When Right flexes might

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The below article first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on May 27, 2002, following the death of European right wing extremist Pim Fortuyn. Recent European right wing election results show that even though a decade old, this article has relevance today. It was co-written with Greg Barns.

When Right flexes might, human rights take flight
The far right misfits of the European political stage, the assassinated Dutch extremist politician Pim Fortuyn and France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen, have claimed their first scalp. According to British media reports last week, the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, reacted to Fortuyn’s party’s electoral success by talking tough on asylum seekers.

Blair apparently wants the air force to carry out bulk deportation of asylum seekers who are intercepted in the Mediterranean and to deport them back to the world’s most notorious danger spots: northern Iraq and Afghanistan. He also wants to push for a more hard-line stance on refugees in Europe at next month’s European Union summit in Seville. All this at a time when the EU released a report last week warning that the constant identification of asylum seekers with terrorist threats is turning Europe into a racist, xenophobic region.

This caving in to the far right must be resisted if we are to prevent the liberal democratic world from collapsing into a cesspool of hatred and resentment and an inevitable end to the great achievement of the 18th century “Enlightenment” – the universality of human rights.

The answer to the rise of intolerant rightwingism is to reinvigorate and defend the institutions and values that are under attack. Take multiculturalism, for example. In Europe, as in Australia, the trend has been to recognise that a society functions better when the individuality of communities is respected and enhanced, leading to a greater benefit to the collective and to the individual. If we are truly committed to the core values of tolerance, the uniqueness of every person and the greater benefit to all, then this is as it should be.

So instead of throwing up our hands and giving in to those who argue that multiculturalism is a divisive and corrosive force in the context of the nation state, our leaders must work at renewing it. We must turn off the tap of what The Guardian’s Martin Jacques called “Caucasian superiority”. We must work with leaders of ethnic communities to ensure that through leadership the values of tolerance and respect are enhanced in practical ways. Above all, we must ensure that the war on terrorism is not used as an excuse to close our borders to people fleeing hardship and repression.

The diatribes of Le Pen, Fortuyn and Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi against Muslims are as morally repugnant and dangerous as Hitler’s violent anti-Semitism. Scapegoating and treatment of human beings as somehow inferior (as in not wanting “that type of person here”) are totally incompatible with democracy and they breed state-sanctioned violence.

In politics it is easy to preach fear, hatred and intolerance. It is hard yet decent to promote tolerance, togetherness, forgiveness and compassion. But surely leadership is about taking hard decisions. Do we not have almost universal respect for Nelson Mandela precisely because he preached tolerance and forgiveness, not fear and retribution?

Australia and Europe need thousands of Mandelas who stand firm behind the universality of human rights. No comfort should be given to the bigotry and hate that Le Pen and others represent. No apologies or shifts to the hard right in policy should be contemplated if we want to enhance the liberal project.

Greg Barns is a former senior adviser to the Howard government. Andrew MacLeod was an ALP candidate in the last federal election.

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