A decade ago, as Australian troops were being deployed in Iraq, a number of critics of the Howard government started to use the terms ‘pre-fascist’ or even ‘fascist’ to describe some of the security clampdowns taking place at home.
As Gerard Henderson wrote in response at the time, the term ‘fascist’ was being used very loosely indeed. He listed four traits of fascism that were simply not being met in Australia.
Such regimes, he wrote, were marked by: “an obsessive preoccupation with community decline”; by “compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity”; the creation of “a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants ... [that] abandons democratic liberties” and embracing “redemptive violence”.
Thankfully we are, even now, a long way from meeting those criteria.
And yet there are elements of some of the above creeping into national discourse and popular culture.
In past days, perhaps spurred on by ignorant comments by certain political leaders, there have been a number of racist attacks on Muslim Australians (let’s call them ‘attacks on Australians’, for that is what they are), including an assault and heckling of Muslim women in Brisbane.
These are a far cry from gangs of uniformed thugs roaming the beer halls of Munich or Berlin, when genuine fascism was tearing Europe apart.
However, the causes of such racial attacks are far better nipped in the bud than being allowed to spiral into organised attacks -- such as were seen in Western Australia with Jack van Tongeren’s Australian Nationalist Movement in the 1980s.
And it is the first of the above criteria, “an obsessive preoccupation with community decline”, that is at the heart of current community paranoia over everyday, law-abiding Muslims somehow being connected to the IS extremists seizing territory in Iraq.
In past days we have seen inflammatory comments from both Liberal senator Cory Bernardi and Palmer Unity Party senator Jacqui Lambie regarding the burqa and sharia law in Australia.
With the nation in security crackdown mode, and just days after 800 police were mobilised to search 30 premises in Sydney and Brisbane for evidence of IS-related terrorist activities, political leaders need to be held to account for such statements.
We have seen heated protests in Victoria’s Bendigo and Queenland’s Maroochydore against new mosques being built. Other existing mosques have been defaced. And it is against this backdrop that Lambie and Bernardi’s comments must be assessed.
It is not enough to tell journalists, ‘I didn’t ask anyone to do that’ -- there is a pragmatic need to ask what all opinion leaders are doing to contain a volatile situation, be they politicians, journalists, religious leaders, business leaders, academics or whatever.
At the start of question time in parliament yesterday, both Prime Minister Abbott and opposition leader Bill Shorten moved further into conciliatory territory than they have before. Neither man is stupid enough to whip up community tension and then say, ‘but I didn’t ask them to do that’.
And yet at all levels of government, all levels of responsibility within the parliamentary parties, there is a need for vigilance for MPs whose paranoia is running ahead of the actual social situation in Australia between Muslims and non-Muslims.
Because that is what is happening with the likes of Jacqui Lambie. There is no doubt that she has a sincere belief that pro-sharia forces in Australia threaten our way of life -- and no doubt that she represents many voters who sincerely hold the same view.
But there is equally no doubt that she is quite, quite wrong.
The last census showed that 2.2 per cent of Australians, or roughly 470,000 people, self-identify as Muslim.
Of that group, only a tiny fraction would harbour even the faintest hope that the type of legal regime used in Saudi Arabia might one day prevail in Australia.
And even in that country, a group of senior clerics last week issued a ‘fatwa’ or religious ruling calling terrorism a “heinous crime” under sharia law.
Lambie’s comments are helpful in a way -- they allow a latent community prejudice to be examined in the public eye and shown up for the myth that it is.
That’s a relatively healthy process, because although Bernardi was once parliamentary secretary to then-opposition leader Tony Abbott (before being sacked), and although Lambie helps the Palmer United Party hold the balance of power in the senate, their views are far better examined while they are still relatively junior players on the political stage.
It was not always so. A century ago, this kind of ill-founded prejudice could rise up through the parliamentary ranks to the very office of the prime minister.
William ‘Billy’ Hughes, who took over as Labor prime minister from the far more moderate Andrew Fisher in the second year of the first world war, shamelessly used religious and ethnic animosities between Irish Catholics and English and Scots Anglicans and Presbyterians, to try to win two referenda to introduce conscription to bolster Australia’s war effort.
Both attempts failed, but the depth of Hughes’ paranoia over the ‘Irish question’ came through in a letter he wrote to the British PM, David Lloyd George.
“As I have told you by cable,” wrote Hughes, “the Irish question is at the bottom of all our difficulties in Australia. They -- the Irish -- have captured the political machinery of the Labor organisations -- assisted by syndicalists and IWW people. The Church is secretly against [military] recruiting. Its influence killed conscription.
“One of their archbishops -- Mannix -- is a Sinn Feiner -- and I am trying to make up my mind whether I should prosecute him for statements hindering recruiting or deport him.”
That bigotry -- made all the more extreme when one considers that those identifying as Irish were only around 25 per cent of the population -- seems almost funny in retrospect.
But it may not be as dead as we think.
While only Lambie and Bernardi have made inflammatory claims about Muslim Australia, it is likely that there are more prudent individuals within the government, or cabinet (and even in some factions of the Labor Party) who hold quite irrational fears about their religion -- Christianity -- being overtaken by Islam.
Actually, a recent chart from Roy Morgan Research shows that those identifying as Christian in Australia has been in decline for some time -- a process much more likely driven by scandals within the major Christian churches than anything to do with the 2.2 per cent of the population who are Muslim.
The war on terror may well have to be fought in the deserts of northern Iraq. But we must not forget to fight against irrational “obsessive preoccupation with community decline”, when the community is doing just fine.