The barbarity of the terrorist strikes in Paris gave rise to a groundswell of grief, horror and sorrow throughout the world. That solitary Friday night of horror has brought to the fore the best in us. Street marches, gatherings, messages of condolence and symbolic displays of the tri-colour, both spontaneous and organised, have provided a tangible if helpless demonstration of fraternity.
But even more important is the reflection that only such a human tragedy can elicit.
The French Ambassador to Australia, Christophe Lecourtier, remarkably, appeared on ABC TV’s Q&A program on Monday night, looking exhausted and brokenhearted. His courageous appearance on the program was not without purpose. First and foremost it was no doubt an act of thanks for the outpouring of grief, amity and solidarity from Australians.
Lecourtier told the audience that France and Australia share common values, and it’s these values that are at stake, values that express “that we want to be able to go out with anybody, to dress as we want, to be in love with any people that we want”.
But the Ambassador’s courage extended much further than his decision to appear on Q&A. It was also reflected in his candid admission that France had failed Muslim immigrants and French-born Muslims by not doing more to include them in French society.
“Of course 96, 97, 98 per cent [of Muslim migrants] are good people and probably we’ve not done enough in the past 20 years to fully bring them into the nation,” Lecourtier said.
“When I look at Australia I do see that you have been working far better than us in the past 20 years to bring new immigrants into your communities and in that sense Australia is the true model.”
The Paris terrorist attacks – and their death toll so far of 132 –resonated locally because of the affinity of culture and values between the two countries, and because the issues of extremist Islamists, the refugee crisis and national security are global problems that we share.
But Paris’ Black Friday has also placed the spotlight on Australian multiculturalism – a fact brought home by the French Ambassador.
Modern Australia is entitled to feel proud of its standing as a harmonious and peaceful multicultural society, and yet one suspects that it’s not something most white-picket-fence Australians give much thought to. One is more likely to hear glowing plaudits about our society of many hues, cultures and religions from overseas visitors – or in this case the French Ambassador – than we are from our own citizens.
Malcolm Fraser is often described as the father of multiculturalism, perhaps because his government gave some policy and social coherence to the “ethnic” cornucopia of the Whitlam years. Suffice it to say that the dawn of multiculturalism as we understand it today can be traced back to the 1970s and early 1980s.
Multiculturalism is more tolerated than embraced
Before that, Australia had the post-WWII immigration influx which provided the bedrock on which multiculturalism was built. But those arrivals from war-torn Europe were expected to leave their cultures and histories behind as they forged new identities as “new Australians”.
The migrants’ influence seeped into Australia’s stubbornly white, parochial and “British” culture, but unobtrusively and without fanfare, until it was unlocked – not to say unleashed – by Whitlam and Fraser’s leadership.
Multiculturalism, although deeply embedded in Australian society, is more likely to be tolerate than embraced, an uncertain relationship best characterised as benign apathy rather than nuanced appreciation.
Ambassador Lecourtier’s reflections about France’s trouble relationship with its Muslim immigrant community should be taken as much to heart as his praise for Australian multiculturalism. While it is true that we have not marginalised Australia’s Muslim population as the French have done, we must be alert to the dangers of demonising members of the Muslim community at times like this.
For this reason Australia’s political (and community) leadership has profound responsibilities.
Many argue that political atmospherics don’t matter, but they certainly do, and they especially do in such critical tinder-dry environments.
Many will welcome that the considered Malcolm Turnbull and not the hawkish Tony Abbott is Prime Minister at this sensitive time, and one suspects that the Muslim community is especially relieved.
It is significant that on the same Q&A program senior federal government Minister Christopher Pyne demonstrated precisely such leadership when he stated firmly and unambiguously that Muslim leaders should not be repeatedly called upon to condemn terror attacks. Noting that in his experience Muslim leaders do speak out against terrorism, Pyne said:
“They shouldn’t be called on to do so because it suggests they don’t want to do it.
“By the very act of demanding that they come out [against terrorism] you suggest that they don’t want to. That is something we must stop happening in Australia; whoever is doing that must stop it because it is a pejorative demand.”
Would Pyne have made the same statement as a member of the Abbott government? We can’t know the answer to that question, but most Australians would have a pretty fair idea.
Pyne also emphasised that extremist and militant Islamists do not represent the Islamic faith:
“Moderate Muslims need to be embraced in Australia or elsewhere. Moderate Muslim governments need to be embraced, wherever they might be, because they have at much at stake as we do in defeating extremists.”
Pyne knows why such statements need to be made, and emphatically so.
The Paris terrorist attacks have been eagerly appropriated by opponents of the so-called “Islamisation” of Australia,
For “true Australians” the events in Paris confirm every odious prejudice, stereotype and piece of misinformation about Muslims. One can barely imagine the dread that Australian Muslims must feel when a tragic event of this kind occurs anywhere in the world, but especially in a country with which Australia has some cultural affinity, which will result in saturation media coverage.
This time it’s not just the usual suspects
They know that in the eyes of some Australians every Muslim is a potential terrorist or likely sympathiser with the perpetrators of terrorist activities overseas. They know that they will be blamed for the atrocities committed in Paris; and if not blamed, they must somehow answer for these barbarous events.
And it’s not just neo-Nazi thugs and the usual suspects such as Pauline Hanson (the less said about her the better) that have called for a tightening of immigration laws and refugee intakes.
NSW state Nationals MP Andrew Fraser – assistant Speaker of the NSW Legislative Assembly, no less – has called for a stop to refugees from the Middle East.
“Message to Malcolm Turnbull: Australia does not need Middle Eastern refugees or Islamic boat people! Close our borders we have enough anarchists already resident in Australia (our democracy) we do not need any more coming in disguised as refugees!” Fraser wrote on his Facebook page.
He later told Fairfax Media, in defence of his post:
“Isn’t it about time we said, hang on, our number one duty is to protect Australians, not to give a haven to people who want to kill people in the name of Islam? I have no problems with people coming in from the Middle East to Australia. But I don’t think the filter is good enough.”
How is it that such irresponsible comments can made – by one of the most senior parliamentarians in the land – in what is supposed to be a multicultural society that is the envy of the world? Fraser would no doubt claim that he is not a hate-monger, but his comments will certainly provide fodder for people who definitely are. (The Muslim community in Bendigo, Victoria, which is facing rabid opposition to plans to build a mosque in the regional city must be wondering if events in Paris have sealed the future of their mosque.)
Despite Australia’s many-hued corpus, there remains a fragility and ambiguity to Australian multiculturalism. Multiculturalism is a cornerstone of Australian society, but that is not to say that it is uncontested.
There remain Australians “opposed” to multiculturalism, as if the clock can be turned back to 1955. They are more denialists than opponents. Walk down any city street, take a seat in any bus, train or tram, look around your workplace and the reality is clear: there is no turning back.
One hopes that for most Australians it is a desirable and indeed beautiful reality, and that only a relative handful want the clock to be wound back, but events in Paris have once again put Australian multiculturalism to the test.
Australia’s self-conscious patriotism
One of the moving spectacles to be observed in recent days is French citizens’ deep love of country. It is to be envied. It goes much deeper than Australian-flag capes on Australia Day. It is a deep reverence, a profound faith in the values that the ambassador spoke of and which have been referred to in hundreds of speeches since Black Friday. It eclipses the jingoism of Australia’s self-conscious patriotism or the saccharine (certainly to our ears) patriotism of the Americans.
Could we ever hope to emulate the French when it comes to national pride? Can we ever be as sure about the values that underpin our nation? Can we ever come to believe that our greatness is in who we are and who we can be, not in who we used to be?
There can be only one answer to these questions: Australia will not be a truly sovereign nation until we have our own head of state.
We remain a young nation uncertain of who we are. The White Australia policy and the close bonds with the “mother country” provided a fledgling nation with some certainty, but with it there remains a stiff vein of xenophobia that continues to course its way through Australian society.
It was such an apt illustrator of Australia’s bodgie status as a nation that the heir to the British and Australian thrones, Prince Charles, should find himself in Australia at the same time as the terrorists struck in Paris. Charles embodies Australia’s historical and constitutional connection with Britain, but his presence here also underscored Australia’s tenuous grip on who we are and who we wish to be as a nation.
The constitutional relationship between Australia and Britain has been reasonable and proper; but it ceased to be relevant, or even desirable, some time ago. Perhaps the spell was broken on 11 November 1975.
Before we can address with confidence and resolve Australia’s future as a vibrant, diverse and inclusive society we must cut our constitutional links with the British monarchy.
While we retain those links there will always be some Australians who seek comfort and license from our white, British past. The hard-right and neo-Nazi defenders of the “real” Australia – and their gullible supporters – have a false icon in Australia’s weak-kneed retention of the constitutional monarchy.
We are no longer a “white” outpost. Refugees and migrants from the Middle East are not aliens in our midst; they are not “foreigners” in a quasi-British Australia.
The Australian republic is not a second-order issue. It is fundamental to who we are; it is vital to Australia’s future.
In the aftermath to the tragic events in Paris, the people of France have once again taken succour from the inalienable values of their nation: liberté, égalité, fraternité.
Remaining a constitutional monarchy because we can’t be bothered becoming a republic is a disgrace.
Whether a seventh-generation Australian with links to the First Fleet, as is the case with Malcolm Turnbull, or a fresh arrival from Syria, none can be truly Australian until we declare ourselves a republic with our own head of state.
Vive la République!