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NZ shooter: The myth of Australian values



Matters of value, referring to a country's moral standing and components, are always fraught. They suggest superior understanding, excellent pedigree and a weathered wisdom about what is appropriate for a given society. In Australia and New Zealand, such values are not so much double-edged as sharp, multi-cornered edifices. The moment you start engaging them, you are bound to be wounded by a glance in the mirror.

Andrew Bolt, Fraser Anning, Scott Morrison, Pauline Hanson and Peter Dutton sow literal 'seeds of division'. Scott Morrison declares 'They reap what we sow', indicating a nearby Muslim family. Cartoon by Fiona KatauskasThe horror in Christchurch, with 50 slain individuals across two mosques, was unspeakable, but it was also inflicted by an individual (it is alleged at this point) who showed every feature, characteristic and emotional tendency of a certain type of Australian. His crudely cobbled manifesto — if, indeed, it deserves the gravitas of that term — was filled with rubbery values. The recent apologias for violence against Muslims, notably the various accusations of blame from Australian Senator Fraser Anning, also stem from an obsession with values.

Australian values, in other words, are equally those of the levelling cricket pitch, the anxiety of the White Australia policy (with some residual pangs), and a continual mixture of loathing and confusion over what to do with the Indigenous people of the country. It is also the fabled, mythologised idea of the fair go and hearty egalitarianism, or the notion that Australia's labour movement is as progressive as is thought.

As the debunking efforts of Humphrey McQueen's A New Britannia (1970) showed, racism was 'the most important single component of Australian nationalism'. With that came acquisitiveness and envy. 'It was not accidental', explains McQueen, 'that Australians chose a racehorse and a bushranger as their heroes since both expressed the get-rich quick Tatts syndrome.'

The alleged Christchurch shooter was reared in a certain atmosphere of permissive intolerance. His remarks on invasion and dispossession pit his cause as that of the lost Australian White Man. But such loss would be overcome in New Zealand, where he could demonstrate, in the words of Aurelien Mondon, 'that Muslims weren't safe anywhere'. The alleged perpetrator's views are those of deprivation and emasculation.

His rationale is clear: the followers of Islam had it coming, having generated the basis for extreme reaction. Of similar mind is Anning who, in going on the offensive, declared what he thought self-evident. 'Does anyone still dispute the link between Muslim immigration and violence?' he proposed on Twitter. To claim that the Christchurch killings were the result of poor gun laws or those 'holding nationalist views' was 'cliched nonsense'. Blame immigration, blame Muslim fanaticism.

Such comments need only be slightly tinkered with to be easily slotted alongside those of various European populist parties and various elements of the LNP coalition in Australia. Australian values were very much at crude play when then prime minister John Howard deployed the SAS against the MV Tampa and its 400 desperate souls in violation of maritime law in August 2001.


"Their increasing loss of relevance, their speeches laced with resentment, anxiety and betrayal, hold up the forts of an imperilled White nationalism."


Mainly Muslim refugee and asylum seekers were subsequently demonised as 'un-Australian' in the controlled release of images as part of Operation Rolex. Director-General of Defence Communication Strategies Brian Humphreys was adamant to the Committee on a Certain Maritime Incident: his boss, Defence Minister Peter Reith, had instructed him not to 'humanise the refugees'.

History, to that end, offers much heavy, value-laden baggage. In Bernard Keane's short observation: 'I guess politicians thought — perhaps understandably — there'd never be a price to pay in Australia for their smirking, cynical exploitation of racism.' Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi has been even more direct. 'This is the consequence of the Islamophobic and racist hate.'

But the response against Anning and the Christchurch shooter has also been, on some level, vengeful and deluding. A petition to remove Anning from Parliament, for instance, has at the time of writing reached 1.3 million signatures. 'We call on the Australian government to expel this man who blames victims for their own violent deaths, and uses references to genocide to further his hateful agenda.'

Such an act of distancing can be smug, with its makers refusing to contend with the world view it seeks to repudiate. Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, Penny Wong, dismissed the Christchurch shooter's views as un-Australian, a potentially dangerous point given that Australian values have been rather flexible in their deployment. 'He', she asserted, 'is not who we are.' The same all-Australian treatment is reserved for Anning. 'I say to the people of New Zealand, I say to all people, Mr Anning does not represent Australia, he does not represent our values, he does not represent who we are.'

The painful truth is that Anning and the alleged Christchuch shooter are representative of an aspect of Australian national identity. For decades, they were entirely representative. Their increasing loss of relevance, their speeches laced with resentment, anxiety and betrayal, hold up the forts of an imperilled White nationalism. Islamic fundamentalism provides the reactionary counter. Ironically both rely on the wonders of the very current and modern internet to disseminate their views.

Such forces are, as Mark Lilla suggests, the shipwrecked minds who catastrophise the world and see the currents of modernity pass them by. In their calamitous pessimism, they nourish each other, furnishing us with grand narratives of deprivation and violent redress. The reactionaries are, he claims, 'just as radical as revolutionaries and just as firmly in the grip of historical imaginings'. It is such imaginings that should dispel shallow talk on values and how easily they become weapons rather than solutions.



Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Christchurch attack, Fraser Anning, Brenton Tarrant, Australian values



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Existing comments

As Australians, who are we? Are we the ones who elect major party politicians who leave desperate asylum seekers languishing for years on off-shore 'hell-holes', resulting in 12 of them dying and many others so depressed their lives will never be the same again? Are we the ones who live in a land with sun and wind that could provide all the power we need, but are world laggards in action on climate change and even support the opening up of the Adani mega-coalmine and the massive Galilee coal basin? It takes a 16 year old Swedish school child, Greta Thunberg, to confront us adults with the truth of what we are doing to the planet that she and others will inherit! We need to listen more to students like Greta and insist that our politicians govern for us, and not for those who compromise them with party political donations. Unless donations from corporations are banned our democracy will be a democracy in name only! Vote for politicians whose actions show that their values are not those of the big polluters or the racists, but are humane values that respect asylum seekers and also the natural environment of planet Earth.

Grant Allen | 18 March 2019  

What happened in Christchurch highlights the depth of human nature. When we are confronted with such a tragedy we tend not to look for a solution but,rather, to look for an enemy whom we can blame,thus exonerating ourselves. If we destroyed the enemy we would still exist hence the problem (anger/hate) would still exist so we would have to redefine ourselves or find another enemy. I would like to think we could solve our problems by working together to do away with anger and hate but I guess human nature being human nature we will continue to look for and attack the enemy thus adding to the problem.

Brian Leeming | 19 March 2019  

Spot on, Binoy. Well-written. This morning, I was reading an article written over seventeen years ago by David Marr for the SMH about the Tampa episode. The article focussed on the very humane actions of the master of the Tampa, Arne Rinnan, and the shameful reaction of the government in Canberra to the plight of 438 people in distress at sea. In the article Marr uses the phrase "This is not like us" a couple of times. In elections held a few weeks later Australia overwhelmingly endorsed Canberra's tactics, giving lie to that statement. Time to change tack, Australia.

Pam | 19 March 2019  

Dr Binoy, a crystal clear and, hopefully, deeply national soul-searching provocation. Great comment Grant.

Dr Marty Rice | 19 March 2019  

A well-articulated and perceptive commentary, Binoy, that holds up a necessary and timely mirror.

Stephen K | 19 March 2019  

Well done, Binoy. Well done.

Winston Smith | 19 March 2019  

Congratulations on a fine article Dr Binoy. In the wake of the Christchurch massacres I find myself revisiting both my admiration for the courageous gun-control actions of John Howard in 1996 and my loathing for his 2001 response to the "Tampa" asylum-seekers. The former was the action of a statesman leading and uniting his country. The latter was the action of a petty politician prepared to see his country dangerously divided and internationally embarrassed for political gain. Howard's shame is equalled by Kim Beazley's "Labor too!" reaction at that time. Beazley is another man who otherwise served Australia well. Noble actions and heinously ignoble ones from the same sources. Brian Leeming refers to "the depth of human nature" in his comment. For over 1500 years theology in the western Christian Church has found the concept of original sin a useful one in describing part of what we find in those depths. We would be foolish to trivialise that understanding. We all know, or we should know, that we can all be Howards and Beazleys.

Gerard | 19 March 2019  

There is no doubt that there were national values that identified the Australian character in the century leading up to the 1950s. That character was identifiable and wasn't based on the doings of Ned Kelly or Phar Lap anymore than the British character was based on Robin Hood or the British love affair with horses. Rather it was based on simple virtues such as courtesy towards others, helping those in need without the need for recompense, loyalty to each other embodied in "mateship" in all things from games to wars, all practised against the backdrop of genuine Christianity which was actively persued by a vast majority of the population. Sadly all of this has been abandoned. The egg-boy episode is a poignant example of this abandonment in a society which divides in support of the outrageous behaviour of both the participants. For you, Binoy, I can understand and empathise with your assessment here because it is true of the current society in its abandonment of the vast part of its character. I regret that this country has become foreign and unrecognisable to those who can remember the yesterdays and saddened that those who come to this society in search of the values it once possessed will no longer find them in the "land of me not you". Australia, Australia, Bereft of sweet hooray Do you not remember Not cry for yesterday

john frawley | 19 March 2019  

Well said. And I recall that an element of the White Ocker collection of characteristics represented by Reclaim Australia and possibly now Tarrant was reverence for the Anzac legend, or an ill-understood version of it. It will be interesting to see if any of these links are uncovered again in the forthcoming Anzac season. We have just posted on the Honest History site a piece by Hall Greenland on how the Australian Light Horse, at the behest of the British, bloodily suppressed an Egyptian revolution in 1919 http://honesthistory.net.au/wp/greenland-hall-german-frightfulness-from-the-australian-light-horse-egypt-1919/ . Talk on the Australian side of how one dealt with 'natives' - sternly and with recognition that they were inferior beings.

Dr David Stephens | 19 March 2019  

'The truth will set you free.' Thanks for this article clearly articulating such. Every time a politician speaks about Australian values I ask the television what are these values? Sometimes these same speakers are the ones claiming the vague 'Australian values' as outlined that were intolerant of First Nations people as exemplified by the repressive Northern Territory Intervention - shamefully in its 12th year or as said -Tampa - or so many other instances cited - up to right now. Christian politicians whose outlook has nothing to do with Matthew 26 'What you did to these you did to me' As a young person in the 1950s and early 1960s I grew up ashamed of our White Australia policy. Since many years of meeting Aboriginal people and learning of our nation's history from the lens of truth I know that era was not any golden age either. However there is no denying the last many years of the increase of mainstreaming racism as acceptable - and new scapegoats added to the old ones.

Michele Madigan | 19 March 2019  

Dr Binoy Kampmark might consider broadening his social studies by venturing outside the cloistered environs of RMIT Uni and Cambridge. He hopefully will see that "Anning and Tarrant are [NOT] representative of an aspect of Australian national identity". He will see that the vast, vast majority of all those living in Australia are caring and sharing people. Even a short journey to the footy will show we are good people.

Tony | 19 March 2019  

Binoy that's a well reasoned analysis. Many of us, have railed against the excesses of ISIS, ISIL El Qaeda, without discriminating the 95% of moderate Muslims who would never raise a weapon in anger. However in Australia, ideological appeals, political point scoring are still based on racism to this very day. Whether it is the Liberals appealing to their constituents to deport the gang Sudanese or demonise the "potential terrorists" on Manus and Nauru. Scomo presenting the Christmas Island Medevac solution to a disillusioned Australian population as him being the stalwart guardian of democracy/ anti terrorism. We must appear as a bunch of chumps to be gulled by Abbott the cool tourist soaking up the sun on Nauru and Dutton the despot shoring up his prime ministerial ambitions by wasting billions on Ferrovial (previously Transfield) to provide security against the detainees aka terrorists languishing in lockdown. Australia as a nation is responsible for Christchurch and we must help compensate the stricken families. ASIO needs to become aware of the right targets. Not focus exclusively on the Jihad. Unlike Australia, NZ is a safe haven destination for persecuted minorities. Or was. Australia should criminalise and ban far right hate speeches immediately.

Francis Armstrong | 19 March 2019  

And yet, Tony, contrast Adhern's low key measured but strong response (she sent her Deputy PM) with Morrison's tough-guy shirt-fronting threatening response to Erdogan's recent inappropriate comments. Why didn't he just send Marise Payne to Ankara? She seems to be made in the same strong but sensible mould as Julie Bishop. It seems that our male coalition so-called leaders are always looking for a fight, and never more than when they feel threatened.

Ginger Megs | 20 March 2019  

The term 'Australian values' in partisan political usage can turn very rapidly from a cliché into a piece of Orwellian Newspeak. Every nation has what the British would term 'sterling qualities' but also has its dark side. The concept of what Australian History is has gone through many incarnations, from being a principally 'British' story, which undervalued the Irish and Indigenous themes, to being far more inclusive. I am not sure Australian identity is cast in stone, never to be changed. A couple of reactions to the recent mass murders in Christchurch by Brendan Tarrant might help to show us a positive direction to move in. One was the example of impeccable leadership by Jacinda Ardern, the NZ Prime Minister, who disavowed every false value Tarrant stood for. She also showed a vision of a genuinely inclusive and caring community. This was mirrored by the way the Christchurch and NZ public in general acted in the face of this calamity.

Edward Fido | 20 March 2019  

Thank you Doctor Binoy for your reflection.Each Australia Day and recently ANZAC DAY my concerns for our community grow. I am a Veteran. Like the English, when I was living there about a decade ago, it seems that we have a problem about what it means to be Australian- the Cronulla Riot showed that issue up graphically some years ago.. Australian history is not squeaky clean when it comes to racism. Remember the " White Australia Policy"? It is sad and embarrassing that this murderer is one of ours, but we must honestly ask ourselves where has our education system failed us? I wrote as a retired teacher of high school level history. Grant, I completely agree with you.

Gavin O'Brien | 20 March 2019  

A lot of commenters here have atrributed the MV Tampa incident in getting Howard across the line in the 10th November 2001 election. A lot of analysts think that it was actually the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre that got him across the line. They were just 2 months prior, keep in mind. The Tampa incident happened in August, 3 months prior. (9/11 also got Dubya across the line in 2004). Also, Binoy's throwaway line "Such an act of distancing [to Anning's comments] can be smug, with its makers refusing to contend with the world view it seeks to repudiate", needs a lot more explaining.

Bruce Stafford | 20 March 2019  

If a picture (or two) is worth a thousand words (or more) and if the NZ Foreign Affairs ministry had at least as much Internet nous as the shooter, it would post several photos or moving pictures of Jacinda Ardern in a hijab visiting the Muslims of Christchurch on the website of its embassy in Ankara. But not yet apparently. http://www.yenizelandakonsoloslugu.com/ankara-buyukelciligi/# One hopes the embassy’s press attache has tried or is trying to get those photos of NZ's values in action onto Turkish legacy and social media to blunt Erdogan’s political offensives.

roy chen yee | 20 March 2019  

Thank you Dr Binoy Kampmark for your very insightful analysis of the term "Australian values". It is important that in the wake of the dreadful Christchurch Massacre that all Australians do some serious soul searching about what these values actually are. When conservative politicians in Australia use this term, they are usually very silent about what they actually are. For many Australians in the past, the key Australian value was being fair minded and standing up for those who are less fortunate. However, for others, it means putting a lamb chop or a prawn on the barbie and washing it down with a beer on Australia Day. When politicians were dreaming up how to assess whether prospective Australian citizens measure up and if they understood these values they developed tests. So I checked the official questions on line and discovered that most of them dealt with Australian history and how our system of government operates. There was only one or two questions that had some remote connection with values. I might add that the history questions did not include any that related to our dark history eg the genocide of Aboriginal people, the White Australia Policy, support for British and US unjustified wars, support for regimes that have committed crimes against other peoples (eg Indonesia, Israel, Saudi Arabia etc), the attempt to cheat Timor-Leste - the poorest nation in SE Asia - out of its resources following a 24 year brutal occupation, treatment of asylum seekers including scapegoating and hate speech. I suspect this history did not rate a mention because certain past leaders have never wanted to face up to the shameful parts of Australia's history. After the Christchurch Massacre which was carried out by an Australian citizen, I think it is about time that we faced this history and decide that we are going to have ethical Australian values that include being independent and non aligned and a nation that works much harder for equality, compassion, human rights, social justice and peace.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 21 March 2019  

When talking about values, Dr. Kampmark relies on the communist ideologue Humphrey McQueen for his assertion that the Aussie “fair go” is “fabled” and “mythologized.” However communist propaganda has always sought to denigrate Western character, achievements and values: “We must organize the intellectuals and use them to make Western civilization stink” (Willi Munzenberg). A more reliable test of values and character would be to see the kinds of people who use the murder of 50 innocents to further their own narratives.

Ross Howard | 21 March 2019  

Bravo!! Andy Alcock.

john frawley | 21 March 2019  

Thanks Andy: you've outlined the curriculum for new high school and tertiary subjects, such as 'Being Honest About Who We Are'; 'Historical Accuracy Is Not A Black-Armband'; 'The Freedom Of Honesty'; 'Struth Stralia - Who We R'. Surely it's time to stop cringing, all embrace the truth, and move on together?

Dr Marty Rice | 21 March 2019  

Thank you Binoy for your thoughtful and somewhat painful reflection. Most of us, I hope, will never be party to such hate but we have to face up to the culture that allowed it to fester and spread, even as we reject it. I’ve never been keen on the idea of “Australian values” or what is or isn’t “un-Australian”. Values and ideas are not limited by national boundaries but they find expression in what we do and say. I join Drs Frawley and Rice and applaud Andy Alcock’s comment.

Brett | 23 March 2019  

Bravo John Frawley. You're coming around. Facing up to the past is the first step to improving the future.

Pat Mahony | 23 March 2019  

Austalian values surely are human values and they will change over time. The values that the author and others condemn were values of our early white migration that were aggressive and not inclusive. Since the Second World War we have enjoyed migration from all parts of the world, to the extent now 28% of Australia's population is born overseas. My point is, with our large migrant mix, surely our values are now a lot different than pre WW2. In a democracy, we will always have crackpots....some more dangerous than others. But there is cause for hope, the caring and inclusive response to the Christchurch atrocity has been overwhelming in Australia. And acceptance of migrants is something to be proud off as a nation.

Robert Harpham | 24 March 2019  

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