New Zealanders and Australians (two English-speaking Commonwealth nations closely knit by culture, geography and history) have been horrified by a major white extremist terrorist event in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Friday 15 March.
Forty-nine Muslim worshippers, at Friday prayers in two Christchurch mosques six kilometers apart, were murdered in concurrent gun attacks led by an Australian far-right nationalist extremist, Brenton Tarrant, who filmed his whole attack from a head-held video camera while he shot worshippers at random with a semi-automatic weapon. Forty people were injured, some critically. Major mainstream and social media are being asked to remove Tarrant’s deeply evil video footage, but much of it had already got out online as was his intention.
The mosques were unguarded, New Zealand having hitherto been entirely terrorism-free. Tarrant and four other unnamed persons involved, three men and a woman, who are believed at this stage to be New Zealanders, are under arrest. Tarrant’s trial is listed for April. A shaken NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern vowed immediate government action to tighten NZ’s lax gun laws, to tighten NZ border controls, and to strengthen NZ-Australia intelligence agency information-sharing on extremist groups.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who faces an early election which has to be held by May, and which he is tipped to lose heavily, expressed sympathy and shock. He conspicuously visited Sydney’s most important mosque, in solidarity with Australian Muslim communities. But many Australians may doubt his sincerity in view of his and his Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s long personal history of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim public sentiments.
Tarrant had issued a racial-hate manifesto online, minutes before his group’s attack began, calling for an end to all Muslim migration into Australia and NZ. His views are shared within a small but vocal group of white extreme nationalist extremists in Australia who hold provocative public meetings and seek out media attention. Such a meeting is still scheduled to go ahead today in Moorabin, Melbourne, at which Senator Fraser Anning from the state of Queensland will criticise Australia’s immigration policies. A counter-demonstration is planned in protest. Police will be present.
At federal political level, Islamophobic and anti-immigrant views are most stridently represented by Senator Pauline Hanson’s minority One Nation Party and by Senator Anning, who was elected as a Queensland state senator on the One Nation Party ticket but subsequently broke with Senator Hanson. Queensland is a state characterised by high youth unemployment and a declining coal industry. It is a focus of far-right white nationalist extremism.
Anning, who is not expected to be re-elected, desperately seeks publicity. Just hours after the Christchurch shootings, he published a highly offensive media release blaming the shootings on Muslim immigration to Australia and NZ, alleging that the governments had created a climate of racial tension. His media release effectively endorsed much in Tarrant’s manifesto. It has been almost universally condemned in Australia.
This well-planned politically-motivated mass murder is being compared to the Anders Breivik mass murder of young Norwegians in 2011. It is also being compared to recent targeted terrorist attacks, in US and elsewhere, on people at prayer in mosques and synagogues.
Questions are being asked about context and coincidence.
How was it possible for an Australian with known links to white supremacist extremist organisations in Australia to fly to New Zealand without NZ Security agencies being alerted to monitor him? How was it possible for his group to buy guns and ammunition in New Zealand without security agencies being alerted? Are Australian and New Zealand security agencies too focused on monitoring alleged threats from Islamist extremist groups, to the neglect of even more dangerous far-right white nationalist extremists?
Also: the attack coincided with a day of major ‘school strikes’ and street demonstrations by many thousands of young people in all major cities around Australia, protesting at Australian federal and state governments’ inadequate climate change policies, including their failure to ban opening of new coal mines. Similar demonstrations were taking place in New Zealand, supported by PM Ardern. Australian PM Morrison had criticised the demonstrations as inappropriate on a school day. In any event, the NZ shooting tragedy totally eclipsed media attention to the young people’s climate change and anti-coalmines demonstrations. Was this planned by the perpetrators, and who might have advised them?
Some critics claim, I believe correctly, that right-wing politicians who now dominate the governing party coalition, and right-wing mainstream media, have over recent years fostered and helped to generate a supportive climate for an anti-immigrant extremist movement in Australia, helping it to gain respectability and take root among economically depressed and politically alienated white Australian youth. These critics say that these politicians and media must now accept shared responsibility for fostering a political climate that encourages such terrible acts as the massacre of innocents in Christchurch.
Senior police leaders in Australia have appealed to politicians and media to consider the impact of their words. I hope they will do so.
Though this terrorist event has visibly shocked decent mainstream opinion in Australia and New Zealand, it may push race relations and immigration issues into greater prominence in the forthcoming Australian federal election. There is a danger of polarisation under Scott Morrison’s clumsy leadership: he could as in past Australian elections try to talk up racial fears to his party’s presumed advantage.
Australia’s and New Zealand’s foreign policies are also coming under scrutiny in the wake of this attack. Both countries are members of the ‘Five Eyes’ Intelligence-sharing network. Their military forces are deeply enmeshed in US-led past and present military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Sophisticated US-Australian joint defence facilities at Pine Gap, Central Australia are believed to be in current use to assist US military targeting in Syria. The Australian arms industry is selling weapons technology to Saudi Arabia that is being used by the Saudi Air Force in lethal bombing operations against Yemeni civilians.
The danger is that, after the initial public shock and horror at this attack has passed, the desperate and failing Morrison government may be tempted to exploit it to try to create a ‘national security’ and anti-immigration pre-election climate. The Labor Party Opposition and its leader Bill Shorten will need to watch its own words and policies in coming weeks. So will Australia’s mainstream and social media.
I believe the lessons for all responsible governments and politicians are: firstly, to consider the impact of their policies and words on disaffected youth, and always to uphold inter-ethnic and inter-religious harmony; secondly, to task national security agencies to monitor equally extremist elements of all persuasions. I believe by both these yardsticks the Russian Federation has a very good record. I wish I could currently say the same of Australia.
First published in our partner RIAC