NSW Gladys Berejiklian abortion bill leadership spill
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian (Image: AAP /Mick Tsikas)

How short our memories are. Just one week after an Australian man murdered 50 Muslims in Christchurch, punters were declaring the New South Wales election a sign of the real, more tolerant Australia shining through.

In the end, Gladys Berejiklian comfortably shrugged off a challenge from Michael Daley, just days after footage emerged of the Labor leader claiming Asian immigrants were taking Australian jobs. As the campaign hit its home stretch, the anonymous Labor right grifter who could never quite wash away the whiff of Edie Obeid and Joe Tripodi, appeared more like a bumbling racist uncle than a premier in waiting.

And for some, voters’ apparent repudiation of Daley’s half-arsed racism, and a victory for the child of Armenian immigrants was enough to reaffirm their faith in Australia. “Australia has changed”, the ABC’s Patricia Karvelas said, arguing that a big lesson from the election was that “racism is not something mainstream Australians will back”. Over in Newscorp , The Australian’s attack dog Chris Kenny gushed that Berejiklian was about to make gender-based history, much to the annoyance of the “identity politics obsessed” ABC, going on to gloat about how a child of immigrants had stolen Daley’s job. Meanwhile, NSW Liberal powerbroker Michael Photios was full of praise for the Armenian migrant girl who slayed a Labor dragon.

As far as racism is concerned, there is nothing to celebrate in the NSW result. Saturday night also marked the political rehabilitation of Mark Latham, the one time Labor opposition leader turned far-right warrior, who was elected to the Upper House after Pauline Hanson’s One Nation claimed somewhere around 6% of the primary vote. It’s a sign of just how far the anti-immigrant right has come in Australia — the party hasn’t run in a NSW state election since 2003. In 2016, where One Nation’s resurgence caught many political observers off-guard, the party only polled 4% both nationally and in NSW. 

The politics of vitriolic xenohpobia has, of course, been One Nation’s modus operandi since day one, when Pauline Hanson claimed Australia was in danger of being swamped by Asians. In the lead up to the election, Latham promised to DNA test Indigenous Australians, who he believed were faking their ancestry to rort the welfare state. One Nation also gave us the odious Fraser Anning (he has now quit the party), who referenced the Nazi Final Solution in his maiden speech to parliament, blamed Muslims for the Christchurch attack, and billed the taxpayer to attend far right rallies. While Hanson disowned Anning’s maiden speech, she has likened Islam to a disease. Latham too frequently rails against the destructive force of Muslim migration.

Latham will now have the protection of parliamentary privilege, giving him license to threaten, bully and harass with impunity. Given the Australian media’s morbid fascination with reactionaries, his every thought bubble will no doubt be vigorously reported on. Just as Liberal senators shook hands with Anning after his final solution speech, and “accidentally” voted for a white supremacist slogan, his ideas will end up being given legitimacy by the rest of the political class.

Latham’s return comes a week after Australia was awash with soaring, post-Christchurch rhetoric about how racism “is not who we are.” But even as political leaders were denouncing Islamophobia last week, Scott Morrison was refusing to rule out a preference deal with One Nation, threatening to sue Waleed Aly, and promising to reduce immigration.

The NSW election was no anti-racist victory, but it does provide an important test for how to treat the growing tide of xenophobic, far-right politicians. 

Rather than dwell on his every utterance, and provide him with free airtime, Latham should be treated like any rogue Upper House MP from a minor party; occasionally called out when necessary, but on the whole, ignored, and left to fester away.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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