Australian Senator Fraser Anning. Photo: Facebook
Australian Senator Fraser Anning. Photo: Facebook

Fraser Anning was elected to the Australian Senate with only 19 first preference votes, including probably his own. But his maiden parliamentary speech inspired 81,000 views on his Facebook page and has sparked a national furor.

Anning, a former soldier and publican from Queensland and ex-member of the far right One Nation party, reignited Australia’s always simmering race debate with calls to ban immigration for Muslims and non-English speakers, and return to the “White Australia” policy of the 1950s.

He controversially claimed that a plebiscite would be a “final solution” to the nation’s immigration “problem.” Afterwards, Anning incredulously claimed he had no idea that “final solution” was a term used by Nazi Germany for its holocaust against Jews during World War II.

His inflammatory speech, made on August 14, was perhaps the most outspoken articulation of anti-immigration and anti-Muslim rhetoric by any Australian politician, and rivaled the vitriol served up in the right wing Australian media by a growing band of xenophobic opinion columnists.

Coming only days after Australia’s population reached the 25 million level, an event which also fanned the immigration debate, Anning’s speech laid bare the polarized division in Australian society on the issue of race and immigration, which has been a constant theme for several decades.

Describing himself as a “conservative Christian” and an “Australian nationalist,” Anning’s speech pined for the Australia of 50 years ago, when it was a “cohesive, predominantly Anglo-Celtic nation,” as he put it.

“Ethno-cultural diversity, which is known to undermine social cohesion, has been allowed to rise to dangerous levels in many suburbs,” he said, after describing immigration levels as “unsustainable.”

“We as a nation are entitled to insist that those who are allowed to come here predominantly reflect the historic European Christian composition of Australian society and embrace our language, culture and values as a people,” he said.

He added: “Historically, the one immigrant group here and in other Western nations that has consistently shown itself to be the least able to assimilate and integrate is Muslims. I believe that the reasons for ending all further Muslim immigration are both compelling and self-evident.”

Anning claimed that Australia’s first act of terrorism was perpetrated by two Muslims who “opened fire on a picnic train of innocent women and children” in 1915. “Muslim immigrants have been a problem ever since,” he said.

Earlier this year Anning advocated giving refugee visas to white South African farmers he claimed faced “genocide” from violence in their homeland. At the time, he said: “They’re a similar type of people to us, with similar views and Christian values.”

His speech left fellow Senator Anne Aly from Western Australia, the first Muslim woman elected to the Federal Parliament, in tears in the Senate and provoked a storm of condemnation.

A majority of senators refused to shake hands with Anning, as is the custom after maiden speeches, and some of those who did said they wished they hadn’t. Senator Derryn Hinch said he had followed tradition “and shook this unworthy man’s hand and I then went home and washed my own.”

But while Anning unleashed a bipartisan backlash, his words only emboldened his supporters, many of whom claim the Queensland Senator is only saying what the “silent majority” is thinking.

This silent majority were out in force on Anning’s Facebook page, with congratulatory messages and even calls for him to become Prime Minister. Others likened him to an Australian Donald Trump.

Anning’s comments, to be sure, did not come out of nowhere. They reflect an ongoing culture war which, with Australian nuances, echoes much of the frustration and dissatisfaction which catapulted Trump to office in the United States.

Australia’s polarization is also between the regions and cities. Where the cities are multicultural and cosmopolitan mixing pots, the regions are still bastions of the old Anglophile Australia championed by Anning.

Meanwhile, rising regional alienation from the urban policies of the so-called “elites” in Canberra is arguably fragmenting Australian society as never before.

As the national population hit over 25 million this month, the debate over immigration is raging. Proponents of a “Big Australia” say immigration is crucial for continued fast economic growth. Opponents, on the other hand, see a frightening transformation of Australia’s cultural mix.

The controversy was stirred last week over comments from local Alt-Right columnist Andrew Bolt, who write that “tidal waves of new tribes” were dividing Australia. Immigration, said Bolt, was tantamount to “colonization” and turning the country “from a home to a hotel.”

According to the 2016 Census, 28% of Australians were born overseas, the highest percentage of any country. A majority of that percentage were born in Asia. Forty-nine percent of the population are either first or second generation migrants, the census said. Muslims, constitute only 2.6% of the national population, the census showed.

Anning’s plea for a “final solution” called for a national plebiscite on immigration. On his Facebook page, his supporters claimed that the result of any plebiscite was assured: Australia would vote against immigration and Anning would be vindicated.

The census results, however, show that there is a very different silent majority than the anti-immigration one mobilized by Anning’s speech.

There may not be many Muslims, but Australia’s ethnicity is highly diverse. Given the opportunity to express their views, a larger silent majority might vote for a very different “final solution” than the one advocated by Anning.

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