Tensions over the war in Gaza are at boiling point and politicians have an important role in bringing down the temperature

Tensions over the war in Gaza are at boiling point and politicians have an important role in bringing down the temperature
  • PublishedJune 10, 2024

Politicians across the political divide — Labor, Liberal and crossbench — believe we are at a national crossroads, where militant political activity and rhetoric opposing the war in Gaza is coming dangerously close to sparking what could become real physical violence.

This is a view that many politicians have shared with me, the fear that there is a radicalisation going on that may have dangerous consequences. 

They base this on the correspondence they are receiving; some have received death and rape threats accusing them of being complicit in the war. A visceral anger that goes beyond normal levels of legitimate protest and activism.

It is important to note that many protesters have taken to the streets because they are concerned about the number of Palestinian civilian deaths and to imply they are motivated by violence and vilification is reckless and inaccurate. 

But scrutiny of the type of actions being taken and whether some language is making an inflamed situation worse is worthy of our attention.

We’ve reached a boiling point

This simmering issue boiled over into one of the most ugly and brutal debates we’ve seen in this term of parliament this week. 

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese accused the Greens of “deliberately and consciously” spreading misinformation about the war in Gaza, demanding that they condemn protests against parliamentarian’s offices.

In response to a question about social cohesion from independent MP Sophie Scamps, the PM said communities across Australia were “distressed” about the war in the Middle East.

“Every one of us has a responsibility to keep our community safe. Social cohesion is a national asset to all of us. All of us have a responsibility to uphold and defend,” Albanese told parliament.

Labor MPs’ offices and even the US Consulate in Victoria have been vandalised by pro-Palestine protesters. Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus had red paint sprayed on the front of his electorate office in Melbourne.

There has been an increase in security for MPs and some say they’ve had to shut their offices over concerns for the safety of their staff and themselves.

A week ago, the prime minister had to cancel an event in his own electorate because it was seen as too high risk for him to appear. Another MP told me they had been verbally attacked when out with their children.

Albanese told parliament that the aspirations of the Palestinian community were being “undermined” by people engaging in activity that “completely alienates the Australian public”.

“The targeting of people because they are Jewish, because people will disagree with some of the actions of the Netanyahu government are completely unacceptable,” he said.

“As political leaders, we have a responsibility to lower [the] temperature — not to inflame it.”

Labor and the Greens at odds

The big accusation this week has been that the Greens are actively inflaming tensions, something they strongly contest. What some people regard as legitimate political activism others argue goes too far. 

The prime minister believes the protest outside his electorate office has gone on too long and has forced him to close it due to safety concerns. He sees this as illegitimate and an obstruction to democracy; he says his constituents are unable to have their issues dealt with because of it. 

Others say it is legitimate and an expression of frustration, contesting that it is, in fact, a blockade.

Labor has pointed to videos of Greens senator Mehreen Faruqi encouraging a sit-in outside of Albanese’s electorate office as an example of Greens politicians “encouraging the crowd to continue to blockade” politicians’ workplaces.

In a February post on social media, Senator Faruqi called for supporters to join a “permanent” sit-in at Albanese’s office.

The Greens leader Adam Bandt has also previously said on social media that protesters should continue holding the government to account by “marching, calling, blockading”.

Greens MP Max Chandler-Mather — who denied the party stirred up social disharmony by supporting pro-Palestine protests — was forced to defend his colleague for allegedly being involved in a “blockade” of the prime minister’s electorate office in an interview with me last week.

Chandler-Mather said the Greens did not condone property damage and supported peaceful protest. Pressed on the anti-Semitic language used by some protesters, including the phrase “zios go back to Europe”, he agreed the language was wrong.

But the dispute between Labor and the Greens isn’t going to dial down on its own. The ABC understands the prime minister and senior Labor figures reached out to the Greens leader before this week’s parliamentary explosion to plead with him to dial it down, but were unable to get much traction.

The Greens do not accept the accusation that they are part of the problem.

Bandt said that he would not be lectured about peace and non-violence by people who back the invasion of Gaza.

“Children are dying because the Israeli army has engineered a famine and instead of talking about the victims, the prime minister wants to make it about himself,” he said. 

Later in a statement, the Greens leader said the government was desperately trying to distract from their continued backing of Israel’s invasion of Gaza.

“Labor and Liberal abused Question Time to defend the invasion of Gaza and shut down any debate about Labor’s ongoing refusal to recognise Palestine, stop the two-way arms trade with Israel and call for a permanent ceasefire,” he said.

The government is particularly angry that the Greens are arguing that they haven’t called for a ceasefire, when they have, and that they are supplying weapons to Israel, which they strongly contest.

It all culminated on Thursday morning when Bandt threatened Dreyfus with legal action over what he said were “utterly unfounded statements” made on the ABC and “spreading disinformation”.

Meanwhile, Peter Dutton continued his criticism of the Greens on Thursday, telling 2GB he thought Bandt was “unfit for public office”. He is now demanding the government rule out taking preferences from the Greens — something he knows Labor won’t commit to.

Community tensions at an all-time high

Independent MP Zoe Daniel said the tensions in parliament were a “microcosm of what is happening in the community”.

“There’s influence that we can exert, and we should, but we also need to be thinking about what’s happening in our community here before someone gets hurt,” she said.

“And what I’d like to see is the prime minister, the opposition leader and the leader of the Australian Greens sit down together. They’re never going to agree on their position on this situation, but they need to sit down together and talk about how we’re going to navigate this as a community because we are at a dangerous tipping point.

“I had death threats yesterday, as did a number of other MPs. And it’s not only about MPs. You know, it’s about Jewish people feeling not safe walking down the streets and anti-Semitism.

“It’s about clashes at protests. It’s about … a lack of capacity to have conversations with each other.”

It comes as there are growing reports of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism throughout the community.

Liberal MP Julian Leeser, speaking in the House of Representatives last week, said as a Jewish-Australian he is tired of the government and other bodies being “unable to say anti-Semitism without saying Islamophobia in the same breath”.

He is right that there is at times a belittling of anti-Semitism — which is real and ugly — but Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism is also on the rise.

Recently, Islamophobic and anti-Palestinian slurs were found graffitied on a Melbourne resident’s driveway. The attack comes amid a spike of Islamophobic and anti-Palestinian hate incidents reported across the country in recent months, according to the Islamophobia Register.

Keith Wolahan, the federal member for Menzies in Melbourne’s north-east, said the matter had been referred to police. “The line between the legitimate expression of highly charged emotions and ugly hate looks like this,” he said.

Wolahan said our diversity is being severely tested by righteous moral dualism.

“Perception is replacing perspective and narrative is dominating nuance. If you tell people the world is comprised of heroes and villains, and point to fellow Australians as being ‘complicit in genocide’, where do we think that ends?

“For our great multiracial nation to persevere, we must unite behind what binds us as Australians and learn to listen to each other again.”

All of this is happening against a backdrop of a fragmented media environment. A recent survey of 2,000 voters from the RedBridge group found 64 per cent did not trust information in the mainstream media. 

On social media, it was even lower, with 76 per cent saying they don’t trust the information they see.

According to RedBridge director Tony Barry, the results show “a new tribalism which no longer looks for consensus but instead plays to a narrow base or audience”. 

“This is why we are seeing not just fragmented voting patterns but also a fragmented media market as people search to find their tribe,” he said.

Why does it matter? With such a profound mistrust of the places where information and news about our community is available, societal dysfunction breeds.

The war in Gaza has amplified the fault lines in our community — it has fuelled a hardening of positions and forced people into a binary that has created a competition around who is suffering the most. Vilification, whether anti-Semitic or Islamophobic, is unacceptable. Full stop.

No political leader is responsible for the actions of individuals but the tone they set and the language they choose to use can have an enormous impact on what kind of country we choose to be.


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