The unexpected connection between the Paris terrorist attacks and the Australian republic: it’s time

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!

 

From the chants of the #JeSuisCharlie marchers to the cant of Abbott’s charlies the word is “freedom”

It is the stuff of history. On Sunday, 11 January, 1.5 million people filled the streets of Paris – 3.7 million marched nationally – in a show of solidarity and defiance following the three days of jihadist terror that traumatised the French capital and horrified the world.

Paris has a long history of mass rallies and on Sunday its denizens came out in force, in tribute to the 17 dead, unbowed in the face of terror, united in their embrace of the democratic and social values they hold sacred – and which the jihadists repudiate.

Along the procession could be heard the ardent cries of “Freedom! Equality! Brotherhood!”, the spontaneous renditions of the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, and tearful expressions of pride in “the Republic” – this was a nation celebrating its past and girding itself for whatever lies ahead.

The attack on the offices of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, leaving 12 dead, shocked because of its cold-blooded depravity and the ease with which the executions were carried out. But for the French, there was also a principle at stake: freedom of expression, a value as old as the revolution itself.

Charlie Hebdo was struck because it had dared – pointedly dared – to run satirical cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed, raising the ire of radical Islamists who took their bloody revenge on Wednesday 7 January. (There are no taboos at Charlie Hebdo; it spares no religion, no public official, from its biting satire.)

The immediate international response of horror and solidarity on social media was to adopt the hashtag “Je Suis Charlie” – “I am Charlie” – with 5 million tweets carrying #JeSuisCharlie in three days. The Western world became as one in defence of freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

On Wednesday 14 January, exactly one week after the Charlie Hebdo slayings, the surviving members of the magazine produced a defiant edition of the magazine featuring, of course, the Prophet Muhammed on the cover, weeping, holding a Je Suis Charlie sign under the banner heading “All is forgiven”.

In deference to the worldwide show of support for Charlie Hebdo and its ideals, 3 million copies of the post-massacre issue were printed, compared to the usual 60,000.

The sting in the tail of the Charlie Hebdo rally that wended its way through Paris – led by 40 world leaders – is that the spirited show of unity masked a hard truth that in the light of day must now be confronted: France is a nation torn. The Paris march, and others throughout the country, was an affirmation of France’s resolve to overcome its internal divisions to fight the dark forces of Islamic fundamentalism. That now remains to be seen.

World leaders march for freedom of the press

It is a great shame that in this cathartic moment of national mourning – but also a rousing show of defiance – that the values underpinning the march were mocked by the presence of world leaders who were abusers or fell well short of the values and virtues that the marchers were defending.

For Australians, it was a point of particular affront that among the leaders defending freedom of the press was Egypt Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, in whose gaols Australian journalist Peter Greste (along with two of his Al Jazeera colleagues) has languished for over a year.

Reporters Without Borders expressed outrage at the presence of “predators of press freedom”, singling out leaders from Egypt, Russia, Turkey and United Arab Emirates, “countries where journalists and bloggers are systematically persecuted”.

American author and journalist Jeremy Scahill was scathing of the “circus of hypocrisy”:

“[E]very single one of those heads of state or representatives of governments there have waged their own wars against journalists.

“Blasphemy is considered a crime in Ireland. You had multiple African and Arab leaders whose own countries right now have scores of journalists in prison. Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in Israel has targeted for killing numerous journalists who have reported on the Palestinian side, have kidnapped, abducted, jailed journalists,” he told public broadcast news program Democracy Now!

Australia’s fervent expression of solidarity with France and its defence of the values of free speech – Australia was represented at the march by Senate President Stephen Parry – has had some unintended political consequences on the home front.

Liberal senators Cory Bernardi and Dean Smith (who is chairman of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights) have taken advantage of the attack on Charlie Hebdo to renew calls to change Australia’s race-hate laws, specifically Section 18C which makes it unlawful to offend, insult or humiliate a person or group on the basis of race, colour, ethnicity or national origin.

The 18C saga began almost a year ago. The Abbott government’s plans to repeal the section came unstuck after the political storm created by the unintentionally provocative statement by Attorney-General George Brandis: “People do have a right to be bigots, you know. In a free country people do have rights to say things that other people find offensive or insulting or bigoted.”

It could easily have been a statement made in defence of Charlie Hebdo, but it was in March 2014.

What should have been an important debate on the competing demands of free speech and community cohesion was cut short because the politics became too hot for the Abbott government.

Tony Abbott’s “leadership call”

Tony Abbott explained that he had made a “leadership call” to overrule his Attorney-General, which should not be confused with Tony Abbott demonstrating leadership on the issue. His was a political call, not a matter of principle.

Instead of an emphatic prime ministerial affirmation of values and principle, Abbott replaced Brandis’ contentious language with his own mealy-mouthed offering: “I want the communities of our country to be our friend not our critic. I want to work with the communities of our country as Team Australia.”

Politicians choosing to avoid difficult discussions make life momentarily easier for themselves, but sidelining an issue should not be mistaken for settling an issue.

The Charlie Hebdo massacre was just what proponents of changes to 18C needed to prosecute their case for freedom of expression with unrestrained vigour.

Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson, who seems to think he is an elected politician, bought into the issue by gleefully pointing out that under section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, Charlie Hebdo could not be published in Australia – or would be subject to continual challenge and/or censorship.

Bernardi would have been aware of all those #JeSuisCharlie tweets and he pounced on this obvious contradiction:

“I find it extraordinary that people will support Charlie Hebdo in France being able to publish what they want, to lampoon and to mock and satirise who they want, and yet many of the same people are happy for us to restrict what we can publish…because we might cause offence in this country.”

It was not the federal government but Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane who sought to curb the enthusiasm for revisiting 18C, insisting that support for Charlie Hebdo and Section 18C are not incompatible:

“There is complete and unfettered freedom to discuss and debate matters of religion, religious identity, religious belief and religious practise. There is in any case wide protection for anything that is artistic work or fair comment on matters of public interest, provided that it is done reasonably and in good faith.”

The renewed push for the dumping of 18C is taking place in a vacuum of Tony Abbott’s making. With a private senator’s bill co-sponsored by Bernardi set to revive the 18C divisions, the onus will once more fall on Abbott to show leadership – on this issue specifically and more generally in assuaging the concerns of Australia’s Muslim population in the wake of both the Sydney Siege and the Paris terror attacks.

In the absence of the necessary leadership, Australia finds itself mired in a highly partisan “debate” about free expression at a time when members of the Muslim community feel their voice goes increasingly unheard.

Opportunistic tosh

Dean Smith has cynically co-opted events in Paris to seek Senate support for changes to 18C. “As a tribute and defiant rebuttal [to events in Paris] we should change our laws to allow for greater freedom of speech, expression and opinion,” he wrote in The Australian.

Such opportunistic tosh is offensive and if anything qualifies Smith for the Charlie Hebdo treatment.

At some basic level there is bipartisan support in Australia for the principals of freedom of expression and freedom of the press, but that ends at the door of 18C: Labor is against watering down the section, and the government is choosing not to pursue its preferred option.

Rather than start this debate from scratch, let’s accept that the finer detail of Australia’s freedom of expression laws should be left not to politicians, but to a law reform commission. And if we are to revisit the issue of freedom of expression, why not a discussion on whether Australia should have a bill of rights?

As for France, the true test starts now. It must now confront the many realities of a nation with huge challenges ahead.

Although much of the focus in Paris has fallen on the horrors of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, there was also the murder of four French Jews killed by a third jihadist at a kosher supermarket.

Anti-Semitism on the rise

This will have been a chilling development for France’s 550,000 Jews – especially as rising anti-Semitism was already a problem in France, without having the additional burden of being targeted by Islamic fundamentalists.

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has offered France’s Jews – and Europe’s Jews – safe haven in Israel:

“To all the Jews of France and all the Jews of Europe, I wish to say: the state of Israel is not only the place to which you pray, the state of Israel is also your home. Any Jew who wants to immigrate to Israel will be received with open arms.”

Netanyahu’s offer may well resonate with some. In 2013, 7,000 French Jews migrated to Israel, according to the Jewish Agency, and the year before that 3,400. But the idea that Jews must flee their own country will surely not sit well with most. It seems extraordinary that Europe’s Jews are even today having to make such contemplations.

France’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls sought to reassure Jewish citizens: “France without the Jews of France is not France.” In the Sunday marches, many held placards declaring “Je Suis Juif”,or “I am Jewish”, in solidarity. The government has also heightened military and police security at Jewish schools and synagogues – an act of support but which must also be unnerving.

In addition to its Jewish citizens feeling under siege, France has the challenge of reassuring the nation’s 5 to 6 million Muslims that they are embraced as citizens of the Republic: but France has a long way to go in convincing even second and third-generation French Muslims let alone recent arrivals of this.

Anti-Muslim racism, entrenched social disadvantage, long-term unemployment – including a 25% youth unemployment rate – and decrepit housing estates make for a colossal challenge. Already, since last week’s jihadist attacks, there have been several incidents of violence against Muslims and mosques in France and elsewhere in Europe.

Rather than treating the events of Charlie Hebdo as a political opportunity to make it easier to express extreme views – and given a less than convincing case that the Act presently contains unreasonable curbs on freedom of expression – some of Australia’s more colourful politicians might want to concentrate on how to make Australia’s vibrant and cohesive multicultural society an even more prominent beacon of what is possible in an enlightened democracy.

Liberté, egalité, fraternité