Of race, religion and politics
National president of Rise Up Australia, Danny Nalliah, left, and below speaking at the election campaign launch in Hallam.
With its anti-Islam, anti-multicultural stance, Danny Nalliah’s Rise Up Australia Party has been compared to One Nation. But will its policies win seats in the Senate?
The most interesting thing about Pastor Danny Nalliah isn’t that he reportedly raises people from the dead, or that Jesus talks to him in dreams, or even that he wants every school to be issued with a wooden spoon for the smacking of naughty bottoms – it’s that his moral authority as a politician comes from the colour of his skin.
He both affirmed and joked about it recently at the Victorian launch of his Rise Up Australia Party. During his speech, Nalliah told a story of being interviewed by an SBS journalist who asked if the party, which is stridently anti-Islamic and calls for an end to multiculturalism, was just another Pauline Hanson white-Australia affair.
”Of course,” said Nalliah, whose voice has an unfortunate tendency to become high-pitched when speech-making, ”he couldn’t see me because I was on the telephone. The fact is, he didn’t realise he was born in the day and I was born at night. I said … the man you’re talking to is a black fellow.”
The congregation laughed and clapped, and was then made part of the joke. When the hooting died down, Nalliah continued: ”I said this is not a white Australia Party. More than a third of our members are of non-Anglo-Saxon origin.”
True enough. Among the 100 or so people gathered in Nalliah’s church hall at Hallam – he heads both the fledgling party and the Catch the Fire Ministry – was a healthy sprinkling of black and Asian faces. Nalliah says there are 30 ethnic groups among his followers. ”We have Fijians, Samoans, Arabs, Africans, Chinese, Indians, Pakistanis … so many, and they all feel the same way,” he said.
Do they feel the same way as Pauline Hanson? ”I admire many of her policies. Is she a racist? I honestly don’t know. I don’t think so, and I think maybe racist was a word used to cut her off. But when a man of colour says much the same thing, it’s not so easy to call him a racist. It’s confusing for people. And really, what did Pauline Hanson believe in? Australia for all Australians: a fair go for everyone and no one coming into our country to change the laws to suit themselves. That’s it.”
The Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus and Jews are apparently cool on this front. It’s the Muslims – of the beheading, jihadist persuasion – who need to be kept in check, says Nalliah and his multicoloured friends. ”We love the Muslim people,” Nalliah tells me. ”It’s Islam that’s the problem.”
From a number of interviews and meetings with Nalliah over the past three weeks, it became clear that the real problem with Muslims, no matter how worthy of Christian love they may be, is that they can’t be trusted.
Several times I put questions to Nalliah of this sort: what about a Muslim who presents himself to you as a peaceful person with no ambitions of taking over the joint? His answer was always a variation of: ”I would have trouble believing him. If he lives by the Koran, he is duty-bound to live under sharia law and have nothing to do with Christians or Jews or anyone who isn’t a Muslim. Most of the Koran is about how to treat the infidels. Only a small percentage is about love.”
This tough line is echoed by Nalliah’s followers, many of whom claimed to have Muslim mates who are all good blokes – but could be turned if a jihad was called.
The issue came up soon after walking into the hall. Lyn Hannie, doing the meet and greet, was ”very excited about the great things under way to protect Australia. We don’t want to follow in Europe’s tracks.” She was referring to problems in England and France where Muslim hardliners have set up de facto Islamic-law zones and been conducting patrols that bully locals into forgoing alcohol and dressing modestly.
Lyn’s husband, Alabama-born Gary, 62, was MC at the launch. He runs a private Christian mission in south-east Asia, and serves as a pastor at Nalliah’s church. ”The Islamic issue is at the forefront at the moment and it needs to be. I’m an American but I don’t want Australia to look like America. I don’t think any culture should want to come in and change the face of Australia to look like their own.”
I mention an Australian Institute of Family Studies report that analyses a push for Islamic law in Australia. In the conclusion, it notes that Professor Abdullah Saeed, director of the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies, believes the Australian legal framework has enough room to accommodate Islamic values. Saeed is an active reformer of Islam. Wouldn’t it be more constructive for the Rise Up Australia Party to build a few bridges with guys like Saeed, rather than writing off an entire system of belief and its people?
Gary Hannie’s reply left the conversation with nowhere to go: ”I’m not an expert on the Koran. But my understanding is that a Muslim person can say whatever they like, whatever is true or untrue, as long as it serves the cause of Islam moving forward.”
Which is another way of saying what Nalliah preaches: you can’t trust Muslims to tell the truth.
Malaysian-born John Chee is the Rise Up Australia Party’s voluntary bookkeeper. He and his wife, Maggie, were called by God from their ”comfortable life” on the Gold Coast to join Nalliah’s church. ”I didn’t know there was going to be a political party here. But here we are.”
Chee is ”personally afraid of Muslims”, an attitude shaped, he says, by witnessing the outbreak of sectarian violence in Malaysia in 1969 as a young man. Maggie, a teacher, was turned off when she heard that Muslim children were dissuaded from playing with non-Muslim children.
Anthony Moore, 62, was the Labor candidate for Flinders in 1990. He lost to Peter Reith. He and his Fijian wife, Kelera, are now Rise Up members. Moore is concerned ”with the global strategy for Islam to conquer the world”. Are all Muslims part of this plan? He feels they ”play their cards close to their chest, will come out to befriend you, but it changes down the track” when they get control at a local or state level and attempt to introduce ”draconian laws” that lead to ”ethnic cleansing, suburb by suburb”.
Come the September election, Rise Up plans to field 52 candidates in the House of Representatives, and 12 in the Senate. ”It may be more than that as the year goes on,” says Moore. He isn’t throwing his hat in the ring. But that might change ”if circumstances permit”.
Apart from abstaining from veils and same-sex relationships, Rise Up candidates are required to have God – the Christian God – on their side. Hence, there is no great distinction between the church and the party. For 40 days before the launch, Nalliah says the members were urged to fast. ”For some this meant just drinking soup, others went without a meal or two meals a day … and there was a lot of praying.”
What were you praying for? ”That the media would take up our message honestly and accurately.”
Anthony and Kelera Moore took up this mission. After giving me a lift to a taxi stand, they asked to pray for me: ”Dear Lord, we ask you to bless John to tell the truth …”
Before the launch got under way, a number of older men wearing pocket badges labelled ”SECURITY” stood in a circle and were briefed on how to handle troublemakers. As people arrived, one or two would turn and welcome them in the name of the Lord until one of the older men advised that this was a political meeting, and the Jesus side of things had to be toned down. Soon after, however, the security men bowed their heads and prayed for a peaceful meeting.
After all, this was the same week anti-Islamic Dutch politician Geert Wilders was in town, his meeting marked by rowdy protests. (Nalliah says, if elected, he will be consulting with the Dutch politician when formulating his multicultural policy.)
And, of course, the legacy of Hanson hysteria hung over the proceedings – those wild days 17 years ago when her meetings were besieged by huge crowds of protesters, and her often elderly followers were outright bullied and jostled.
The party’s prayers for peace were seemingly answered. No one turned up to throw stones. Good thing too, because Nalliah can sometimes sound like any bloke in a ute with the Southern Cross tattooed on his shoulder blades. At one point he thrilled the gathering with: ”If you don’t want to adopt the Australian way of life and respect Australian laws, then please, we beg you, go back to where you came from.”
The idea of migrants dancing around a totem pole of good old Aussie values – fair go, saying what you like, keeping your politics and religion in low gear – is, of course, nothing new. It was being hawked back in the 1980s by radio reactionaries such as the late Ron Casey, when Asian immigration was causing many a dinkum cobber to wonder what the country was coming to. The White Australia Policy had been formally dead for only a decade but it lived on with the attitude that white was still right.
When Nalliah and his family migrated to Australia from Sri Lanka in 1997, Pauline Hanson was a household name, the suburbs were simmering with tensions between newly arrived Serbs, Croats and Muslims all seeking refuge from the war they had been fighting against one another in the Balkans; the media was making hay with a rising knife culture that was largely blamed on Asian and Middle Eastern youth, and the country was undergoing a rapidly changing racial mix.
The Nalliahs were part of a conspicuous wave of dark-skinned immigrants from the subcontinent and Africa who have changed the way Australia looks at street level, and has challenged how we see ourselves.
Within five years, he was already causing controversy with his militant anti-Islam preaching, and planning a political career.
In December 2004, following a complaint from the Islamic Council of Victoria, Judge Michael Higgins ruled that Nalliah and another pastor, Daniel Scot, vilified Muslims at a seminar in 2002. In December 2006, the decision was overturned on appeal. ”Thanks be to Jesus,” Nalliah says now.
In 2004, he was on the number two spot on the Family First’s Senate ticket under Steve Fielding, who was elected with Labor preferences. Later that year, Fielding said Nalliah had been ejected from the party. Apparently he had made demeaning comments about gays.
Nalliah has derided Bob Brown for living openly as a homosexual. ”When I think of Bob Brown kissing another man on the mouth … it makes me sick,” he tells me.
In 2007, he met Peter Costello with a view to ”preparing” the then treasurer to take the top job from John Howard and lead the Liberal Party to victory. Nalliah says that Costello called him that year to congratulate him on the birth of his youngest daughter. On Australia Day 2009, Costello sent a video message of support to a Catch the Fire prayer meeting. The friendship went south a few weeks later, following the Black Saturday fires.
In an email on the Catch the Fire website, Nalliah said he had dreamt of the fires four months before they occurred and that Jesus had told him the fires were a result of ”His conditional protection” being lifted from Victoria following the legalisation of abortion in October 2008.
Costello damned the comments as being ”beyond the bounds of decency”. Nalliah was unrepentant. Last week, however, he told me he regretted the bushfire dream getting into the hands of the media as he felt it was ”probably” politically damaging.
”What got lost in translation was that Jesus blamed the churches for not making a stand against the abortion laws. He wasn’t being angry with the abortionists themselves, or the women who have aborted their babies. We love them, but we don’t love what they do. It was reported out of context.”
Nalliah talks of his great love for everyone. He has stories about helping some Muslim women stranded in the rain with a flat tyre. He carries their luggage through airports. And in the same soft voice of love he tells again how he can’t trust any of them to tell the truth.
What set Nalliah on this path of bringing down Islam and multiculturalism? He tells the story of how, in 1983 in Sri Lanka, when the Tamils began their futile war of liberation against the dominant Singhalese, mobs of the latter went on an ”ethnic-cleansing” riot against the Tamils. Nalliah’s family were Tamils. At the age of 20, newly turned to Christ, he came home to find his house surrounded by men carrying cans of petrol, swords, clubs and car tyres. They were calling for Nalliah’s parents to come out of the house.
Nalliah had that day, on his way home, seen 18 people set on fire. He says he immediately prayed to God and, soon after, a Buddhist-Singhalese woman appeared and threw herself in front of the mob. She said the Nalliahs were charitable people and demanded that they be left alone. The mob wandered off. This was Nalliah’s first miracle.
”The British left in 1948. My father says within six years the government had split everyone up into their ethnic groups. It was a terrible mistake. Ethnic ghettos are poison.”
In 1996, he was working for an underground Christian church in Saudi Arabia, smuggling Bibles into the country – a crime, he says, that was punishable by imprisonment, flogging or even beheading. One night 20 soldiers ”gave the dreaded knock on the door”. There were 400 Bibles stacked on his lounge room floor. His wife and children were sleeping in their beds. Calling on God, he says he confused the soldiers minds with prayer – such that they forgot why they were there – and they left soon after. This, too, was a miracle. At the Rise Up Australia Party launch, he reduced this story to one line: ”In Saudi Arabia, my wife was nearly raped and killed.”
While his personal history is a matter of awe for his followers, it’s the supernatural aspect that many think gives Nalliah his authority.
In 2010, The Agereported that Nalliah had raised a Wagga woman named Diana Shield from the dead. They had been on a bus tour of Israel. The claim was supported by a Christian doctor, anaesthetist Murray James-Wallace, who had failed to revive the woman.
Instead of a blocked artery, Nalliah believed the devil was the problem. He called out: ”In the name of Jesus, life return! Satan, you have no right to take this life on tour. Diana, come back, in Jesus’ name!” And she did.
Nalliah loosely chronicles other apparent resurrections and demon-castings in his self-published memoir Worship Under the Sword, about his conversion to Christianity and mission work in Saudi Arabia.
Dr Nick Economou, senior lecturer in the school of political and social inquiry at Monash University, suggests Nalliah ”ought to give Julia Gillard a call”. That is, perform a resurrection miracle for her political career.
Being a ”a man of love”, Nalliah might have obliged … if she wasn’t living in sin.
Beyond that, Economou believes Nalliah and company are wasting their time. ”I predict they won’t get their deposit back. All indications are there will be a landslide to the Coalition and very little left over for anyone else, especially from the centre of right.”
Dr Damon Alexander, from the University of Melbourne’s school of social and political sciences, is also dismissive. ”I’d put them in that category of far-right fringe groups that have been around for 70 years. They tend to be centred around a fuehrer-style leader and after a while fall apart.”
Associate Professor Haydon Manning, of Flinders University’s school of social and policy studies, feels that the Rise Up Australia Party might attract a few voters who regard the Coalition and Labor as on the nose. ”I looked at their website and they are very odd. You see this photo [of Nalliah and his multi-ethnic followers] and then you read what they have to say and you’d expect it to come from white middle-aged men.”
It’s that very point, says Nalliah, that may win him the three Senate seats that he feels ”hopeful for. At the very least.”