Australian senator's call for Muslim ban is an outlier opinion in the country

  • Australian senator Fraser Anning on Tuesday called for a national vote to ban people of non-European descent from migrating to Australia.
  • His comments, which were criticized by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and major political parties, don't suggest a rising trend of conservatism Down Under, according to commentators who said Anning's perspective is only shared by individuals at the margins of Australian political thinking.
Melbourne, Australia
Michael Dodge - Getty Images
Melbourne, Australia

Australian Senator Fraser Anning this week reinvigorated long-standing debates about immigration after calling for a national vote to ban people of non-European descent from migrating to the country.

Delivering his first-ever address to parliament on Tuesday, the politician advocated a return to the "White Australia" policy, which existed in the country for most of the 1900s before being abolished in 1973. Anning, a member of the right-wing Katter's Australian Party, singled out Muslims in particular, associating their presence with terrorism and claiming they were the group least able to integrate.

His comments prompted an immediate rebuke from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and major political parties, which quickly branded Anning a racist. Even the leader of the anti-Islam, anti-immigration One Nation Party that Anning previously belonged to criticized the speech, describing it as "straight from Goebbels' handbook from Nazi Germany."

The speech drew comparisons to Nazism in part because of Anning declaring a vote on a Muslim ban would be "the final solution to the immigration problem." (The Final Solution, or the Final Solution to the Jewish Question, was a Nazi plan for the genocide of the Jews during World War Two. Anning has since said he did not know the phrase's historic connection to the murder of millions.)

'A long-standing strain of racism'

Anning's views don't suggest a rising trend of conservatism Down Under, according to commentators who said his perspective is only shared by individuals at the margins of Australian political thinking.

Tuesday's speech "reflects a long-standing strain of racism that pervades a small corner of Australian society, as it appears to do in most societies," said Damien Kingsbury, professor of international politics at Melbourne's Deakin University. "Australia has long had a small, if vocal, racist minority and over the past decade, a small number of them have managed to gain a place in Australia's Senate, based on its sometimes skewed system of allocating preferences," he explained.

The speech, however, does highlight more widely shared concerns about the impact of immigration on housing and infrastructure. That's a factor that Turnbull, who leads the center-right Liberal Party, can't afford to ignore as he seeks re-election next year.

Australia, considered one of the world's most immigrant-friendly nations, is currently experiencing soaring population growth as more skilled migrants head to its resource-rich territories. In the country's 2016-2017 fiscal year, net overseas migration reflected an annual gain of 262,500 persons, 27.3 percent more than in the 2015-2016 period, according to government data.

Demand triggered by newcomers is believed to boost the economy: Reserve Bank of Australia Governor Philip Lowe recently attributed the country's high average growth to population expansion. But it's also seen driving property prices and congestion higher, and that's led many to call for lower migration rates.

Former Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr is one of those voices. At a televised ABC panel in March, the Labor Party leader said immigration rates should be halved, suggesting the country could still achieve the same benefits from migration with lower numbers. Carr previously argued that the quality of life in metropolises such as Sydney and Melbourne would deteriorate if migration continued at current levels.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, meanwhile, has repeatedly argued that a migrant intake cut would benefit the economy and alleviate overcrowding of big cities, particularly on roads and hospitals, according to local media reports.

Around 54 percent of Australians believe the annual number of migrants is "too high," according to a 2018 poll from think tank the Lowy Institute released in June. It's the first time that a majority of citizens have opposed current immigration rates, the organization said.

"Australians also appear to be questioning the impact of immigration on the national identity," the Lowy poll said.

Around 41 percent of poll respondents said they believe the country's open door policy threatened the idea of Australian identity. When asked the same question, only 29 percent of U.S. citizens felt the same way, indicating Australians were more divided on the question than Americans, the Lowy Institute said.

U.S. President Donald Trump has sought to restrict travel from majority Muslim countries, a move that the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled as constitutional despite widespread backlash.

—Reuters contributed to this report.