With the 2016 election looming, John Safran makes a triumphant return to our screens this week with a new one-off special.
The Goddam Election with John Safran sees him investigate some of Australia’s more radical political groups – in particular the far-right anti-Islam movement.
What he discovers is that many of the party faithful are not in fact just the Anglo “bogans with swastikas on their noggins,” that we’ve been led to believe make up this extremist fringe. Instead he finds that many of these groups are actually a veritable “rainbow coalition” of diverse and multicultural supporters.
Safran sat down with SBS Comedy this week to tell us about how he started this journey and what he’s learned along the way:
Q: What have you been up to this year that led you down this path?
JS: My main thing is writing this book about Islam and anti-Islam in Australia so I’ve been going on adventures with both Muslims and also the people who don’t like Muslims.
Then suddenly the election was called and it was like “oh, hang on – there’s people here who are running for parliament.”
So I thought I better take a break from the book for a while and follow this adventure.
Q: Do you think the anti-Islam movement is on the rise in Australia?
JS: I think what’s more likely to happen is, that they’ll normalize. They’ll say the outrageous things that sound so outrageous the first time you hear them. Then by repetition, they’ll normalize them and then more mainstream politicians can and will take up their message.
I did notice that some of these anti-Islam people – the issue they have with breaking into the mainstream (whether that’s getting to be on the panel of Q&A or whether that’s getting into parliament) is that they just seem strange.
For instance if you’re an evangelical Christian, you’re kind of strange – not in a bad way – but you know most Australians aren’t evangelical Christians.
So if you’ve got an anti-Islam group and they’re coming from that perspective, they’re already kind of odd. So therefore most Australians are going to say “this is a bit strange” and not want to get involved.
It’s the same with the United Patriots Front, who I’ve noticed the leaders – at least in the Golden Years (you know before a couple of months ago before they all kind of collapsed) the leaders, almost incidentally, had ‘larrikin’ personalities and that really worked.
One of the leaders - this dude called Blair, is very political and he screams on the microphone and that’s almost just too odd for people.
Even just being too political is too odd for most Australians. “What’s wrong with you? Why are you so interested in politics?”
Even turning up to a rally is almost un-Australian – it’s like a radical act. And that’s one thing I’ve learnt so far writing the book, is that lots of Australians don’t like radicalness and don’t like strangeness.
So ironically some of these anti-Islam personalities and groups they get punished for the same reason that women wearing hijabs get punished because “You are STRANGE”.
And when Reclaim Australia had this ‘golden moment’ with the one rally in Bendigo where thousands of people turned up, it was like a family day with picnic rugs…and they managed to seem almost normal. That was this moment where it didn’t seem strange with their anti-Islam [movement].
Soon after that, one of the dudes involved with Reclaim Australia had his house raided and they found this bomb-making equipment – and then that went out via the media and I think that kind of killed them a bit. Suddenly it was like “oh hang on, these people are weird”.
Q: So how come someone like Cory Bernardi is so popular?
JS: He presents “normal.”
Cory’s an interesting example of how you can have the same message but come across more…mainstream.
Even though he’s Christian, even HE knows he has to frame his arguments as more cultural: “It’s the Australian tradition,” etc.
Even [when he talks about] Christian-Judaic “values,” that’s not quite “religion” of itself.
I’ve noticed for example that even the Australian Christian Lobby on Q & A won’t come out and say “well the bible says that homosexuality is a sin.” They won’t just come right out and say it.
One of the interesting things I’ve learnt doing this book and doco is that migrants to Australia – especially those who have recently arrived - they don’t always ‘get’ that Anglo-Australian thing, that we’re are a bit more apprehensive about religion.
They haven’t learnt that - so they’re more likely to just come out and say it.
That’s why you have people like Pastor Danny Nalliah from Rise Up Australia, who’s a Sri-Lankan immigrant with a huge multi-ethnic congregation. They’re very powerful in the anti-Islam movement. One of the reasons for that is they just don’t have that hang-up. They’re not shy because they haven’t grown up around it.
Remember when Tony Abbott was in power and he was Catholic but even he knew that he had to pay lip-service: “Oh don’t worry about it. Even though I’m Catholic, I’m not going to let it affect my policies.”
Whilst if you’re an immigrant who’s Christian, you don’t know that that’s what you’re meant to say. So they’re more likely to say “oh the Bible says this and that and it’d be really cool to have Christians in government and then they can pass it on.”
Q: So do you think mainstream Australia is becoming more and more depoliticized and that’s why this election is being called boring?
JS: Yeah! Politicians have definitely learnt the lesson of “DON’T take a risk – just be normal.”
I guess that’s what both Turnbull and Shorten are trying to present themselves as.
For my sake, it would be great if they were a bit more interesting. I find the American election fascinating – I just can’t stop listening to podcasts about it. It’s just thrilling.
Its “woman-with-most-skeletons –in-her-closet” meets “man-who’s-most-likely-to-not-care-about-saying-everything”.
So it’s just fascinating – Donald Trump just bringing up all this weird awkward stuff – it’s something that Mitt Romney wouldn’t do, but [Donald] just doesn’t care.
It just makes the American election so interesting.
Q: So Goddam Election focusses more on the fringe political groups – did you have any luck pursuing mainstream politicians?
JS: I think generally the Liberal party just says “Oh, Safran’s on our case – no doubt a prank is about to happen.” So that’s fair enough.
Generally though, the thing with politicians is that they’re more likely to just speak mush. They know how to say these general motherhood statements.
I much prefer the people who are on the edges, as they’re much more likely to just say what they think. They say spiky things - so that’s why I prefer hanging with them.
Q: You had better luck with Labor though and Sam Dastyari – how’d that go?
JS: He’s really interesting because he grew up in Iran when he was really young and his parents were enemies of the State. So it’s interesting how he didn’t “radicalize”.
There's a lot of people who have horrible experiences overseas and so that’s why they become part of the anti-Islam movement. Even former Muslims who’ve left.
Sam says he’s an atheist so religiously he’s not Muslim anymore. So I asked him “why aren’t you a member of Reclaim Australia?”
He said “yeah it’s weird!” People who have similar awful experiences under some theocratic regime can come out the other side and just take it totally different.
Q: Do you think it’s a bit weird that these right-wing groups often have such a multi-cultural make-up? Is it a good thing?
Sure, it’s good to have a rainbow coalition. It’s interesting how some people have their “story” of how there’s these white supremacists on one side of the police line and there’s brown people on the other side. They get shitty if you tell the truth.
It’s kind of white-washing people’s experience.
Pastor Daniel for instance is a significant figure in Australia – he spent five years in court fighting that he’d religiously vilified Muslims.
At the end of the day, he got it onto the Australian law books that you can’t just drag someone to court because they’ve “blasphemed” against Islam.
So he’s had this enormous influence on Australian culture - but he’s too much of a complicated figure so people try and dismiss him as some kind of novelty act.
"It’s kind of white-washing people’s experience"
He’s absolutely serious [about the election]. If you believe him, he nearly got into parliament when he was with Family First….then at the last minute something happened.
But if Pastor Daniel was in Parliament it’d be brilliant.
Pastor Daniel was interviewed for this Channel Seven current affair show that was looking into the far right in Australia. They interviewed him along with all these other people and yet he was left on the cutting room floor.
The word he got from the producer was that the TV station said “people would find it too confusing” – because he’s not a white guy. So it was written off as “too complicated”.
You can’t whitewash these stories.
The sarcastic guy in me finds it hilarious that it’s a bit of a leftie trope that non-white people don’t get enough access to television and there should be more voices of non-white people.
When they say that though they just assume that non-white people are just going to say their talking points. They just presume there’s going to be this brown person who talks about how bad the detention centres are - and about climate change!
But well then what happens when it’s Pastor Daniel?
"I think our right-wing parties ARE multicultural and I think it’s useful to swallow the medicine and acknowledge that that’s how it is."
People get shitty with me because they like to think I’m just trolling about irrelevant things.
“Ugh, it’s just not relevant – this is about WHITE nationalism.”
What I learnt from the book is that people who migrate here have got their own stories. Their heritage has its own backstory.
There’ve been Hindu Indian people who’ve turned up to these [right wing] rallies. The simple story that people like to think is that “they’re just trying to suck up to white people by bullying these other brown people and immigrants so that ‘then the white people won’t pick on me’”.
But the whole history of India and Hinduism and Islam there goes back way further – hundreds of years – further than Pauline Hanson or the United Patriots Front.
So for people to just dismiss their story as these dumb hokey brown people just trying to suck up to white people, it’s just really simplistic.
I think our right-wing parties ARE multicultural and I think it’s useful to swallow the medicine and acknowledge that that’s how it is, instead of having this facile analysis that it’s just white people vs brown people. It’s messier than that.
Missed The Goddam Election! with John Safran? Catch up on SBS On Demand and watch the full program below:
John Safran also caught up with SBS French on SBS Radio this week. Listen to his interview with Christophe Mallet below: