Worshippers pray for victims and families of the Christchurch shootings during an evening vigil a the Lakemba Mosque, Friday, March 15, 2019, in Wakemba, New South Wales, Australia.

© 2019 Mark Goudkamp via AP

Today is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, known in Australia as Harmony Day. It’s especially relevant given last Friday’s attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, where an Australian right-wing extremist gunned down at least 50 people and wounded dozens more in two mosques. The attacker livestreamed the shootings and published a manifesto of hate.

New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, has shown leadership with compassion and integrity in standing with victims and speaking up against hateful and xenophobic rhetoric.

In neighboring Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison also strongly condemned the attack and inflammatory statements by a far-right senator. But many Australians have questioned the sincerity of Morrison’s response on Christchurch, especially given the record of senior Australian government officials in scapegoating Muslims and conflating Islam or refugees with terrorism for political gain.

On Monday, a Liberal Party senator, Linda Reynolds, cited the 2002 Bali bombings in Indonesia that killed 202 people to explain her opposition to a bill to allow urgent medical evacuations of refugees from the islands of Manus and Nauru. Were asylum seekers responsible for the Bali attack? No. Is there any connection? None.

But if politicians and media say the words “refugee,” “Muslim,” and “terrorist” together enough, people start to internalize it. As immigration minister, Morrison insisted people seeking asylum be referred to as “illegal maritime arrivals.” Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has suggested that visas for white South African farmers be fast-tracked on humanitarian grounds while castigating past governments for allowing refugees from Lebanon to come to Australia, which he linked to terrorism. Tabloid media in Australia have time and again painted a picture of refugees as potential terrorists. 

And it’s not just the governing coalition. On Tuesday, leaked footage emerged of past remarks by New South Wales opposition leader Michael Daley telling a pub audience that educated Asians are “moving in and taking their jobs.”

These are not the loony fringe nationalistic politicians that proudly preach Islamphobia and racist policies. These are mainstream Australian political parties.

What Christchurch tells us is that the short-term political gain in stirring up fear and anxieties around foreigners is not just wrong, but dangerous. On Harmony Day, Australia’s leaders should pledge to call out xenophobic and racist rhetoric, so as to prevent however inadvertently sowing the seeds of discrimination and violence against Muslims or any other minority.