Australians proudly point to their nation as being one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse on the planet. But the New Zealand shootings are placing a new focus on Australia’s far-right politics and its mingling with its white nationalist movement.
The March 15 massacre in Christchurch, which claimed the lives of 50 people, quickly led to dramatic changes in New Zealand’s firearms laws as the government announced it will ban military-style semi-automatic and assault rifles.
The worst mass shooting in New Zealand’s modern history is resonating here in neighboring Australia. The chief suspect in the shootings is Australian, leading many people who knew the man to struggle with the knowledge of growing up with, having taught or having worked alongside a person that allegedly could have committed such a crime.
In Canberra, the government is proposing a law that will allow fines and prison time to be handed out to social media executives if their companies fail to quickly remove violent content from their platforms. The man charged with the shootings is a suspected white supremacist who livestreamed the shootings on Facebook.
Some observers say the country’s far-right politics has not faced the level of scrutiny that some minority groups receive.
“Far-right groups in Australia have been able to operate under the radar more than any Muslim group could have done,” says human rights attorney Greg Barns, who recently published a book on the rise of white nationalism in Australia titled “The Rise of the Right.” He blames the Liberal Party-led coalition government because, he says, it allowed anti-Muslim sentiment to flourish in the country but did nothing to stamp it out.
“The rise of the right in Australia has been the most potent and successful political force in the last 20 years,” Barns says. “It’s been largely around the politics of immigration and fear of the ‘other’,” a phenomenon he says mirrors similar movements in the U.S. and Europe.
The anxiety in Australia toward immigrants is not a new phenomenon, says Clive Williams, a visiting professor at the Australian National University’s Centre for Military and Security Law. In 2005, research produced by Monash University showed “significant public antipathy toward immigrants from the Middle East and Asia,” he says, and the Lowy Institute, an independent think tank based in Sydney, reported a sharp spike in anti-immigration sentiment in 2018.
Those fears have historic roots from when the British began colonizing the continent in the late 18th century at the expense of the country’s indigenous populations. At the beginning of the 20th century, the federal government installed policies that stopped all non-European immigration into the country. The so-called “White Australia” policies were eventually dismantled throughout the second half of the century.
Beginning at the end of the 19th century and continuing to as late at 1970, federal and state government agencies forcibly removed indigenous and native islander children from their families, placing them in missions or foster parents under an assimilation policy. By 1994 about 1 in 10 indigenous people over the age of 25 in Australia – people called the “Stolen Generations” – had been removed from their families, according to a survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
In 2001, then-Prime Minister John Howard denied entry to the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa, a vessel carrying 438 refugees from Indonesia who were rescued from sea. The refugees were forcibly transferred to the Pacific island of Nauru.
Howard then created the “Pacific Solution,” a policy that uses Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus island as offshore detention centers. The government justified its policy as being a deterrent for people entering Australia by boat.
“That period saw a shift in Australia when it came to immigration that you should fear the other, especially those who came on boats,” Barns says. “It played on that xenophobia that as an island continent, you have to keep the hordes away.”