16 May 2019

'Goodness' in post-Chch terror attack NZ influences Aussie election campaign

8:58 am on 16 May 2019

Australian political commentators and academics say race and immigration have been largely missing from this month's election campaign as a consequence of the Christchurch mosque attacks.

Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison (L) and opposition leader Bill Shorten shake hands before the first televised leaders debate in Perth.

Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison (L) and opposition leader Bill Shorten shake hands before the first televised leaders debate in Perth earlier in May. Photo: AFP

Election day in Australia is on Saturday and issues such as the economy and climate change are dominating, while former hot topics such as asylum-seekers arriving by boat and high immigration are no longer making headlines.

Sydney University public law professor and immigration lawyer Mary Crock said the Liberal party previously used the slogan "we stopped the boats" to good electoral effect.

There was an expectation the immigration debate would be front and centre again, she said.

"But the impact of the massacre in Christchurch and then in Sri Lanka has really switched the political discourse on that, she added.

"So we're seeing actually both political parties not wanting to talk about race, religion or migration, which is I think is really fascinating."

Shukufa Tahiri, Refugee Council of Australia policy officer

Shukufa Tahiri. Photo: RNZ / Gillian Bonnett

A policy officer for the Refugee Council of Australia, Shukufa Tahiri, said there was a "lot of goodness" in New Zealand after the Christchurch shootings and that rubbed off on Australia.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's reaction to the attacks had sent a powerful message to Australian politicians, she said.

"I think the show of support in New Zealand and the language that Jacinda Ardern used and the leadership she showed did put the attention on Australian leadership and to a certain extent the politicians did realise that their political leadership and their investment in the politics of fear was creating consequences that were translating into tragedy in their neighbouring country."

Meanwhile, One Nation and United Australia have continued their focus on immigration.

An independent senator, Fraser Anning, was widely condemned for linking the mosque attacks that killed 51 people to Muslim immigration.

Labor's Penny Wong said it was a "shameful and pathetic attempt by a bloke who has never been elected to get attention by exploiting diversity as a fault line for political advantage".

Monash University professor Andrew Markus, who examines attitudes to immigration, said surveys do not suggest it is as big an issue for Australians as politicians think.

The falling emphasis on race was due to some nifty political work in reaction to media commentary and public sentiment on the speed of immigration, he said.

"We've got an election campaign going on at the moment and it's not actually featuring very largely at all," he said.

"And that's because I think that the government has sort of put it out there that they have cut immigration.

"They hadn't really cut immigration but they have created the sense that they cut immigration and that they're listening to people. And that seems to quiet things down."

Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison greets supporters at an election launch rally in Brisbane.

Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison greets supporters at an election launch rally in Brisbane. Photo: AFP PHOTO / AUSTRALIAN PRIME MINISTER'S OFFICE / ADAM TAYLOR

He agreed that Christchurch has shifted the refugee discourse from 'we stopped the boats'.

"There was some sense that it would feature quite prominently in this campaign," he said. "And one possible reason it hasn't, is what happened in New Zealand with the massacre in Christchurch."

But former race relations commissioner Tim Soutphommasane said the possibility that an Australian white supremacist was responsible for the Christchurch atrocity should have triggered a deeper change to the public debate.

"So you had a mixed response to the Christchurch terrorist attack from politicians and media," he said.

"You could have had political parties openly disavowing white nationalism and white supremacy.

"But what you've ended up over the weeks since Christchurch is the week after or a few days after the Christchurch attack, you had the Prime Minister pivoting to the issue of immigration a propos of nothing, it wasn't a matter of urgent concern, but he chose to make an announcement about immigration.

"You've had the coalition parties floating preference deals in the election with Pauline Hanson's One Nation and also the United Australia party.

"That to me does not resemble a resetting of debate following the Christchurch terror attack."

Amnesty's refugee campaign coordinator in Australia, Shankar Kasynathan, said the country was deeply saddened by what happened and the shootings had affected the campaign regardless of whether the perpetrator was Australian.

"New Zealand is so close to us we have so many friends and family and neighbours who are from there.

"I think that it certainly it makes us look inward and think about the kind of conversations we are having in Australia around inclusive conversations, around anti-racism conversations."

Travel to Sydney was arranged through an East-West Centre Fellowship and was funded by a grant from the Asia New Zealand Foundation