The politics and consequences of Peter Dutton’s comments

As 2016 comes to a close, Ghaith Krayem reflects on one of the bigger controversies confronted by Arab Australians this year.


Photo: Andrew Meares

As I sit and look at a blank page, many thoughts are running through my mind. It’s hard to centre, to focus. There is sadness and disillusionment. There is frustration and a little fear. There is even some self-doubt, but underneath it all is anger. Anger that I, and people like me, are continually put in a situation where we have to defend who and what we are. Anger that another politician feels comfortable enough in this increasingly xenophobic world, one which they contribute to and benefit from, to use a community, my community, as a political football. But also anger that this very same community seems intent on repeating past mistakes when it comes to how we respond to such attacks.

As I reflect on the comments made by our Minister for Immigration and Border Security, Peter Dutton, more than a month ago, I am confronted by a maelstrom of emotion. The name alone of that ministry should be enough to raise red flags, but that’s for another day. And as these things tend to go we are now in that part of the cycle where the spin doctors are revising history and what he actually said is something different to what we heard or what he meant. There was even a report in the weekend press, a few weeks back, that had him as the defender of all good Lebanese immigrants. What a load of bullocks.

Let’s set the record straight for posterity. Here are the facts:

  • The Federal government has set up a Parliamentary inquiry, called The Joint Standing Committee on Migration, that is going to examine the screening process for visas and whether visas should be revoked if migrants become involved in criminal gangs. There is a sop in there also about support services but this has rarely been given a mention in the speeches on this issue.
  • Looking at the commentary before Dutton’s incendiary words, the whole discussion centred around the ability of government to revoke the visas of migrants, mainly refugees, who committed crimes. Specifically Sudanese refugees.
  • In the first salvo fired, and in that context, Dutton criticised the immigration policy of the Fraser Government and said, , “The reality is Malcolm Fraser did make mistakes in bringing some people in, in the 1970s, and we’re seeing that today.” He then followed it with, “ We need to be honest in having that discussion. There was a mistake made.”

That is pretty clear. Very simply put, and according to Dutton, Malcolm Fraser should not have allowed certain people to come into the country in the 1970s because they have created problems for us today. Who were these people?

On being pushed during Question time by Bill Shorten on whether he was referring to the Vietnamese community Mr Dutton then said, “The advice I have is that out of the last 33 people who have been charged with terrorist-related offences in this country, 22 of those people are from second and third generation Lebanese-Muslim background”.

Not the Vietnamese at all but the Lebanese. Not just the Lebanese, min you, but Lebanese Muslims, and why? Because of terrorism.

So, to boil down Dutton’s comments, Lebanese Muslims should not have been allowed to come to Australia in the 1970s because of what their grandchildren or great grandchildren may do 40 years down the track.

It sounds absurd, but consider it for a moment. How can you possibly have an immigration policy that judges people on what their future descendants may or may not do? The only way you to justify this would be to suggest that there is an inherent predisposition to criminal behaviour by those people. And this is just racist. But it’s hardly surprising from Mr Dutton or this government. His comments earlier this year about refugees being illiterate and unemployable on the one hand and stealing Australian jobs on the other manifest this.

These comments were not a mistake. They were not a case of loose language and a point poorly made. For years now politicians have used the terrorism card, and the Muslim community, when they need a lift in support. The current government is in a terrible state with the electorate. This was a deliberate strategy by Dutton to refocus the minds of the average Australian on the monsters under the bed, or on this case the monsters in the mosques, to shore that support up. It was also a way of asserting his own leadership aspirations with the growing hard right factions both within his own party and in the community more generally.

There will always be a retort focused on whether or not what he said was factually accurate, however this isn’t about how many Lebanese Muslims may or may not have been charged with terrorism offences. There is plenty of research on what drives people to terrorism, nothing I have seen, not a single study, highlights their ancestry as being a factor.

This is about a politician willing to throw a whole community under the bus for political gain. This is about stoking the fires of hatred and bigotry within society to achieve a political outcome. This is about racism, pure and simple.

So yes, we are angry and hurt. We are fed up with this rhetoric. When people wonder why there are so many angry and disenfranchised young men out there, then look to these comments as part of the problem.

But we are also disillusioned, some of us at least, with the way our community still responds to these issues. While there have been some press releases and a press conference, they were largely slow to get off the mark. There is no sign of any tangible action being taken. No protest. No turning up on the Prime Ministers door demanding a meeting. No call to action of any sort. Some people suggest that all this would be a waste of time, that we will never be able to get the Government or the Prime Minister to do anything. That may well be true but it completely misses the point.

We need to take this battle out of the private and hidden back rooms and corridors and into the public space. We will never win this battle when we are attacked publicly and only defend privately. This allows politicians to prevaricate and say one thing in private and something else in the open. When our responses are all in secret then the only thing left in the public space is the language of hatred and racism that further marginalises our community.

Because our response to this, and similar situations, is more about our own community than the government. We need to demonstrate to our own community, particularly to those very same second and third generations that Mr Dutton so maliciously maligned, that we care, that we understand and will do something to defend them.

Because if we don’t, then who will? That is a question well worth pondering. If there are no identifiable avenues of airing grievances then people will make their own.

While the pages are no longer blank, there is still a battle of emotions going on in my mind. However, the anger has been replaced by determination. Determination to no longer stay silent. Determination to hold our elected representatives to account for the words and actions, words and actions that are creating more hatred and division within our community. Determination to influence how we, as a minority, deal with these matters.

Finally, and most importantly, determination to speak out against oppression and injustice on behalf of those who are least able to do so.

By Ghaith Krayem

Ghaith Krayem is a Muslim Community advocate and leader.

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