Christchurch one year on: Australia’s missed opportunity to fight the far right

A year ago, Australia should’ve had a wake-up call. For years, Islamophobia had slowly been normalised and integrated into the mainstream. And for years, far-right extremism had been festering away in the bleak corners of the internet, shielded behind a facade of irony, dark humour, and incomprehensible memes.

But all that came brutally rushing to the surface when an Australian man murdered 51 Muslims in Christchurch during Friday prayers, while streaming the attack to the world.

In the days after the attack, New Zealanders felt their country had changed — the innocent fantasy of a liberal multicultural paradise shattered in minutes. In Australia, too, we ought to have felt something like that. The terrorist had been raised and radicalised on Australian soil.

But a year later, Christchurch seems all but forgotten. The last 12 months have instead been marred by a failure to meaningfully tackle racism in Australia. And much of the blame for that lies at the feet of the Morrison government, which has focused on a series of ad hoc, band-aid attempts to regulate the internet, while appearing to downplay warnings from security agencies about the rising threat of far-right violence.

What we did after Christchurch

The week after the attack was a study in contrast. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern won international acclaim for her handling of the crisis — within days, she’d announced a new assault weapon ban.

Scott Morrison, while full of platitudes, had to grapple with awkward questions about his alleged past attempts to win votes by attacking Muslims. He didn’t like when journalists dug this up, and he even threatened to sue Waleed Aly.

Morrison eventually found his rhythm, passing a law that would penalise social media platforms that allowed users to publish violent content. In September, eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant used newly granted powers to block websites hosting material from the Christchurch massacre.

But cracks quickly appeared in those new regimes. As Crikey reported last year, such laws wouldn’t be able to block a computer game which allowed users to play as the Christchurch shooter.

The terrorist inspired a series of white supremacist attacks last year, in the United States and Germany. But in those instances, while the killers also released manifestos, the eSafety Commissioner didn’t take them off the internet, because they didn’t go viral.

What haven’t we done?

Most importantly, taking down websites does little to stop disaffected young white men becoming radicalised, or curb hostility toward immigrants.

And a failure to come up with a targeted anti-racism campaign makes it look like the government doesn’t take far-right violence seriously

“Unfortunately there have been no tangible strategies put in place since the Christchurch shooting to tackle racism and the rise of far-right extremist groups,” Mary Patetsos, chair of the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia, told Crikey.

Australia has failed to adequately invest in anti-racism campaigns, says Tim Soutphommasane, a professor at the University of Sydney and former race discrimination commissioner.

“We’re prepared to spend millions of dollars on important causes such as combatting domestic violence, improving road safety, and educating people about the dangers of smoking. Yet since 2015, there has not been any dedicated federal funding for anti-racism campaigns or strategies.”

Patetsos, too, urged the government to fund a national anti-racism program. But despite pressure from the Human Rights Commission, community organisations and Labor, the government still hasn’t committed funding for new anti-racism initiatives.

The need for such a commitment is particularly stark. Current race discrimination commissioner Chin Tan told Crikey Australian Muslims had described to the Human Rights Commission a climate of increased fear. Many were afraid of going to mosque, or attending large public gatherings.

Failing to heed the call

But Australia has already promised to do better. Last year, we signed the Christchurch Call, a series of pledges made by governments and internet platforms to tackle the conditions that led to Christchurch.

Some people were cynical about the government’s motivations. According to Labor MP Anne Aly, the first female Muslim elected to federal parliament, “Scott Morrison has used the Christchurch Call to mount a simplistic campaign against technology platforms, rather than commit to doing the work required to achieve effective outcomes”.

But our implementation of the Call has been particularly piecemeal, buried under layers of bureaucracy and barely given a whiff of media attention. The Department of Home Affairs, responding to Senate estimate questions on notice, admitted the government had not established a specific task force to meet the obligations of the Christchurch Call. 

Investment in intervention programs has been limited. When asked about how the department was intending to promote positive alternatives and counter extremist propaganda, it repeatedly said it “undertakes a range of activities”. No further detail of what those activities actually were was given.

The government also created a Taskforce to Combat Terrorist and Extreme Violent Material Online. It’s unclear whether this body has met since its last report was released in June last year.

Meanwhile, the response is stuck in a bureaucratic quagmire. Home Affairs is responsible for dealing with violent extremism. Regulating online content falls under the remit of the Department of Communications and Arts, while the task of implementing the Christchurch Call is given to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. And so the buck keeps on getting passed.

A rising threat ignored

Since the Christchurch attack, security agencies have been regularly referencing the rising threat of far-right violence. At his national threat address last month, Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) director general Mike Burgess warned, in chillingly specific language, of small cells in suburbs across the country meeting to salute Nazi flags.

And in a damning report revealed in The Saturday Paper this week, ASIO claimed far right groups had evolved into “highly structured, security aware” groups that were clamouring for a race war.

Instead of deal with this threat, however, the Coalition have returned to the familiar terrain of culture war. Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells attacked Burgess, saying the term “right-wing extremism” was offensive to conservatives. Her Senate colleague Amanda Stoker made the same complaint in estimates the next day. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton immediately claimed both the far right and the far left were a problem — one of his staff pointed to Extinction Rebellion as evidence of this.

Even before the Christchurch attack, we had a serious problem with the far right. Reactionary groups were becoming increasingly bold, and a Neo-Nazi cell managed to infiltrate the Young Nationals.

“The warning signs that we were headed to a tragedy like Christchurch were there and hadn’t been treated seriously,” says Aly, who before entering politics was a counter-terrorism expert.

But a year later, little has changed. The warning signs are louder, but the inaction continues.

“Our political leaders like to celebrate Australia as a multicultural success. We need to support this success,” Soutphommasane said.

“Yet when our political leaders are warned, including by intelligence agencies, that there is a real threat of far-right violence, we see no meaningful response.”

After 9/11, Australia passed a new anti-terror law every seven weeks, more than any other western country. But even in a post-Christchurch world, we still haven’t listed a single right-wing group as a terrorist organisation.

In the days after the attack, many white New Zealanders expressed naive shock at how something so horrific could ever happen in Christchurch. Unless Australia takes the threat of right-wing extremism seriously, we’re sleepwalking towards a moment where, one day, many of us will be asking the same question of our own country.

After St Kevin’s, institutions can no longer hide from justice

St Kevin’s College, the elite private boy’s school in Melbourne, stands in the public glare as an institution that has learned nothing. 

Considering that two children sexually assaulted by Cardinal George Pell over 20 years ago were also St Kevin’s boys, that might seem particularly surprising. It’s not.

Far away on the same day, another institution fell. The Boy Scouts of America filed for bankruptcy, brought down by a flood of claims by former scouts of historical sexual assaults. That’s significant.

As I write this, St Kevin’s headmaster Stephen Russell, who gave a character reference to a convicted paedophile who had groomed a 14-year-old student, has resigned due to the deepening scandal triggered by a Four Corners report on St Kevin’s institutional failure.

In the old days, before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Russell would have survived this. As the Four Corners story was about to break, he posted a message to parents on the school website, including a prayer:

            This is the time to be slow
            Lie low to the wall
            Until the bitter weather passes

That’s how institutions do it. By virtue of their sheer presence, the assumption of their permanence, and the structural protections that they’ve acquired over generations, they can ride out any storm. 

All they need to do is lie low for long enough and the circus will move on.

But thanks to the royal commission, that approach isn’t working for St Kevin’s. 

It is sickening that even as the commission was in full swing exposing more than 4000 institutions guilty of enabling, covering up and excusing systemic sexual violence perpetrated on children under their care, St Kevin’s was replicating exactly that behaviour

The Catholic Church was in the headlights as the worst offender of all, yet the men running this Catholic school defended a perpetrator and hung the victim out to dry.

What the commission did was open all our eyes. It brought to our attention, in visceral terms, the scale of the failure of these institutions in the one job they have: to protect the children under their care.

As a result, when Four Corners started sniffing around after the viral video of St Kevin’s boys chanting a song about rape on a public tram, the school’s community did not close ranks. Former students were prepared to speak publicly about the disgraceful culture of misogyny they’d lived through.

After the story broke, you could observe a wild thrashing about in the St Kevin’s universe. Boys reportedly refused to stand for Russell at assembly, parents expressed their disgust and dismay, and the school went into damage control. 

That was too late, but there was no landing point available anyway; no normality to be restored. The world, as defined by the institutional integrity of St Kevin’s, had been turned on its head, and nobody knew what to do.  Russell had to go.

The assumption that institutions like St Kevin’s will survive, must exist because they do exist, is unsound. They justify their existence by reference to social purpose. That is, to serve a social good (in St Kevin’s case, to educate children and turn them into good citizens). 

In return, they are granted a social licence to operate.

On the foundation of social licence are built the structures of solidity, permanence, status and reputation. Critical among these are supports supplied by government: tax exemptions, charity status, registrations, licences, financial grants, contracts. These interlocking strands make it impossible to imagine that the institutions who hold a social licence could ever fall. 

A social licence can be lost. Many of the institutions hauled before the royal commission have, arguably, lost theirs. 

The Christian Brothers, one order of the Catholic Church in Australia, was found to have 22% of its religious members identified as alleged child sex abusers. Its social licence to exist, to take children into its care and exercise custodial and spiritual responsibility over them, was clearly lost along the way.

And yet, the Christian Brothers carries on. The order runs dozens of schools in Australia, hundreds worldwide. It continues to enjoy exemption from all taxes. Its schools are licensed to operate. It collects tens of millions of dollars in government funding for its schools.

St Kevin’s is a Christian Brothers school (now run by Edmund Rice Education Australia, set up by Christian Brothers as its education arm in 2007). 

It took no notice of the royal commission. Otherwise, it would have acted in this case with the integrity it espouses. It would have acted in the student’s interests at all costs, including that of its own reputation.

Instead, like so many institutions, it sacrificed the children in its care on the altar of its own survival.

If the parents so choose, St Kevin’s will go on. Maybe its council will take this opportunity to recall the social purpose that it was created to serve, and start afresh. 

If not, the lesson of the Boy Scouts of America will remain unlearned.

What does ‘self-ID’ mean for the rights of women?

Recent changes to the laws in Victoria and Tasmania have brought into stark relief current discourses around sex and gender.

Both states have allowed transgender citizens the right to nominate the sex recorded on their birth certificates without having to go through gender reassignment surgery, as had previously been the case.

In this, we are following many liberal Western countries, namely Canada and England.  

Australians are a pretty tolerant bunch; most of us feel that all members of the LGBTIQ community should be able to call themselves whatever they like and be with whomever they love.

The debate around the same-sex marriage legislation has shown that we don’t care what people do in their own homes, as long as it involves consenting adults.

However, some feminists are sounding the alarm on the rise of “self-identification”, saying that it has negatively affected the largest group of people in our community — women.

Sex matters

“Gender-critical” feminists, such as academic Dr Holly Lawford-Smith, writer Meghan Murphy, journalist Julie Bindel and unionist Kiri Tunks, are raising key questions: if anyone can be a woman, what does this mean for women’s rights? Further, who gets to decide on whether a woman is a woman? And in a society where people can live however they like, why does this matter?

According to feminist group Woman’s Place UK — a “trans-exclusionary hate group” in the eyes of some trans groups — these questions matter a lot. How we define “women” is crucial to many issues including the gathering of data around crime, employment, pay and health statistics, and the monitoring of sex-based discrimination such as the gender pay gap.

The group is also concerned about the impact on women-only spaces such as prisons, refuges, rape crisis centres and health clinics. If anyone can self-ID as a woman, without having to go through any kind of transition, what does that mean for the women inside these spaces? 

It’s not a purely theoretical debate. In 2018 in the UK, a convicted rapist named Karen White successfully applied to be transferred from a men’s prison to a women’s prison on the grounds that she was transgender. Once there, she sexually assaulted at least two inmates.

The Ministry of Justice was forced to apologise for moving White to the women’s prison, saying that her previous offending history — prior convictions for indecent assault, indecent exposure and gross indecency involving children — had not been taken into account.

In Canada, lobbying by a transgender group led to the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter being stripped of city funding over its policy of excluding men or anyone who had been born male.

Lawford-Smith, an academic philosopher, who has written widely on this issue for such publications as The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Australian and The Conversation, told me this week that the debate around transgender rights has been focused around the gains of the transgender community, and not around the rights and entitlements women have lost.

“Sex is real and it matters politically,” she said. “We need to fight for sex-based rights. A woman is an adult human female.”

Due to exemptions in the anti-discrimination laws in each Australian state, women have long enjoyed the right to women-only spaces, which are now starting to open their doors to transgender women. The overwhelming majority of these experiences have been unremarkable, with all parties finding common ground.

But incidents overseas like the Karen White case have received widespread publicity in certain sections of the feminist movement. Lawford-Smith and her colleagues are concerned that such a tragic event could happen here.

Corrective Services NSW does not release the number of transgender inmates in its care for privacy reasons, although the figure is believed to be very small.

It’s stated policy is that “transgender and intersex inmates are to be managed according to their identified gender. Self-identification as a member of the opposite gender is the only criterion for identification as transgender”.

“An intersex person or a person who self-identifies as transgender has the right to be housed in a correctional facility of their gender of identification unless it is determined through classification and placement that the person should more appropriately be placed in a correctional centre of their biological sex.”

One of the bases for making this assessment was “the nature of their current offence and criminal history (for example, crimes of violence and/or sexual assault against women or children)”. The Victorian regulations are very similar.

Hardware or software?

While arguments rage about sex and gender, where does this leave the gay community? If gender is a construct, what about sexuality? How do we define being gay?

One person who has thought about this is writer Douglas Murray, the author of The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity. Murray, a gay man, writes about sexuality as a “hardware/software” issue, highlighting the difference between something innate and acquired.

“The single factor that has most clearly helped to change public opinion about homosexuality in the West has been the decision that homosexuality is in fact a ‘hardware’ rather than a ‘software’ issue,” he writes.

Because most sensible people agree that homosexuality is innate, then it is wrong to treat gay people any differently to the rest of society, just as it is wrong to discriminate against people of colour.  

Murray then turns his attention to the thorny issue of sex.

“Until the past decade or so, sex (or gender) and chromosomes were recognised to be one of the most fundamental hardware issues in our species. Whether we were born as a man or woman was one of the main, unchangeable hardware issues of our lives.”

“[But] the argument became entrenched that this most fundamental hardware issue of all was in fact a matter of software. The claim was made, and a couple of decades later it was embedded … It left feminism with almost no defences against men arguing that they could become women.”

So what about being gay? If gender and sexuality are “software issues”, where does this leave the rights and entitlements of the gay community?

LGBTIQ groups overseas have started to divide over this issue. Late last year a new UK group, The LGB Alliance formed to represent lesbian, gay and bisexual members. Their slogans, “Homosexuality is Same-Sex Attraction” and “Biological Sex is Real” indicate that they too are “gender-critical”.

Spokesperson Bev Jackson told The Independent newspaper that “lesbians in particular, and recently gay men too, are suffering from the confusion between sex and gender. Lesbians and gay men are people who are attracted to others of the same sex. I fought for their rights to be respected 50 years ago and am sad that I need to defend those rights again today.”

Looking at this issue sometimes feels that you’ve been trapped in a Lewis Carroll novel and fallen down a rabbit hole. Lesbians on gay dating sites who decline to connect with transwomen with a functioning penis are now labelled “transphobic”. Call me crazy, but isn’t a lack of interest in penises one of the defining characteristics of being a lesbian?

But the fundamental question remains — who gets to decide who you are and which group you belong to? During the recent abortion law reform debate in NSW, a Greens MP referred to the rights of “people with a uterus”. On ABC Life this week there was an article about periods which refers to “menstruators” and “bleeders”.

Reading these words made me pause. I’m not any of those things, I’m a woman. And no one else gets to say otherwise.