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Why 18C was the policy retreat the Coalition had to have

The Coalition’s constituency is becoming more ethnically diverse, and it turns out many of its constituents don’t want the right to be bigots.

In all sorts of ways, the Abbott government’s abandonment of plans to water down racial discrimination laws was the policy retreat it had to have. Faced with myriad new battlefronts after a politically disastrous budget, there was little to gain and much to lose from continuing to pursue an unpopular and divisive measure in a policy area of, at best, marginal concern to the average voter.

While some opposition to 18C invoked the classical liberalism of John Stuart Mill, the issue was mostly of concern to a deeply conservative constituency hostile to the project of multiculturalism, which the government may rest assured is not about to throw its lot in with Labor. If the government imagined the well of support would run any deeper than that, it was seriously disabused by a Fairfax-Nielsen poll in April that found no fewer than 88% of respondents agreeing with the basic contention of the existing act (albeit that the margin was quite a bit smaller when the government’s proposal was explained in greater detail by Essential Research).

While most Liberal MPs were no doubt sympathetic to the objective in principle, the recent plunge in the polls sent a forceful message that their leadership needed to be more selective in the battles it chose. Furthermore, a number of party room critics have been spurred along by the powerful motivation of concern for their personal electoral longevity.

A key factor in this respect has been the precise shape of the Liberals’ electoral triumph last September, when it achieved its strongest performance in Sydney since 1975. This has brought the party’s parliamentary representation into contact with constituencies it might hitherto have felt comfortable ignoring. Among the gains last year were two seats with respective histories going back to 1922 and 1949 which the Liberals had never won before — Reid, where Labor’s John Murphy was unseated by Craig Laundy, and Banks, where Daryl Melham’s 23-year parliamentary career was brought to an end by David Coleman. Also in the Liberal fold for the first time since 1983 is the southern Sydney seat of Barton, where Nick Varvaris sits on the party’s slimmest margin after prevailing by 489 votes.

Reid, Barton and Banks will all be on the front line when the next election is held in 2016, and they respectively rank fourth, eighth and 16th out of the country’s 150 electorates for the number of residents identifying as Muslim. Before the election, Labor’s lock on the top 25 most strongly Muslim electorates was disturbed only by the highly marginal seat of Swan in the strongly Liberal state of Western Australia.

Another Sydney outlier is John Howard’s old seat of Bennelong, which ranks second only to Banks for residents of Chinese ancestry, and which until last year had the distinction of being the least “white” electorate held by the Coalition. While Bennelong is presently held for the Liberals by John Alexander on a margin of 7.8%, John Howard’s experience in 2007 means there is little chance that the party will lose sight of its long-term vulnerability.

It is obviously no coincidence that all four of the aforementioned MPs were associated with disquiet within the party over 18C. Coleman was reportedly behind the secret drafting of a more palatable alternative proposal, and was said to have been supported in the endeavour by Alexander and Varvaris. In response to yesterday’s backflip, Laundy expressed his relief while boasting that his electorate was “the second most multiculturally diverse seat in federal Parliament”.

Nor have such sentiments, and the motivations behind them, been confined to the federal party room. Looming large in the conservative defence of 18C was Barry O’Farrell, whose sentiments were promptly echoed by Mike Baird when he succeeded him as Premier in April. Both would have been mindful of the swag of traditionally Labor-held seats their party secured in Sydney’s most ethnically diverse regions in the 2011 landslide, and the need to defend them at an election now less than eight months away.

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  • 1
    klewso
    Posted Wednesday, 6 August 2014 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    One less spot fire?
    That puts paid to one rumour going around - Abbott does know if his arse is on fire?

  • 2
    Yclept
    Posted Wednesday, 6 August 2014 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    So the backflip was for all the “right” reasons.

  • 3
    Jaybuoy
    Posted Wednesday, 6 August 2014 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    a failure of corroboration… George’s plan turned out to be the you know what in the woodpile..

  • 4
    klewso
    Posted Wednesday, 6 August 2014 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    Never mind George. We have to win the next election after all. What’s another thirty months …. then you and Andrew and me and Joe can crack the Bolli and a few Behikes?”

  • 5
    Popeye
    Posted Wednesday, 6 August 2014 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    An abandonment of plans’, according to Bowe. I’d call it a backflip, and so too would Bowe I reckon - if he was writing about any plans ‘abandoned’ by Labor.

  • 6
    tonyfunnywalker
    Posted Wednesday, 6 August 2014 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    This was Brandis’ ‘everyone has the right to be a bigot” that killed the amendments to 18C. The other was the fact that it was a one person amendment - a hurt Andrew Bolt and I note that his vitriol is in top gear as its that of the IPA. Next move — - sack Tim Wilson he is now surplus to requirements as he never left the IPA except to collect a taxpayer funded “mega salary”.
    These facts alone vindicate the backflip and perhaps this reversal and defiance of Bolt and the IPA may be the first time that Abbott has shown any “ticker” when it comes NOT kowtowing as the “Puppet PM”.
    He failed with the FoFA regulation changes where they too should have never been changed to become once again the Spiv’s Charter that it once was.
    I wonder where Cormann will be when the next “CBA or Storm” happens.
    Abbott has about 30 months to win back electoral respect and represent the best interests of the electorate not the best interests as dictated by the IPA, BCA and Murdoch.
    Next Leaders Call Tony — Reshuffle — Hockey and Cormann replaced ( I do not know by whom) and a mini budget in October as the current budget is going nowhere fast and business and your sponsors are getting very nervous and upset at Hockey’s ineptitude and total lack of commitment in selling the key aspects of budget.
    So that’s PPT - gone — 18C, another fail to add to the list.

  • 7
    Posted Wednesday, 6 August 2014 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

    I’d call it a backflip

    Just as you’d have seen Bowe doing, if you’d read through to the end.

  • 8
    Andybob
    Posted Wednesday, 6 August 2014 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

    This feels to me like Rudd’s abandonment of the ETS. It was a core commitment, fervently supported with extravagant language but ultimately important only to people who would never change their vote. I suspect the same thing will happen to Abbott as happened to Rudd. His defenders will evaporate and he will be left to stew in his own juice. Good.

  • 9
    CML
    Posted Thursday, 7 August 2014 at 2:15 am | Permalink

    And I’ve just heard on ABC radio news that Julie Bishop ‘cried’ when answering questions about her phone call to the parents from WA who lost 3 children in the MH17 disaster.
    What no tears for the 300+ children annihilated in Gaza by your friends, Julie?
    That should improve your poll numbers in suburban multicultural Sydney, NOT!!

  • 10
    Northy
    Posted Thursday, 7 August 2014 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    The Essential Research poll didn’t necessarily explain the proposed changes better with this line: ‘It will still be unlawful to “intimidate or vilify” someone because of their race or ethnicity.’ It ignores the broad-ranging public discussion exemptions which basically meant there were no circumstances in which it would be illegal to intimidate or vilify.

    But I completely agree with the view that the desire to change 18C had more to do with a conservative constituency uncomfortable with immigration and multiculturalism than anything else. This was backed yesterday by a Herald article which reported the IPA saying that many of their members were “white-hot with anger” about the scrapping of the changes. If it’s true that they are only concerned about the principle of freedom of speech, why would they be furiously angry? The reality is race is a big part of it.

  • 11
    Northy
    Posted Thursday, 7 August 2014 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    Another point I want to make is while many politicians might be shallow, lacking principles, and only thinking about votes, you’ve tarred every one of them mentioned in this article with the same brush. Barry O’Farrell was a very decent man (not withstanding whatever went on with wine-gate) and always stood up for minority groups, speaking out whenever he saw something wrong, regardless of its political impact.

  • 12
    Irfan Yusuf
    Posted Friday, 8 August 2014 at 4:30 am | Permalink

    Excellent analysis.

  • 13
    Norm
    Posted Saturday, 9 August 2014 at 12:42 am | Permalink

    I’m surprised commentators are overlooking the possibility that the LNP govt backed off because they suddenly realised 18C is an established, proven law which might be very handy for pursuing, punishing, even jailing those pesky self-appointed imams who preach hatred and implied violence against just about everybody. Andrew Bolt and News Corp will just have to take one for the team, Team Australia.

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