Responding to Paris: How a different PM changed the tone


Just days after imploring others not to do so, I find myself writing about Tony Abbott. That’s because it’s impossible to write about Australia’s response to the past weekend’s events in Paris without noting what the former prime minister had to say about the apparent terrorist attack – or perhaps more importantly, what he declined to say.

In the short time since Malcolm Turnbull wrested the Liberal leadership from Abbott, there’s been a discernible difference in the way the Government talks about key issues. In particular, Turnbull has made a point of trying to raise the level of political discourse.

Admittedly, the PM’s intentions aren’t completely altruistic. By refusing to “play the rule in, rule out game”, for example, Turnbull manages to avoid some scrutiny. However, when it comes to the way we discuss terrorism, the new PM appears to genuinely have the national interest at heart.

During his time as PM, Abbott resorted to whipping up fear and presenting a tough-guy persona in an effort to cleave voters to the Government. Turnbull has taken a different tack, moving to neutralise the former PM’s divisive approach, which reportedly was causing alienation in the Muslim community.

No longer are we subjected to Abbott’s anxiety-inciting references to the Islamic State death cult, lurking in our own backyards, patiently waiting to delivers us from our “way of life”.

Gone too are the references to those of Muslim faith not doing enough about extremists committing atrocities in the name of Islam. And there are less underhand efforts to encourage voters to equate asylum seekers with terrorists.

Just weeks after becoming PM, Turnbull reversed the onus imposed by Abbott on the Muslim community, flagging instead that he wanted the Government to work cooperatively with Muslim leaders to combat home-grown extremism.

Turnbull put this commitment into action at the time of the Parramatta police station shooting, participating in a phone hook-up with Muslim leaders soon after the event.

In stark contrast to the blame-laying Abbott, Turnbull emphasised the Muslim community was our “necessary partner” in “combating this type of violent extremism”, and stressed that “we must not vilify or blame the entire Muslim community with the actions of what is, in truth, a very, very small percentage of violent extremist individuals”.

Following the terror attacks that occurred in Paris late last week, it would have been fair to expect the disparity between Abbott and Turnbull’s responses to continue.

It was the former PM’s tendency to seek out sympathetic media and make Rudd-like appearances to remind supporters that he still existed, that led this writer to plead on social media just hours before the Paris attack for journalists to stop writing about Abbott.

The logic behind the plea was the quicker we relegated the former PM’s divisive views as irrelevant, the better chance Australia had of having a mature discussion on controversial issues such as terrorism and border protection.

As expected, PM Turnbull made all the right noises in response to the Paris attacks. Voicing solidarity with the people of France, the “home of freedom”, Turnbull stressed that free societies such as our own “will not be cowed by terrorism, no matter how shocking”.

Instead of inciting fear, the PM sought to reassure Australians that “we have the finest security agencies in the world” and “a government that is utterly committed to protecting the safety of Australians at home and so far as we can abroad”.

And instead of blaming Muslims – either directly or indirectly – the PM laid responsibility for the attacks at the feet of those who use religion to justify violence. Stating that protecting Australians and their freedom was a global battle, Turnbull said those who “seek to assert some form of religious tyranny” were posing “a threat in the name of God” but were “truthfully the work of the devil”.

The PM also downplayed the link between terrorist threats in Australia and asylum seekers, noting that “the history of terrorist activities in Australia and people of concern in this area is very much, for the most part, second and third-generation Australians”.

Even so, a small number of conservatives have called for Australian borders to be closed in response to the Paris attacks, and for the Immigration Minister to be reinstalled as a permanent member of the cabinet national security committee.

However, in an appearance on his good friend Andrew Bolt’s Sunday morning television program, Abbott was far less antagonistic than any of us anticipated. At times, his not so gracious host appeared considerably frustrated with the former PM’s disinclination to indulge in inflammatory language.

Only once reverting to his favourite term, the Islamic State “death cult”, Abbott admittedly warned “this vicious, evil entity is getting stronger,” and that “it has to be defeated at home. It has to be defeated abroad”.

But then Abbott declined Bolt’s invitation to encourage a “fatwa” to condemn Islamic State, and when pressured by his host to condemn Muslim leaders for inaction, Abbot surprisingly echoed Turnbull, lamenting “the tragedy for Islam, Andrew, is that the people who are doing these horrible, evil things claim to be doing it in the name of God. They claim to be doing it in the name of Islam. And that’s the difficulty.”

Abbott also waved away an opportunity to criticise his successor after Bolt complained that two of the first four Syrian refugee families to be resettled in Australia were Muslim. Stating he was “in the business of supporting the Government of which I am a very junior member,” Abbott then told Bolt he “shouldn’t rush to judge the Turnbull Government based on the first four families who arrive”.

He also avoided criticising Foreign Minister Julie Bishop for her suspected role in the Turnbull leadership challenge, and continued to defend his decision not to water down the Racial Discrimination Act.

Abbott’s unwillingness to pander to Bolt’s prejudices and predilections has left political observers scratching their heads.

Has the former PM seen the light and decided to join his successor’s campaign for more mature political discourse? Or is Abbott’s motivating force more material than spiritual – perhaps there is the promise of a cushy diplomatic posting to the UK if he can manage to play nice.

Perhaps the reason for Abbott’s newfound diplomacy is irrelevant. While Australia continues to face a terrorist threat that is at least partly driven by the alienation created by divisive language, our nation can only benefit from the ex-PM finding his inner statesman.