Recently Palmer United Party Senator for Tasmania, Jacqui Lambie, shared an anti-burqa image first posted by a group called Britain First on her Facebook page. The widely reposted image showed a woman dressed in a burqa and pointing a gun. It was accompanied by the words "Terror attack level: Severe - an attack is highly likely" and "For security reasons it's now time to ban the burqa". The text clearly showed the intention behind posting the image "Do you agree the burqa is a security risk?" Much attention has been given to Lambie's use of the image but not so much to the group who originally supplied it.
The first problem, as reported by many outlets (ABC, SMH, news.com.au), is that the woman dressed in a burka and pointing the gun, portrayed by the posted image as a terrorist security risk, was in fact a leading policewoman from Afghanistan, Malalai Kakar (1967-2008), who was assassinated by the Taliban. An image of a woman who fought for women's rights in a country that always desperately needs such people has been ripped off without the original photographer's consent or even attribution of the source, to make an implied claim that burqa-wearing women are a security hazard to the west, a view that neither the photographer nor subject (whatever their views on the burqa) would have shared. To make matters worse, Lambie has since said that she knew the back-story before reposting the image.
Jacqui Lambie is a former soldier who says that putting your life on the line for your country is a great thing. Here, in pursuit of an anti-burqa agenda, she demeans the memory of a very brave woman who died doing exactly that and was killed by much the same enemy Lambie rails against - the Taliban, a group whose attitudes are such a big part of the "burqa problem" in the first place. This is not about Lambie's view that the burqa should be banned, but is about her way of expressing it. It's hard to tell whether Lambie is too stubborn, too determined to create sensation at any cost, or too malignantly clueless to understand this.
Lambie Digs Her Own Hole Deeper
Lambie's first defence on Facebook following reaction to her actions could be any of these things. Her advisers need to tell her that when you are in a hole, you should stop digging:
Now much of this is likely true, though I'm not sure what anybody bothered by egotism is doing in the Palmer Party. But it's completely missing the point. The point is that if you grant that Kakar was fighting against subjugation, then using an image of her to fuel a scare campaign about women dressed in burqas going around shooting people with concealed weapons is not only insensitive but daft.
Lambie's second defence was even sillier: playing the victim:
Seriously, what a mimophantic sookfest. Lambie posted an unauthorised adaptation of someone else's intellectual property to make an incompatible point and suddenly they are at fault for taking justified offence at her crass and clueless behaviour. Again, Lambie is either not getting it or else wilfully ignoring it: the Britain First use of the image, combined with the accompanying text, did not honour Kakar at all - it portrayed Kakar as a dangerous gun-toting burqa-wearing terrorist.
And the whole tone of the above is just bizarre coming from a Senator who is no stranger to verbal venom herself, and who thought it was a useful contribution to political life to diagnose Tony Abbott as a "psychopath" before even meeting him. (There are quite a few negative things that deserve to be said about our PM. That's not one of them.)
Instead of just "guessing" why Kakar was killed, Lambie could always do some research or get her advisers to do it for her. So I will help her out for free here: Kakar was threatened with death by the Taliban specifically because she was in the police force, the threats implying she would be safe if she quit policing. The threats said nothing about her wearing a burqa or not. Kakar was a target not only because she was an enemy of insurgents and an investigator of crimes against women, but because female police officers in Afghanistan can go where men cannot in investigating crime scenes where women are present.
Far from Kakar's wearing of the burqa being a security risk for anyone, it was actually a security asset to her country, since she frequently wore it on duty for one of the same reasons the Lambies of this world complain about the garment: to conceal her identity.
Lest I too be accused of giving succour to the burqa-enforcers, I will say that it is very unfortunate that in some countries or parts of countries, many women need to wear this garment even if they do not want to, either because of social or family coercion or because of risks to their own security. But ultimately if a woman in a western country freely chooses to dress in such a way (which only a tiny minority do), it is no more a security issue than a person wearing bikie garb with a full helmet, and either can reasonably be required to be removed for safety or identification reasons in many contexts. If there is a valid security-based case for banning full facial covering in public in a supposedly free country, it needs to be applied to all such forms, not just the one some Christian culture warriors have issues with. Frankly, I am not convinced there is.
The Source Group: Britain First
While the nature of the image shared by Lambie has been well enough discussed in terms of the misuse of the photograph, what I feel has not yet been done justice is the odious nature of the group Lambie publicised by approvingly sharing their material, "Britain First". While "Britain First" has been variously described in reporting as a "right-wing anti-immigration group", a "far right British group" and so on, there's quite a bit more to it than just that.
Britain First is an offshoot of the British National Party, a once explicitly fascist far-right body tracing its lineage back through the National Front to the British Union of Fascists. While it claims to oppose fascism as such (as does the BNP these days, though many political scientists aren't convinced), Britain First shares its parent party's concerns with immigration and "Islamification" and wants the majority of British people to be "indigenous".
The party claims to oppose "all alien political or religious doctrines". Its list of these includes "Liberalism", though Locke, the Mills, Smith and Bentham were all born and bred on the British Isles and the religion Britain First claims to support was not. The party claims to support free opinion, expression and assembly. It is rather good at disguising and confusing what it stands for, and seems quite talented at online trolling. By far-right standards, it has been a much more successful internet movement than most.
What makes Britain First most distinctive from its parent party is its degree of emphasis on Christian religion. This is something it inherited from its founder, anti-abortionist and former minister Jim Dowson, who has since quit the party. Dowson, a former BNPer himself, left BF because it had become too extreme. Even by his standards, the group was being "overrun with racists and extremists" and becoming "a violent front for people abusing the Bible".
The main aspect of Britain First that prompted this further schism was its habit of invading mosques to harass random Muslims in their place of worship, hand out Bibles, proselytise and accuse Islamic leaders of defending paedophilia and "grooming". In another case a pseudo-military "batallion" of the group invaded a mosque to tell those present to remove gender-segregated entry signs. "When you respect women we'll respect your mosques" said group leader Paul Golding - respect for women being a frail position for a group that strongly opposes abortion to be coming from.
I'm no fan of religions that promote gender segregation either, but in a free country, if women happen to follow religions that adopt such standards without being coerced into doing so, then that's their business, just as it is the business of Christians if they choose to follow faiths that discriminate against women or gay people in their internal ordination practices. What Britain First are doing is no different to if menacing leftist paramilitaries stormed into Christian churches and demanded that they start conducting same-sex marriages and making women bishops, and handed out atheist books and pamphlets accusing them of complicity in child abuse. Lambie surely would not be amused.
Britain First have also supported "Christian patrols" that roam the streets in a pseudo-military fashion harassing and baiting Muslims. And this is not the first time they've not cared less whose memory they tarnish. A previous case involved them registering the name of British soldier Lee Rigby, brutally murdered by Islamist terrorists, as part of a ballot paper tagline without the consent of his family.
Two Things Jacqui Lambie Is Not
I would like to make some comments in response to the hopefully receding tide of dangerously fluffy reporting of the nature of the new Tasmanian Senator.
One, Jacqui Lambie is not Brian Harradine. The late former Senator for Tasmania did impose his squeamish religious morality on Australian politics to the detriment of the nation and his legacy, but apart from that he was never an embarrassment to Tasmania and generally an asset. Except when his religion got in the way, he was smart, shrewd, measured, tactically adept and thoughful - everything that, so far, Lambie has not been. He was very skilled at negotiating deals for his home state, and it remains to be seen whether Lambie will have the same skill or whether she will just make noises. Even if she is successful, some may feel it is not worth it. .
The far closer comparison is Pauline Hanson: like Hanson, Lambie is a person with some unfortunate views and not really up to political office, who has achieved it by accident following a due diligence failure in preselection screening (a running theme with Palmer United). Many have said it is refreshing that a person with Lambie's background can still get into politics. Unfortunately, as with Hanson, it is shaping as a disaster that will make big parties even less likely to consider anyone from such backgrounds in future.
Two, Jacqui Lambie is not an average North West Tassie battler. Yes she has the bio with the battles with bureauracy, the years on welfare and/or compensation, the alcohol, the bringing up of family and so on. But everyday strugglers do not generally act as online propaganda agents for far-right "Christian" gangs. This is especially so in Tasmania, which has a very small Muslim community and nothing like the levels of ethnic diversity and at times tension seen in parts of Sydney. If a standard Tassie "battler" is looking for somebody to blame for any problems with political life, it will be greenies and not Muslims who they'll target. Tasmania is just not as jittery about refugees, Islam or terrorism as some parts of the nation, and by Tasmanian standards, Lambie's recent xenophobic comments (not just on Islamic costumes but on a perceived risk of Chinese or Indonesian invasion) are unusual. We are not dealing with an everyday "straight shooter" here, but with someone driven to a range of uncompromising attitudes through a life of pain and suffering.
Whatever reasons Tasmanian voters had for voting for Jacqui Lambie, preferencing her highly, or voting for parties that preferenced her, many had no idea of her views on Islamic issues, and would never have voted thus if they had known they were voting for someone who would push extreme-right views and promote groups associated with pro-"Christian" acts of harassment and intimidation that are technically a form of low-level terrorism.
Did Lambie Have Form From The Start?
Following the latest revelations, a single Twitter user, @autumnalmonk (a regular #politas tweeter who self-describes as a "radical progressive") tweeted that Lambie had been doing this sort of thing even before she was endorsed, but that much content on her former independent Senate candidate Facebook page was scrubbed around the time of her endorsement by PUP. Unfortunately Facebook is ephemeral - unless somebody takes a screenshot or quotes it, it is extremely difficult to recover evidence of deleted material from it once that material is older than the latest Google cache (which is usually at most several months old). Unlike many sites, Facebook cannot be archived by my dear old friend the Wayback Machine.
But the story checks out to the extent that old tweets by that account show concerns were indeed raised about allegedly Islamophobic content on Lambie's Facebook page even before she was picked up by PUP:
[Update Sep 22: To this stage I've had another two people provide similar recollections of the state of Lambie's pre-PUP Facebook page.]
My Views On The Lambie Problem
Lambie's Senate career is showing every sign of being a six-year long trainwreck riddled with embarrassing gaffes, extreme statements and public displays of irate cluelessness that will be an acute embarrassment not just to the state but to the nation, as was Hanson. It doesn't seem she's capable of learning, and if not addressed, the problem will only get worse.
Lambie should apologise for misusing Lana Slezic's photo and promise that she will permanently end all Facebook interaction with far-right vigilante groups like Britain First.
Otherwise, if she is going to insist on promoting such groups and their ideas then eventually a time will come when her party must expel her if it is to retain any shred of the refugee-friendly image that brought it bucketloads of left-wing preferences at the last election.
To permit PUP to do this without affecting its balance of power, I propose that should it come to that, both major parties offer to neutralise Lambie's vote, by absenting one of their members as needed to cancel her out. If being accused of corruption can make a politician's vote too "tainted" for a party to accept, then why not the online promotion of right-wing vigilante nutters?
Further I propose that the parties seek ways to alter standing orders to make for a smoother process for the rejection of a "tainted" vote rather than the undignified scrambling for the exit seen by the Liberals when Craig Thomson voted with them once. Lambie has every right to express her ludicrous views and attempt to represent those who elected her, but perhaps a way can be found to ensure she will never be powerful.
[NB added 22 Sep: I propose this process would be limited to MPs who have resigned or been expelled from the party they were elected to represent, and restricted to the term in which this happened.]
Extras (22 Sep): A few media items on this issue are possible interest to readers. The article had the most Twitter mentions in its first day of anything I've ever done; it usually takes a few days to see the extent to which something of this sort also spills over into Facebook and reblogging platforms.
The full transcript and interview of Lambie's Insiders appearance - widely panned by left and right for her lack of any displayed understanding of what Sharia law is - can be seen on the ABC site.
Sid Maher at The Australian documents that Malalai Kakar's brother has opposed the Britain First/Lambie use of the image.
Ruby Hamad doesn't buy Lambie's claim to have been aware it was Kakar in the image, and also discusses another case of dodgy meme creation by Britain First - the passing-off of excerpts from a satirical article as presenting a case for the extermination of women. In that case too, Britain First employed an image out of its original context, and fooled a lot of people in the process.
The SMH reports (in paraphrase) that Clive Palmer asked Muslim leaders to give him a fortnight to rein in Lambie. Experience being that Clive Palmer says all sorts of things, and given the power disincentive to Palmer throwing her out of the party, we won't take that too seriously until it amounts to something either way. However it indicates the pressure Palmer will be under if these outbursts continue.
The SMH piece also provides the reason why we shouldn't expect Lambie's staff to tell her any better: Lambie's chief staffer Rob Messenger, a former Queensland MP (National, then LNP, then Independent), shares her views and has been at least as over-the-top. (More on the latter from Max Chalmers of New Matilda.)
Update 24 Sep: Early this morning Australian time, Sally Sara tweeted that the contentious photo had finally been removed from Lambie's Facebook page. This is probably more of an admission of doing the wrong thing than we'll actually get. Now it appears that not only has content been removed, but that the site's URL has changed from https://www.facebook.com/jacqui.lambie.9 to https://www.facebook.com/senatorlambie. Lambie's first self-defence rant is also gone while the "Letter to the Editor" remains, but is now on parliamentary letterhead.
Update 28 Sep: The https://www.facebook.com/jacqui.lambie.9 Facebook site has been restored, together with Lambie's first rant as well as the second, but without the offending Kakar image post. The site now prominently lists Geert Wilders' Facebook page and a Wilders supporter page as favourites.