View from The Hill

Abbott fans the burqa debate he was trying to cool

Prime Minister Tony Abbott says he finds the burqa “fairly confronting”. AAP/Alan Porritt

A friend of mine bought a burqa when we were travelling in Afghanistan in 2002. She’s worn it perhaps once at drinks in Parliament House – before the garment became an issue - though not, as far as I am aware, when entering the building.

I’ve not seen anyone else in or around Parliament House in a burqa. Conservative Liberal senator Cory Bernardi, who wants those in burqas banned from coming into the place, says he saw some women with facial veils three years ago. He took the matter up at Senate estimates and was told people could wear balaclavas too.

Tony Abbott on Wednesday cautioned people not to make “mountains out of molehills”.

“Has anyone ever sought entry to this building so attired? As far as I’m aware, no.” Making a big song and dance about a hypothetical was not particularly helpful, he told his news conference.

Yet the argument about burqas in Parliament House has become a big debate, and Abbott has added unhelpfully to it when he repeated comments he made some time ago that he found the burqa “a fairly confronting form of attire”.

“Frankly, I wish it was not worn but we are a free country, we are a free society and it is not the business of government to tell people what they should or should not wear,” he told reporters. “We can all have an opinion, we can all have a preference, but in the end it is up to the citizens of Australia what they should wear.”

Abbott was desperately anxious not to say that the burqa should be banned in Parliament House. He stressed that it was a secure building and “obviously people need to be identifiable”. But he also seemed more or less satisfied to leave the matter to those in charge of security. “In the end it is a matter for the presiding officers and for the security controller of the building,” he said, while adding “this is a secure building and it’s got to be governed by the rules appropriate to a secure building”.

New police commissioner Andrew Colvin, appearing with Abbott at the news conference, didn’t want to be drawn into the politics. “We need to look at the circumstances. Where it is appropriate for us to make certain identification, we should do that,” he said. “I am not going to buy into whether it should be banned or not [in Parliament House’]”.

Abbott drew the distinction between the burqa as an item of clothing in the general community and as clothing in a secure building or (as in a court) where a person’s identity is important.

It’s hard to argue with the proposition security officials should be able to satisfy themselves that someone entering Parliament House is not a security threat. Everyone is familiar with being asked to remove various bits of metal to keep the detector happy. It’s conceivable that an issue of identity could arise with a visitor whose face was covered, although it would be rare enough to be able to be dealt with on the spot, or referred up the chain. No one who is a permanent worker in the building is going to be in a burqa.

The bottom line is: the burqa is not a problem at Parliament House and won’t become one.

More concerning are Abbott’s comments about finding the burqa “fairly confronting”, because they send out just the sort of negative signal he doesn’t want to send.

Presumably he doesn’t feel physically threatened so what is this about? Has he felt this in Middle East countries, with their large numbers of veiled women? Is he just discombobulated in Australia?

In Afghanistan, after the overthrow of the Taliban many women looked forward to being able to discard their burqas, because they saw them as part of the restrictions on them. But Abbott is probably not making a feminist point in saying he feels confronted. Maybe it’s just the unsettling nature of the strange. It’s a two way street. How confronting must some of the women who cover their faces (with niqabs or burqas) find the dress, or undress, of the Prime Minister himself and thousands of other Australian men and women enjoying the surf in the summer?

Abbott wants everyone signed up to Team Australia. That will be easier if people don’t just accept that one dress code doesn’t fit all but are relaxed about the fact.