Published on 24 Feb 2021

IMPACT: Scott Morrison is the current prime minister of Australia. He has called for tightening Australia’s immigration policies, for Christian refugees to be prioritized over Muslim refugees and portrayed asylum seekers who arrive by boat as a health and security risk to Australians. As other countries condemned then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban, Morrison described it as implementing an election promise.

In August 2018, Australia’s Liberal Party (a center-right party) elected Scott Morrison to lead the ruling party, which made him the prime minister. Morrison is a devout evangelical Christian who  holds conservative views on a range of issues, including advocating against same-sex marriage and promoting the use of fossil fuels. Despite evidence of a particularly high rate of Indigenous Australians dying in police custody, Morrison downplayed the relevance of the Black Lives Matter movement to Australia by claiming in a June 2020 interview, “there’s no need to import things happening in other countries here to Australia. I mean, Australia is a fair country.”

In December 2010, during Morrison’s tenure as shadow minister for immigration and citizenship (December 2009 – September 2013), at least fifty asylum seekers drowned after their boat smashed onto rocky cliffs on Christmas Island. On February 14, 2011, the Labor government flew close relatives of eight victims from Christmas Island to Sydney for their funerals. That day, Morrison complained about  the travel costs covered by the government: “it just doesn’t strike me as a reasonable request,” and, “If people wanted to attend the funeral from Sydney, they could have held the service on Christmas Island and like any other Australian, they would have paid for themselves to go there.” Following criticism from fellow Liberals, Morrison apologized for the timing of his comments but staunchly defended their substance.

On February 7, 2011, Morrison proposed cutting foreign aid for Indonesian Islamic schools, an idea championed by far-right party One Nation. According to a February 17 report in The Sydney Morning Herald, these two events prompted “three or more” Liberal colleagues to tell journalist Lenore Taylor and others that at a December 2010 meeting, Morrison had suggestedcapitalising on the electorate’s growing concerns about ‘Muslim immigration’, ‘Muslims in Australia’ and the ‘inability’ of Muslim migrants to integrate.” Former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, a champion of multiculturalism, told ABC radio, “It’s what I would have expected of Scott Morrison.” Morrison initially declined to comment and later dismissed the reports as “gossip.

On February 18, 2011, Liberal MP Cory Bernardi declared that, “Islam itself is the problem” and “I am defending the position of Scott Morrison.” Bernardi also said Morrison’s comments regarding Muslim immigration were expressions of “genuine concern about Australia and the future we’re going to have.” Liberal MP Kevin Andrews weighed in, stating, “What people want to see is that anyone here can speak English…[Morrison’s] just reflecting a feeling in the community.” In a 2012 interview with The Sydney Morning Herald, Morrison said his December 2010 comments reflected “real tensions” and “were more about, ‘Let’s not just write people off because they have strong views about this.’ We’ve got to listen to what their concerns are.”

On February 21, 2011, Morrison presented a private members bill arguing asylum seekers who came by boat were unfairly taking the places of offshore refugees. He compared a Christian woman “trafficked to Saudi Arabia” unable to get a refugee visa with the “96 per cent” of Afghan asylum seekers who arrive by boat and were granted visas. He argued, “Those who cannot get on a boat … do not have resources. They are typically women, they are typically frail and they are typically unable to work the system through the smugglers.”

In a May 2011 press release on a government report that found high levels of unemployment among Afghan and Iraqi asylum seekers, Morrison warned that, “Low levels of employment, welfare dependency, lower income levels and poor English skills are a toxic social cocktail, that can lead to enclaving and serious intergenerational social problems.” He went on to claim that, “the results highlight why it is so important that we have complete control over who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.” His statement directly referenced the slogan former Prime Minister John Howard used to win a 2001 federal election he had been widely expected to lose. The campaign, for which Morrison was a key director, conflated Muslim asylum seekers, border security, and terrorism.

Morrison has made numerous claims against asylum seekers, portraying them as health risks and accusing them of playing the immigration system. In November 2011, Morrison said that the government spending on excursions and sports for unaccompanied child asylum seekers living in community detention was “a further slap in the face for taxpayers” and “an insult to Australian families” because many could not afford such activities themselves. In February 2012, Morrison claimed there would always be a risk of “communicable diseases” from asylum seekers coming by boat, that this posed a “risk to Australians,” and the risk was a result of “failed border protection policy.” In an open letter, infectious diseases specialist Trent Yarwood accused Morrison of “gross misrepresentation” and “a crass piece of political opportunism,” saying “most of the [communicable] diseases are endemic in Australia.” 

In a June 2012 interview, Morrison insisted it was common to see asylum seekers arriving with “wads of cash” and “large displays of jewellery.” During a November 2012 interview with The Sydney Morning Herald, Morrison claimed naval officers had told him “that they’ve had faeces smeared on them” by asylum seekers. 

On 22 November 2012, then Prime Minister Tony Abbott called an increase in asylum seeker arrivals “a form of peaceful invasion.” In the days before and after this comment, Scott Morrison made two speeches in parliament, gave four interviews (including one with Abbott) and issued four media releases in which he stated that 30,000 asylum seekers had arrived under Labor. In some, he equated the number with populations of regional towns and the capacity of sporting stadiums. His press release on 22 November was titled, “Another illegal boat as Labor runs up white flag on our borders.”  

In December 2012, Morrison accused Labor of spending more money transporting asylum seekers than on the Royal Flying Doctor Service (an air medical service for rural Australians), and in August 2013 he described Labor’s policy regarding asylum seekers as a virus that “mutates and comes back even stronger.”

In February 2013, Morrison used a case of a Sri Lankan man accused of assaulting a young woman to call for a review of the government’s policy regarding asylum seekers. Morrison claimed the case highlighted Labor’s “‘no care, no responsibility’ approach to releasing asylum seekers” from detention and said police and residents of communities where they are housed should be notified.

The Liberal-National coalition won the September 2013 elections promising to “stop the boats.” As the government’s immigration minister, Morrison implemented Operation Sovereign Borders, a military-led border security operation meant to deter asylum seekers and refugees from arriving by boat in mainland Australia and its territories. He instructed his department to refer to asylum seekers as “illegal arrivals” but denied demonising them, saying, “I’ve never claimed that it’s illegal to claim asylum…It refers to their mode of entry.”

In May 2015, The Australian, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, ran a series of articles “analyzing Muslim Australia.” The introductory article claimed Australia was under siege from illegal immigration, citing Morrison’s words describing Afghans in Australia as a “dominant component” characterized by “poor language skills and limited vocational capacity.” The article used Morrison’s descriptions as evidence of potential “radicalization and extremism” within the Afghan community. Another article cited Morrison’s claim that, “The majority of these illegal arrivals were Muslims,” and warning that a failure to engage them would have “profound consequences. At best, long-term unemployment and welfare dependence and at worst gangs, violent crime and even terrorism.” The articles coincided with statements from government ministers criticising Islam and a succession of anti-Muslim rallies by right-wing group Reclaim Australia, one of which a Liberal National MP addressed.

In August 2015, Andrew Bolt reported that Morrison had a private lunch with Rupert Murdoch writing, “Morrison is considered a rising star by many News Corp columnists, so it was understandable for Murdoch to take the opportunity to meet him.” A week later, a senator with a long history of anti-Muslim rhetoric, Pauline Hanson, also endorsed Morrison as a future leader, saying, “The only one I’ve targeted to head the Liberal Party is Scott Morrison.”

In September 2015, the Guardian reported Morrison, who was the then-social services minister, stated Australia would be prioritizing Christian refugees over Muslims from Syria. Between 2014 and 2018, the percentage of Muslim refugees fell from 40 percent to 19 percent, despite Australia “accepting three-quarters of its refugees from the overwhelmingly Islamic nations of Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.” At the time, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that, “Christians made up only 15 percent of Iraqi refugees and just a tiny percentage of Syrian refugees displaced by the Syrian conflict,” and expressed concern over Australia’s refusal to accept asylum seekers deemed in most need.

Morrison did not condemn the January 2017 implementation of then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s travel ban targeting several Muslim majority countries, dubbed the Muslim Ban by legal experts and rights activists. Instead, he lauded Australia’s border policies, saying, “the rest of the world is catching up to Australia.” Morrison appeared to defend the controversial ban, stating, “I remember when we came in in 2013 and I was implementing our border protection policy people threw their hands up—and I said I’m doing what I said I would do in the way I said I’d do it—and guess what, I’m now getting the results I said I’d get.”

On November 9, 2018 in Melbourne, two months after Morrison became Prime Minister, an individual who identified as Muslim and was known to counter-terrorism police attacked passers-by on a city street. He killed a well-known restaurateur and stabbed two other men, one of whom was a Muslim security guard. In response to the attack, Morrison called on “Muslim religious communities” to increase their awareness, alertness and “proactivity,” claiming “their community is the one that’s being infiltrated.”  Morrison said it was “not the imam, necessarily” to blame but claimed—without evidence—that, “in many cases” imams and community leaders would know the “shady character who is at the periphery.”

Following the November 2018 attack, Morrison called an agenda-less, hour-long meeting with leaders from the Muslim communities at short notice. In response, many of the leaders refused to attend, issuing a letter stating that, “statements made by senior government ministers and the Prime Minister in the recent past” had “achieved nothing to address underlying issues, but rather, have alienated large segments of the Muslim community.” One of the signatories on the letter stated, “what we inferred from the Prime Minister’s statement was that he was trying pass the onus of stopping terrorism onto us, that somehow the Muslim community was responsible for the acts of one mad man.” In response, Morrison published a series of tweets accusing those who chose to not attend the meeting of “continuing down a path of denial,” and looking “the other way.”

In November 2018, Morrison gave the Bradfield Oration address, the culmination of an annual News Corp campaign on Sydney’s future. He focused heavily on its growing population, implying that increased immigration was to blame for road congestion and busy public transport. In a previous 2016 speech given when he was treasurer, Morrison also focused on immigration, describing data that found “almost half of Australians are in favour of banning Muslim immigration,” as a “product of genuine anxiety in our community about these issues.” Without challenging the anti-Muslim sentiment the data illustrated, Morrison focused on the economic benefits of immigration. He stated that while it could be “politically popular and rewarding” to endorse bans on immigration, foreign investment and free trade, the bans “would cut Australians off from the primary sources of their prosperity for over two centuries.”

In February 2019, an article in The Canberra Times reported that Morrison “warned that child molesters, rapists and murderers could come to Australia” if legislation allowed doctors to mandate the evacuation of sick asylum seekers from Australia’s offshore processing centres in Manus Island and Nauru. Many of the asylum seekers came from Muslim majority countries and most had been granted refugee status. In 2018, the UNHCR urged the government to “act and save lives at immediate risk” at both locations citing “cumulative rates of depression, anxiety and PTSD … to be the highest recorded in the medical literature to date at over 80 percent.” Morrison went on to support the home affairs minister’s claim that the Medevac bill would also “displace” Australians from health services. The day after it passed, he announced Christmas Island detention centre would reopen to deal with Australia’s weakened borders, refused to correct false claims the deal would allow future asylum seekers to stay in Australia, and declared it would be Labor’s fault if more boats arrived before the election. In December 2019, the government repealed the Medevac legislation.

On March 15, 2019, Brenton Tarrant, a white supremacist, murdered fifty-one Muslims and injured another fifty when he opened fire at two Ōtautahi/Christchurch mosques in New Zealand. On the evening of the massacre, television host Waleed Aly said he was not shocked by the attack. He pointed out that the anti-Muslim views of the gunman were shared by mainstream politicians, specifically referencing Morrison’s reported December 2010 suggestion that anti-Muslim sentiment be used as a political strategy. The broadcast was reported to have been viewed over twelve million times. 

The day after the attack, Morrison stated, “We will not tolerate the right-wing extremist ideology that has fuelled this terrorist attack. We will always protect and defend our Muslim community here in Australia and their right to peacefully practice their religion without fear.” Following Aly’s segment, The Project tweeted that Morrison had contacted the program to deny the comments he was alleged to have made in 2010. On March 19, 2019, The Saturday Paper reported that Morrison threatened to sue Aly and his network for defamation. 

On March 21, 2019, Morrison sat down for an interview with Aly, where Morrison said he had met with and hugged his “many friends” from the Imams Council, the same individuals who Morrison four months earlier had accused of endangering Australians and sticking “their head in the sand” after boycotting his meeting. During the interview, Morrison claimed his party did not have a problem with Islamophobia saying, “It is not for the Party to answer for every single member on every single occasion.” He refused to commit to putting the One Nation party, which had called Islam a disease that should be vaccinated against, behind Labor and the Greens on his how-to-vote card. When Aly asked him if Australia had an Islamophobia problem, Morrison failed to provide a direct response and instead stated, “I don’t know if Australians understand Islam very well and that can often lead to fear of things you don’t understand.” 

A July 2020 article in The Age argued that prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, Morrison behaved like “Trump’s mini-me”. It quoted Gideon Rozner from the conservative think-tank Institute of Public Affairs saying “He is following the @realDonaldTrump playbook” and Morrison saying, “We [he and Trump] do share a lot of the same views.” 

This factsheet is published in collaboration between the Bridge Initiative and researchers at the Challenging Racism Project at Western Sydney University. More information about this project can be found here.

Updated February 23, 2021