SYDNEY // As Australians go to the polls today to vote in the general election, immigration and policies towards minorities have become main issues in the national debate. Australia's conservative opposition leader was recently challenged on national television to outline how he would foster better relations between the Muslim minority and wider society if his party wins a general election this weekend.
Tony Abbott, a devout Catholic, was asked by a member of the audience on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's programme Q&A if he would accept an invitation to open an Islamic school or break bread with Muslims during Ramadan. In response, the Liberal Party leader, who has been criticised for his hardline policies on asylum seekers, said: "There is a mosque just outside my electorate and I visited that. I've broken bread with Muslim people so I've already done precisely what you asked me to do, but having said that, I'm happy to do it again."
Mr Abbott also indicated that it was important for migrants to assimilate. "I'd also say that once people come to Australia they join the team and the great thing about Australia is that people from all over the world, of all sorts of different faiths and cultures, have successfully joined the team and long may that continue." As of yesterday, the race was too close to call with Mr Abbott running neck and neck with the incumbent prime minister, Julia Gillard, of the Labor Party in the latest opinion polls, according to the BBC.
Along with the economy, immigration has been a consistent part of campaigns. Mr Abbott's Liberal Party has promised to send back boats ferrying a steady flow of mostly Afghan, Sri Lankan and Iraqi asylum seekers into Australia's northern waters, while pledging to reopen a controversial offshore detention camp on the tiny South Pacific island of Nauru that was closed two years ago. The governing Labor Party also plans to send refugees to a processing centre in neighbouring East Timor, which Ms Gillard said would disrupt the activities of human traffickers who would no longer be able to guarantee their desperate cargo passage to Australia.
The two leaders have sought to exploit a deep sense of anxiety within sections of the Australian community about mysterious foreigners appearing unexpectedly on distant horizons on rickety fishing vessels, while critics have accused them of bigotry. "The campaign that Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard have both been running about the boats is drumming up race as an issue. What does that say to the rest of Australia? That says beware of race and beware of foreign people," said Malikeh Michels, who converted to Islam and is a Greens Party candidate for parliament in Sydney. "It has drummed up xenophobia. It is not good for people who aren't white Australians."
Last month a Liberal candidate in Sydney was sacked for posting comments online that attacked his opponent's Muslim faith. Pino Migliorino, who chairs the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia, a lobby group for non-English speakers, said that multiculturalism had barely registered during the lead up to polling day. "As we move into this election the only references to migrants are in a negative context, either as asylum seekers or as people who are going to come to Australia are put undue burden on our infrastructure," he said.
"They [the politicians] have not even kissed a baby who is not white, they have not been seen with electors who aren't from an English-speaking background. All that is stage-managed and is specifically designed for mainstream, middle Australia," Mr Migliorino said. It is estimated there are about 300,000 Muslims in Australia. Their political allegiances vary, according to Ms Michels, who said that Turkish migrants who arrived in the 1970s have traditionally voted Labor, while Lebanese settlers who fled civil war have often supported the Liberals, the champion of small businesses.
Ramzi Elsayed, the president of the Islamic Council of Victoria, said there was now rising disenchantment among many voters. "The Muslim community has become ambivalent to the whole thing and in terms of both major political parties we can't draw a line between them unfortunately. Asylum seekers has been a very significant issue for us because we see it as a human rights issue and is hasn't been properly addressed."
It has been argued that an Islamic Party would give Muslims in Australia a unified voice, and although it appears to be some way off. Kaled Kheir, a board member of the Lebanese Muslim Association, said his community needed to be more involved in domestic politics. "We are to blame in a way in that we haven't addressed the issues and haven't confronted the politicians to address the issues more reasonably and coherently," he said.
Mr Kheir, a solicitor, said he was confident, however, that Australia's Muslims would soon find a stronger voice. "I am excited about the 18-to-25-year-old generation I'm seeing coming through because these are mostly educated and are enthusiastic about getting involved in the political process. I get very excited about the contribution they are likely to make in the future," he said. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org