Anti-Muslim protest in Melton

Melton residents protest Muslim immigration in August

Essential’s Peter Lewis described himself as “floored” by the result of the poll finding that 49% of respondents supported One Nation’s call for a ban on Muslim immigration. He says he had regarded Pauline Hanson as representing only a “marginalised rump, out of step with the views of mainstream, cosmopolitan Australia”.

But just as I was unsurprised by the return of One Nation to federal Parliament, I am unsurprised by the finding that Hanson’s call to ban Muslim immigration strikes a chord with a significant proportion of self-identified Coalition, ALP and Greens voters (I would also be unsurprised to find a broadly similar trend among Crikey readers). Anti-Muslim racism has long been the respectable dinner party racism — because (as we are tediously and endlessly told), it is not racism at all because Islam is a religion and not a race.

In attending far-right events over the past few years, I’ve been struck by how little distance there was between the racist rhetoric spouted from their platforms and the everyday vilification of Muslims undertaken by mainstream media and politicians.

The so-called patriots are not entirely wrong in their belief that they represent the “silent majority”. This level of support may not show up in the form of votes for One Nation (as disturbing as their return to Parliament may be). The major parties have taken enough of their concerns on board that their ideological fellow-travellers hardly need to migrate to the political fringe when they go to the ballot box.

It is interesting that the main reason cited in support of such a ban was Muslims alleged failure to integrate into Australian society. My own sense is that, in fact, the visible integration of Muslims is heightening the level of fear against us. “Failed” minorities may be regarded as a problem, but they are seldom seen as a threat.

The “failures” are safely isolated from the mainstream, where their ability to impose changes on “our” way of life is limited. However, the process of successful integration might enable the designated outsiders to invert the accepted hierarchy in which white, “mainstream” Australians always and forever set the terms and conditions under which people are tolerated within “our” society.

This helps to explain apparent contradictions: the election of Australia’s first female Muslim federal lower house MP as well as the return of Pauline Hanson, the Gold Logie award to a Muslim broadcaster as well as a poll suggesting that nearly half the population wants to ban any further immigration of his co-religionists.

A few token success stories are to be applauded as evidence of Australian tolerance — so long as we retain the right to say enough is enough. One small indicator what may be perceived as “failure to integrate” is the uptick in the number of people who question me about the reasons why I decline a glass of wine at social events. The questioning is never aggressive, but ordering a soft drink while others make their choice between red and white wine was a habit that had passed more or less without notice for years. Now it seems to generate a cooling of the mood, a sense of them and us.

Expressions of shock at the poll’s finding overlook the fact that Australia abandoned the principle of a non-discriminatory immigration policy in 2014 when the announcement of the special refugee intake from Syria and Iraq in response to the wave of sympathy to photographs of drowned toddler Alan Kurdi included a proviso that it would focus on “persecuted minorities”.

The fact that this includes persecuted Muslim minorities does not render it non-discriminatory. The head of the UNHCR’s office in Jordon noted in March that Australia’s preference for Christian refugees did not prioritise those most needy. Now Malcolm Turnbull’s announcement of an intake of refugees from Central America provides another means to decline further Muslim immigration while maintaining our threadbare claim to good international citizenship.

At least some of the 49% who supported a ban on Muslim immigration in the Essential poll last year probably lit a candle for Alan Kurdi. They might have voted for Waleed Aly to get a Gold Logie. And there is no particular cognitive dissonance involved. It’s all about who gets to stay in charge.