Australia’s role in the Christchurch attacks, and the work to be done

From across the ditch, the news that the Christchurch terrorist was an Australian was accompanied by a sinking feeling. The way in which our everyday public debate is steeped in concepts of white superiority made it all too predictable that such a horrendous crime should find its origins on our shores.

To take up Giovanni Tiso’s call from earlier this week, what might true accountability look like? How can we work towards it in a context in which we wish to elevate the voices of those on the receiving end of hateful speech and violence, while also showing meaningful solidarity and acting upon it with a sense of responsibility?

Coming to terms with our own history as a settler colonial society, based on the dispossession of Aboriginal people, is a task that always needs doing, and never more so than now. It is not some abstract pursuit in our present moment. The fact that we are able as a society to routinely ignore the dispossession and attempted genocide of Aboriginal people fuels the validity of white supremacist arguments. It suggests that Aboriginal culture does not matter, or lacks any value to modern society, when the opposite is true. In his book Dark Emu, Bruce Pascoe makes an urgent call for an examination of what he claims to be ‘the longest lasting pan-continental stability the world has ever known,’ to learn how ‘that cooperation was wrought without resort to the physical coercion and war common in other civilisations.’ Melissa Lucashenko has argued persuasively that ‘there is overwhelming evidence from Aboriginal oral history, as well as from anthropology and written history, that Aboriginal adults traditionally saw the world in highly egalitarian terms compared to their European contemporaries.’ For thousands of years prior to colonisation, she finds that they negotiated a ‘structured peace’ across vast territories and multiple language groups. She concludes: ‘If that isn’t a democratic outlook, it’s hard to know just what is.’ We have a lot to learn from Aboriginal society, and it is essential that we make the space to do so.

Many people from Muslim and migrant backgrounds have been raising concerns about Islamophobia in recent times and have been ignored. Commentators from these communities have been talking about the politics of white supremacy without being listened to. Worse, they are being hounded out of public spaces and demonised. We need to ask why their voices are missing, and demand better from our mainstream media in terms of valuing their contribution as people who are experiencing the worst of white supremacy on a daily basis.

Put differently, we need to compel those who hold power in society to take seriously the claims of people on the receiving end of racism, whether they are Aboriginal, Muslim or migrants. It’s not enough to simply hear them or have them represented in form but not in substance: we have to find ways to integrate their experiences into public life and take seriously their calls for change. There are plenty of people from different backgrounds who also speak and write persuasively on the politics of anti-racism who are worth paying attention to. Together, these people regularly contribute excellent advice on how to show solidarity. It behoves us to act upon it. Unless we do, we remain like a proverbial fish in water – drowning out perspectives that might contribute to a nuanced understanding of how racism works in structural ways and to arrest the phenomenon of racist violence.

In this context, voting matters. Electoral politics cannot be ignored because it has an outsized impact on public life. Fraser Anning has been able to spout genocidal bile because of a platform handed to him by a perverse turn of events in our social democratic system. Except in the most technical of ways, he is not a representative of the democratic will of the Australian people, but he has nonetheless seized the power handed to him to build a base of support. It is absolutely critical that major parties be held to account for promises made on preferencing deals. Anning and One Nation must be preferenced last by every major party, and any candidate that does not comply should be made to pay the price electorally. If you’re not contributing to the electoral defeat of a racist currently sitting in parliament, you’re doing solidarity politics wrong. White supremacist views in Australia will not be defeated simply by booting Anning and Hanson out, but they will never be defeated while they continue to be given an electoral platform.

Of course, there are other politicians who have helped white supremacist ideas find a foothold in Australian public life. The major parties also benefit from the tacit, occasionally deliberate use of race politics to demonise refugees and migrants specifically over the last two decades. For instance, the Muslim community was recently told by Scott Morrison that it needs to be more proactive in tackling terrorism. This is the same man who had been reported to have told his party colleagues that they should capitalise on anti-Muslim sentiment to win votes.

Politicians have routinely treated refugees as unpeople, stripped of rights, torturing them as a means to an end of deterring people smugglers. They have become people we do things to, rather than people with agency and dignity. While we allow politicians to treat brown people in this way, it reinforces an insidious racial hierarchy. It’s not just a local problem, it’s becoming something of a global export. For this reason, part of any reckoning with this recent act of terror and hate is to think through the ways in which activists can influence mainstream discussions about refugees and race. White nationalist ideas are based on the belief that different races should not be mixed, and that terror should be imposed on those who seek to do so. Locking up refugees, or claiming that their presence will generate traffic jams and hospital wait lists, signals to white nationalists that their ideas hold currency in mainstream politics. It’s all of our responsibility to correct the record with our fellow citizens whenever it is discussed, and to take our representatives to task when they trade in these tropes.

Accountability requires that anti-fascist work be diverse, mainstream and sustainable. It remains an astonishing admission that the killer was not on the radar of the security and intelligence agencies either in Australia or in New Zealand. These agencies are better resourced than any time in history, with highly invasive powers and hefty budgets. It is difficult to draw a conclusion other than that white supremacist activity is simply not a significant priority for them and, by association, the executive governments responsible for their oversight. Of course, we cannot exactly know this due to the secretive operations of these agencies, which are in the habit of demanding more powers without any real accountability, but we should never assume that protecting communities of all colours from terrorism is in line with their idea of national interest. It falls to activists to raise these concerns.

Furthermore, the number of journalists who cover these topics with any degree of detail is embarrassingly small. Full credit to Andy Fleming and Jason Wilson, who are among the few who have written extensively about the problem – but it is imperative to grow their ranks. We need to find ways to collectively fund this work, through donations and otherwise, as well as demand that established media organisations take these projects seriously. This demand dovetails neatly with increasing calls to de-platform the likes of Pauline Hanson from mainstream television.

Lastly, we need to be wary of any claim that this is a technological issue. When Scott Morrison claimed that social media companies could easily “write an algorithm” to screen out extremist content, he displayed a lack of knowledge matched only by Bill Shorten’s suggestion that they build a ‘kill switch’ capable of achieving the same objective. But asking tech companies to algorithmically filter out hate speech is like telling a car manufacturer to build a vehicle that stops working when someone tries to use it for a terror attack. It might be technically possible to do, but the product would lose all of its general utility. To lay blame on tech platforms for this act of terror – especially when it is done by politicians and media companies who routinely work with racists – smacks of deflection.

However, just like it is possible to improve the safety of cars, we can improve the safety of online spaces. Tech companies profit from hate speech in a variety of ways, most obviously by automating services like ad delivery that allow for explicitly racist ads, and outsourcing content moderation to an underpaid, undervalued workforce. Tech companies need to spend more of their astronomical profits on building products with vulnerable people in mind. Melvin Kranzberg reminds us that technology is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral. It exists in a social context. There is no technical solution to hate speech without a political one as well.


Image: a solidarity demonstration in Canberra photographed by Leo Bild

Lizzie O'Shea

Lizzie O’Shea is a lawyer. Her book Future Histories (Verso 2019) is about the politics and history of technology.

More by Lizzie O'Shea ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays