Something rotten

Who in their right mind compares a pro-Palestine protest to the Port Arthur massacre?

On April 28, 1996, a man shot and killed 35 people at Tasmania’s historic former convict settlement Port Arthur, wounding many others. The Port Arthur massacre was the worst in modern Australian history: men, women and children were shot in the head, the chest, the back, as the perpetrator gunned down victims at point-blank range. Although it led to changes to Australia’s gun laws, it remains a haunting mass murder that shaped the nation. On April 10, 2024, just over a fortnight ahead of the massacre’s 28th anniversary, a man gave a speech, declaring that “something is rotten in the state of Australia”. Delivering the Tom Hughes oration, Opposition Leader Peter Dutton took aim at Labor and the “woke” police, alleging that his opponents were enabling anti-Semitism, before going on to suggest the pro-Palestinian protests that took place outside the Sydney Opera House on October 9 “were akin to a Port Arthur moment in terms of their social significance”. Dutton claimed the PM had not “risen to that moment”, offering his own warning to the “recalcitrant minority”. There is indeed something rotten in the state of Australia: a divisive Opposition leader untethered from reality, offering up unhinged ramblings and apparently believing them to be reasonable.

Dutton said plenty of other outrageous things in last night’s speech, as he doubled down on criticism of the foreign affairs minister for daring to utter the words “Palestinian state” – most of them fairly predictable. “For a crass domestic political win, Penny Wong has irreparably damaged our relations with our ally Israel,” he said, as if Wong hadn’t merely raised what large parts of the world are talking about, including many of our allies. But it was when Dutton was discussing anti-Semitism, blaming the government for what he called an unprecedented rise, that things got especially foggy. Children, he claimed, were being “force-fed … anti-Israel hate” at school, and he vowed to safeguard Australia “from those who seek to destroy it”. “We must not surrender our civilisation to anti-civilisational forces,” he added conspiratorially. “In the wake of the events at the Sydney Opera House, I believe we need a reassertion of our cultural values to clear the moral fog.”

It gets quite exhausting trying to find new ways to write about Peter Dutton’s vile rhetoric, to give it the condemnation it deserves without sounding like a broken record. But it goes without saying that there is something deeply wrong with comparing a pro-Palestine protest to a massacre, no matter what you thought of those protests. (It is interesting to note that The Australian made no mention of the Port Arthur comments in its write-up of Dutton’s remarks, perhaps considering it a bridge too far even for News Corp.) Labor MP Brian Mitchell, who represents the Port Arthur area, has called on Dutton to “reflect” and “refrain from making such divisive and inflammatory comments”, noting that “the Australian people put politics aside and came together in common purpose” following the tragedy. Asked today whether he stood by his comments, Dutton doubled down, claiming that Anthony Albanese was a “weak” leader, while denying he was making a direct comparison between the incidents and attacking the ABC journalist for attempting to “tarnish” him.

Does Dutton actually believe what he is saying? That a pro-Palestine protest, and not the war in Gaza, is what has led to a breakdown in social cohesion in Australia, and that the PM is personally responsible? That the protests of October 9 are akin to the 1996 massacre “in terms of social significance”, and “our way of life” is at threat? That the government “has failed to provide the moral clarity which distinguishes the lawful from the lawless, which differentiates civilisation from barbarism, and which discerns the good from the evil”? The Opposition leader has made a career out of incendiary commentary, willing to use all sorts of tragedies to his own political ends. But it’s increasingly apparent that it’s Dutton himself who is creating this rotten moral fog, in which it is perfectly normal to evoke a deadly massacre in an attempt to condemn those who are crying out against another.

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