After a week in which the right celebrated the Turnbull government’s (likely futile) decision to water down the Racial Discrimination Act in the name of free speech, Pauline Hanson inconveniently demonstrated exactly how little s. 18C of the RDA restricts even the most disgusting abuse.
“Islam is a disease; we need to vaccinate ourselves against that.”
Perhaps Hanson was humiliated by how her call for a “Muslim ban” in the wake of the Westminster attack backfired when it emerged the perpetrator Khalid Masood was born in Kent (and had what is now the almost pro forma long record of violence, apparent mental illness, and drug use). Thus the need to double down, Trump-style, to keep digging, and what better way than to invoke vaccination, another subject on which Hanson has been humiliated recently.
To their credit, both the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister savaged Hanson. Turnbull criticised her “Muslim ban” as “doing what ISIL wants”. Joyce reacted to the “disease” stuff with “I can’ walk up to someone and say I’m sorry, we’ve got a person who thinks you’re a disease. They’re going to say, no I’m a human being. This bat-poo crazy stuff does not help anybody. It was just stupid.”
Hanson’s vilification of an entire religion and the Australians who follow it isn’t merely profoundly offensive, it will have caused dismay within the ranks of the intelligence community and the Australian Federal Police, as they know very well exactly how much damage such vilification can cause. This is not, as some on the right insist, an argument that Australian Muslims are such precious petals that abuse will transform them into ISIS supporters, it’s about the extent to which security agencies can have an effective relationship with the many different Muslim communities across the country. Then-ASIO head David Irvine went on the record about this in 2014:
“it is grossly unfair to blame Muslims, who see themselves as a committed component of Australia’s multi-cultural society, for the sins of a tiny minority … We should also recognise that the strongest defence against violent extremism lies within the Australian Muslim community itself. Recent uniformed criticism of the leadership of Australia’s Muslim community ignores the fact that most Muslim leaders, both civilian and spiritual, have striven hard to address the problem of a few misguided people in their midst. I know from my own experience that the problem in Australia would be far greater without their efforts. We should thank them and continue to work with them.”
Current ASIO head Duncan Lewis reiterated that view in private comments to Liberal MPs in the wake of efforts by Tony Abbott to demonise Muslims after he was ousted by Malcolm Turnbull. At a Senate estimates hearing earlier this year, Lewis made a point of saying that potential radicals “represent less than 0.1% of the roughly half-a-million Australian Muslims. The other 99.9% of Australian Muslims are not involved in activities of security concern in any way and are of no interest to the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation”.
Hanson’s comments directly undermine the relationship of trust between security agencies and the Muslim families and communities that agencies rely on to provide information about potential threats. Hanson isn’t some political wannabe or outsider, she’s a senator with three other senators under her, with whom the government works to secure its legislation, with whom a state branch of the Liberal Party has negotiated a preference deal, whom a senior government minister has praised as “more sophisticated” than in the past. Her comments carry political weight.
To the extent that her vilification reduces the capacity of security agencies to identify threats, Hanson increases the risk of a successful attack. It may not be sophisticated — it may involve just a knife or a car, and be carried out by a perpetrator with no connections to terror networks. But such attacks can’t be stopped by surveillance and electronic eavesdropping, they require “human intelligence”, gleaned from the people around the potential assailant, to prevent.
However, who benefits from a successful attack? The failing Islamic State, of course. And those who will exploit it to peddle hatred and bigotry.