Time to reset national discourse in favour of inclusion and tolerance

The terrorist attack in Christchurch on Friday plunged the world into shock. At least 50 people are dead, and 12 more are fighting for their lives. Multiple nations are in mourning, a peaceful city has been torn apart.

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There are more questions than answers. How was mass murder able to occur with so little warning? Why New Zealand? Where did the killer get his evil inspiration? And how can we possibly begin to heal from this local, national and international trauma?

To begin, we suggest the whole political class needs to rethink how it talks about social cohesion, religion and immigration. None of what is said by our leaders and representatives exists in a vacuum.

In recent years we have heard several people in the public eye make claims that sounded ugly at the time and in the context of the horrifying terrorist attack on Friday, should give pause for thought.

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Former prime minister Tony Abbott proposed Australia should favour Syrian refugees who were Christian. Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack claimed, falsely, that the Medevac bill would mean rapists and murderers would be allowed into Australia. One Nation leader Pauline Hanson has spoken of Islam as a ”disease” that needed to be vaccinated against.

Senator Fraser Anning blamed the right-wing terror attack on an increase of Islamic immigration and stated that Muslim people were “not blameless”. The faster Senator Anning is drummed out of parliament for good, the better.

Meanwhile, few in the Muslim community have forgotten about reports that Prime Minister Scott Morrison urged the shadow cabinet in 2011 to capitalise on growing concerns about Muslim immigration and the perception of Muslim migrants’ “inability” to integrate. He denies he ever said this.

Instead of these flagrant and irresponsible attempts to foster fear to win votes from those who misguidedly feel threatened by immigration and refugees, politicians of all persuasions should repudiate attempts to divide our communities and find ways to unite them.

They should also be alive to cynical attempts to hijack the debate from those attempting to spread hate. It was only last year that government senators voted in favour of a failed motion that declared “it’s OK to be white” – a slogan coined by white supremacists in the US.

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The Government leader in the Senate, Mathias Cormann, blamed an “administrative error” for the vote, but the slogan would only have seemed innocuous to those not paying attention.

And all of us must pay attention if we are to stop the worrying rise in hate speech threatening all of our safety.

We are all in this together. Social cohesion takes effort to achieve, and is too easily undone through lazy and misleading slogans and agendas.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has shown the way following Friday’s massacre. She has embraced the notion of #Theyareus and given US President Donald Trump constructive advice – to offer sympathy and love to all Muslim communities. She also quickly countered Trump’s claim that white supremacy was not a growing problem.

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On Saturday, Ms Ardern spent time with the Muslim communities torn apart by Friday’s horrific violence. She said their sentiment was incredibly forgiving and unifying. “This is not the New Zealand that has welcomed them and that it is not a reflection of the New Zealand they know, and that sentiment came through very strongly,” Ms Ardern said.

Mr Morrison and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten moved swiftly to condemn the shooting, with the PM firmly labelling the attack in simple terms: the work of a right-wing extremist terrorist.

But the ugly rise of white supremacy is concerning. If we and our leaders don’t take some responsibility for an environment in which white supremacists are gaining in number and confidence, how can we do something about this destructive problem?

It’s time politicians and those who lead conversations in the public eye noted the facts – starting with the fact that all terrorist attacks in the United States last year were carried out by far right extremists. It cannot continue to stand in the minds of the general public that Islamist extremists are chiefly responsible for terrorism – they’re not.

We must reset the national discourse, and urge all Australians, in particular our political leaders, to be constructive, firm, inclusive – and reject hatred and extremism at every turn. It’s the only way we can even begin to heal from the atrocity of Christchurch.

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