Foul residue of colonialism
Rex Dunn examines how the culture and politics of New Zealand and Australia contributed to the Christchurch massacre
During the cold war, Neville Shute wrote a novel called On the beach, which portrayed Australia and New Zealand as the last safe refuge for humanity following a nuclear war. Back in the day, not only did this popular novel create an immediate myth: it has somehow endured - despite the fact that, for instance, the rivers and lakes of New Zealand have become very polluted, as a result of the overuse of fertilisers by the agribusiness. Last year the tourist industry also took a knock when a young English girl was murdered by a local man.
On the very day of the March 15 massacre in two Christchurch mosques, my sister in New Zealand told me that she had met an English tourist in the supermarket, who told her that NZ is such a safe place for a holiday and that she was relieved to get away from Britain, which is reeling from the rise in knife crime (no mention of Brexit!). My sister replied: “But we have that here too!” Then came news of the massacre! So finally the Neville Shute myth has been blown away by a hail of bullets, which left 50 people dead and a similar number wounded.
In a country of less than five million people, there were more people murdered at one time than recent massacres in the United States. The assassin came from Australia and both there and in New Zealand (especially in the South Island, where the majority of the population are ‘pakehas’ or whites) there is a well-established far-right movement, which thrives on racism and anti-communism, (no doubt linked to anti-Semitism as well). How was it possible for someone to assemble such a deadly arsenal of weapons without raising the alarm? Once again the security services had their eyes off the ball. Yet in New Zealand as well as Australia they are well-funded: they have at their disposal the latest hi-tech equipment, commensurate with the requirements of any modern ’surveillance state’.
The problem is that they were looking only in one direction, in the belief that the main threat comes from Islamic extremism. Of course, such a threat cannot be ignored. There have been a number of attacks in Australia from this quarter in recent years. The latter are the bastard children of imperialism (some of whom are home-grown, as they are in other countries (eg, Britain). After all, imperialism and its allies encouraged the rise of Islamic extremism, dating back to US support for al Qa’eda and bin Laden. In the 1980s this played a major role in the overthrow of the Soviet-backed secular regime in Afghanistan. The Israelis also pursued the same strategy by promoting Hamas in the Gaza Strip, in order to erode support for the secular Al Fatah movement for the liberation of Palestine. Then came 9/11, a new war in Afghanistan, followed by the invasion of Iraq, and so on.
The Australian far-right movement has its antecedents in a colonial settler policy during the 19th century, which led to the racist treatment of Aboriginal people (resulting in the extermination of the entire native population of Tasmania). That said, things did develop somewhat differently in New Zealand. The Maori were defeated, but not exterminated. They simply languished at the bottom of society. For years they absorbed white racism. They were discriminated against and were the butt of racists jokes (such as ‘Maori PT’ - an epithet for anyone who is lazy). But in the 1970s, the Maori began to organise themselves along nationalist lines - there were land occupations in Auckland. Therefore by 1984, in the face of rising Maori unrest, the newly elected Lange Labour Government did a mea culpa. From the 1980s onwards successive governments began paying out billions of dollars to Maori by way of compensation for the confiscation of their land, as a result of the colonial wars in the 19th century.
But this money was given to the tribal leaders, who invested it in lucrative enterprises, such as casinos - it has not benefited ordinary Maori, who, along with Pacific island immigrants from New Zealand’s colonies, continue to be among the most disadvantaged sections of society. (Many of them cannot afford homes, so they live in disused garages, and so on - and the current Labour coalition government has made little or no difference.) On the other hand, this settlement, along with the claims of some Maori leaders that their customs and traditions supersede those of the crown (eg, tribal ownership of the foreshore and seabed), served to antagonise many poor white workers, especially in the South Island - another example of the ‘left behind’ syndrome. These sentiments are so strong, they take the form of jokes about the South Island being the ‘mainland’ - as well as the more serious demand that the South Island should secede from New Zealand! (I have met working class South Islanders who hate North Islanders, such as myself.)
The process of political and social disintegration is everywhere. These are the ‘fruits’ of a turn towards neoliberalism in ‘god’s own country’: ie, the free market, which has led to rising inequality - along with identity politics, which self-evidently is no solution. Today all things Maori are marketed as a brand: eg, as part of the tourist industry. Whilst this is generally well received, it also fuels racial hatred in some quarters.
Turning to Australia (whilst recognising that NZ is not immune from what follows), far-right sympathies date back to the Chinese revolution and the Korean war. In the 1950s and 60s, fears about a ‘yellow peril’ were cultivated and used in support of a ‘White Australia’ racist immigration policy. (Given its limited resources, NZ did not have the same demand for immigrants as Australia. Therefore it needed fewer immigrants; hence a general bias towards white immigrants was not so blatant.) It also came in handy as a defence for US intervention in south-east Asia. In line with the ‘domino effect’, the ‘red peril’ had to be stopped: otherwise Australasia would be overrun by the communist hordes, who happened to be yellow.
Today, the ideas of the far right have moved on, but are just as deeply embedded within mainstream politics - particularly in Australia. So it is not surprising that they have found an echo within the most backward sections of the working class in both countries. Today these ideas are inflamed by the worldwide refugee crisis, as a consequence of imperialism’s wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East. This has led to a huge refugee problem in the South Pacific, as well as in the Mediterranean. Writing for The Nation, Antony Loewenstein commented: “In an age of refugee demonisation, Australia was well ahead of the curve.” In 2017, Malcolm Turnbull - then prime minister of Australia - pleaded with Donald Trump to honour an agreement struck with Barack Obama, whereby the US would take up to 1,250 refugees (only a small proportion of the total), who have been imprisoned by Australia for years on Manus island in Papua New Guinea. In exchange Australia would accept some refugees from Central America. Trump could not understand why Australia was not willing to take refugees from places like Manus and Nauru Island, and Turnbull explained: “To stop people smugglers, we had to deprive them of the product.” Trump responded by saying, “That’s a good idea. We should do that too.” Western leaders have not only expressed admiration for Australia’s draconian refugee policies, but have initiated ways to implement them in their own states.
Immediately after the March 15 massacre, Fraser Anning, a senator for Queensland, put the blame on the Muslims themselves: “The real cause of bloodshed on NZ streets today is the immigration programme, which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to NZ in the first place,” he said. In 2016, Anning was elected as one of two ‘One Nation’ senators for Queensland. The One Nation party is led by Pauline Hanson, a long-time racist and well-known rightwing Australian politician. But Anning has now split with Hanson, because her party is not rightwing enough! In 2018 he joined another rightwing group, which this year formed the Conservative National Party of Australia.
In his maiden speech, Anning made a reference to the Nazis’ ‘final solution’; he also called for a plebiscite to reintroduce religious discrimination in immigration policy - especially in regard to Muslims. He is in favour of the right of civilians to own firearms; opposed to same-sex marriage, transgender and abortion rights. Anning is too extreme for Hanson, who said his comments were “straight from Goebbels’ handbook”.
Such is the unsavoury background to the appalling massacre which has just occurred in ‘God’s own country’.