomb-thrower who can speak outside the careful talking points of the leadership group. The lack of a response yesterday annoyed some backbench MPs, who suggested it was typical of a party that currently struggles to articulate what it believes in.

Maybe the tactic was to let the opposition have all the media attention, hoping it would blow up in Morrison’s face. Maybe the tactic was not to too obviously show support for asylum seekers, even in their most wretched hour of grief, for fear of upsetting voters in western Sydney. But sometimes a party that claims it’s about fairness needs to speak up for it.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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