If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, then comparing your opponent to the Nazis is the first, and evoking 1984 as a potential future is a scenic stopover between the two. Most of Monday’s Rise Up Australia Party launch nestled in one of those shelters.
“Rise Up Australia is a serious contender in this election,” founder and president Daniel Nalliah shouted from the podium, past a microphone that didn’t work.
“Because we say what we mean and we mean what we say. I don’t like Islam, because it’s not a religion, it’s an ideology, and when I look at what happened in Nazi Germany, I get very worried.”
It isn’t the last reference of that kind he makes.
“I love the Muslims with all my heart,” he said after the launch. “But just because we love Germans doesn’t mean we don’t oppose Nazi ideology. I oppose the communist philosophy but I love the Russians and Chinese. I oppose the ideology of Islam, but I love the Muslim people.”
There were roughly 100 people in the modest function room that housed the event at the Seasons Botanic Gardens Hotel. Just under half the attendees stood up at various times to reveal themselves to be candidates or staffers.
You couldn’t accuse Rise Up Australia of being part of the slick political machine. There were constant technical issues, and none of the speakers, bar Nalliah, were particularly polished. The event had a ramshackle family gathering vibe. Nalliah’s partner on the Victorian Senate ticket, Rosalie Crestani, in an Australia flag dress, brought her kids (a lot of people did), and I counted three married couples among the staff and candidates.
Fighting the perceived creep of sharia law into Australian society is the central plank of Rise Up Australia policy. Everyone I spoke to referred to Islam in the same way — what it can do to us, what it is already doing, and how no one is talking about it.
“It is a real threat,” said an attendee who wished not to be named. “Everything I’ve learned about it made me more and more worried, that’s why I’m here.”
Christianity was another common thread — Nalliah himself is an evangelical Christian and president of Catch the Fire ministries. The two concerns are linked; another attendee who preferred not to be named said she had been wary of Islam since the early ’90s, when she felt God telling her that Australia was under threat. The events of 2001 onwards confirmed her fears. “It all happened, it’s all in the Bible,” she said, her voice edged with emotion.
Their other fight is against political correctness, which earns the same disapproving red X as sharia law on RUAP’s website.
“I was just so sick of everyone who speaks up being labelled a racist,” said Jane, a committed supporter originally from Western Australia. She gestured at her three adopted children, all from the Philippines. “Yeah, I’m a total racist.”
Indeed, among the candidates and supporters there were nearly as many non-white faces as there were white.
But the fact that Sri Lankan, Zimbabwean, Indian and indigenous Australians can be (and are) candidates for Rise Up Australia doesn’t tell the whole story. In their “love it or leave” rhetoric, the “it” is most definitely white Australia. Nalliah’s book, The 21st Century Culture War in the West, calls the end of British rule in Sri Lanka “the biggest mistake that happened”.
And for all the pictures of indigenous Australian’s that plaster the “RUAP in action” section of the website, policies concerning indigenous issues are conspicuous in their absence.
The party says it favours a “multi-ethnic” rather than “multicultural” society, but drawing Nalliah on the exact distinction between the two — except that one has sharia and one doesn’t — is difficult.
“Multi-ethnic tells me of my country of birth, I can’t change my country of birth. With that comes certain things I’ll eat, certain things I’ll wear,” he said.
“But when that comes to a certain line, and particularly with Islam and sharia law, when they start saying ‘your culture is not good enough, mine is better, I want four wives, I want female genital mutilation’, then we say no, sorry, that’s when you’re going too far.”
There was lots of flag-waving. That’s not smarmy judgement on Rise Up Australia’s populist stance — the event had flags on every table, and during the national anthem (sung twice) and the party song (a disturbingly catchy number that only got one airing during the launch, but plays on in my head constantly) people were encouraged to snatch them and hold them aloft.
Peter Vassiliou, candidate for Hotham and the kind of man to substitute “the big guy upstairs” for the word God presented RUAP’s policy on man-made climate change. Incidentally, Rise Up are not sceptics in this area. A sceptic doesn’t believe the science is conclusive. Rise Up Australia say it’s plenty conclusive: climate change just doesn’t exist. They see climate change as another ideology, not science. An army of “brainwashed eco-warriors” are being raised to destroy the middle class and bring about one-world government. These shadowy “people” (“come on, can you trust these people?”) are using radical Islam as a cloak for this process. At times, RUA policies read like a YouTube comments section.
The final section was a fundraising drive. Peter Dorian, candidate for Gippsland, won two bumper stickers in the auction. The chance for a dinner with Nalliah was more competitive, but the bids ricocheted exclusively between people in suits who had recently been standing at the front of the stage, smiling broadly, as part of the “our team” photograph.
As the fundraising continued, more and more attendees alighted to the back of the room to take advantage of the scones, tea and Arnott’s assortments on offer. By the time I’d finished my conversation with Nalliah, the scones were eaten and no one had stuck around except the candidates themselves.