Australia: ‘Beyond the pale’: PM rocked by new claims

Difference of interpretation or dog whistle?

Scott Morrison has been hit with fresh claims he sought to exploit anti-Muslim sentiment, with two witnesses to a shadow cabinet meeting in 2010 insisting there was a “blow up” with Malcolm Turnbull over the issue.

The Prime Minister has previously confirmed the discussion in an interview with The Project’s Waleed Aly, but insisted he sought to cool voter concerns over Muslim migration, not exploit it.

However, two people who attended the meeting on December 1, 2010 have told news.com.au they did not believe he raised the issue purely to address voter sentiment.

“Malcolm Turnbull genuinely ripped into him. Said it was ‘beyond the pale’,” a Liberal source said.

Another Liberal shadow cabinet member at the time told news.com.au: “He absolutely did talk about the Muslim migration.”

“He flagged it and I remember Phillip Ruddock was very scathing about it,” they said.

Reports of the meeting first emerged in 2011, with claims Mr Morrison urged the shadow cabinet to capitalise on the electorate’s growing concerns about “Muslim immigration”, “Muslims in Australia” and the “inability” of Muslim migrants to integrate.

Then-opposition leader Tony Abbott was not at the meeting, but deputy leader, Julie Bishop, and the former immigration minister, Philip Ruddock, strongly disagreed with the suggestion, pointing out the Coalition had long supported a non-discriminatory immigration policy.

Liberal sources said at the time Mr Morrison told the shadow cabinet meeting on December 1 at the Ryde Civic Centre that the Coalition should ramp up its questioning of “multiculturalism” amid deep voter concerns.

Three years ago, when the claims surfaced again, Prime Minister Scott Morrison described them as “a disgusting lie”.

Mr Morrison abruptly shut down a press conference when he was asked, “Those that did attend the meeting told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2011, quote, that Scott said, ‘What are we going to do about multiculturalism?’”

“I’m going to stop you there. I’ve already addressed this issue today. It is an ugly and repugnant lie,” Mr Morrison said.

“I reject it absolutely 100 per cent and my record of working with the Muslim community in Sydney in particular speaks volumes for my track record. Any suggestion to the contrary, I find utterly offensive. Thank you.”

But just 24 hours later, he confirmed he had raised concerns over the “anti-Muslim” sentiment of voters during a 2010 shadow cabinet meeting, but insisted it was only to “address them, not exploit them”.

Mr Morrison confirmed the discussions with The Project’s Waleed Aly in March 2019.

It was the first time the PM has admitted the discussions on “anti-Muslim” sentiments occurred, after describing claims he had sought to capitalise on the fears as “an ugly and disgusting lie” just 24 hours earlier.

In the interview, Aly asked: “Who is lying? You say that this never happened. You’ve called it a smear and a lie. Who is lying?”

Mr Morrison then blamed two “unnamed sources” in shadow cabinet – Liberal MPs – for twisting the truth of the meeting into “a lie”.

“What is suggested is that I said that we should exploit – exploit – concerns about Islam in the community to our political advantage,” Mr Morrison said.

“Well, I was the shadow immigration minister at the time. And I was very concerned about these issues and the way people were feeling in the community.”

In 2011, Liberal finance spokesman Andrew Robb confirmed that “Scott did talk about the strong feelings in the general community about Muslim immigration and he said that we as a party had to engage with that sentiment”.

“But I’m sure he meant we should engage in a constructive way,” Mr Robb said.

The story first emerged after Mr Morrison questioned the cost of asylum-seeker funerals in 2011. Mr Morrison later apologised for the “timing” of his comments, saying it was “inappropriate” and “insensitive”.

When Aly asked the Prime Minister about Mr Robb’s on-the-record confirmation that he had discussed anti-Muslim sentiment, Mr Morrison confirmed he had discussed it in the meeting.

“I was concerned that we needed to address them. Which is what I have been doing inside and outside of the Parliament for the last 10 years of my life,’’ he said.

“Yes – to lower them. I was acknowledging that there were these fears in the community and we had to address them, not exploit them.”

“I want to rule a line under this issue. It never happened. I have always been deeply concerned about attitudes towards people of Muslim faith in our community.”

Mr Morrison ended the interview with a plea for voters to respect his sincerity on fostering good relationships with the Muslim community.

“Don’t pre-judge me. I know what my values are,” he said.

Source: ‘Beyond the pale’: PM rocked by new claims

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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