You wouldn’t want to to underestimate what a defeat this 18c stuff up is for the Right, writes Guy Rundle.
Welcome now then, Team Australia. Prime Minister Tony Abbott launched the new meme on Tuesday, at the press conference where changes to the Racial Discrimination Act 18c “insult and offend” clause was dropped, and the catch-all spy powers, metadata, surveillance and anti-terrorism bill was introduced. With the new threat to Australia from 150 people who had journeyed to Syria — allegedly to be jihadis, though we have been given no proof — we all had to come together for Team Australia, and anything that disturbed that unity had to be ditched — and that included 18c.
Today we doubled down on that with memorial services for all 298 victims of the MH17 crash/shooting down, with the PM announcing — on near-continuous loop on ABC morning news — that “this is a day of national mourning”. And on it will go for quite some time.
The truth is that the government’s record has been trashed on every single initiative. Every single one. The budget is a mess and is heading for a chaotic showdown, for which the only governmentally sensible course — but a politically disastrous one — would be a minibudget. Operation Bring Them Home is becoming a gruesome slapstick version of Antigone, with the area degenerating into an impassable war zone and making it impossible for Abbott to keep his promise. Asylum seekers have landed, briefly, on Australian soil, taking the gloss off that promise. And now, relatively minor but all the more significant as a political defeat, an abandonment of the changes to 18c — and by that token the defeat of Andrew Bolt and News Corp.
That last defeat has been the pivot on which the government has shifted its pitch. With a measure of desperation it has reached for national solidarity, the voluntary minimising of dissent, state measures as “beyond politics” — all wrapped up in a green-and-gold Team Australia bow. This is the Right channelling the other side of its politics, the real business — letting the market and capital run free, while using the heavy hand of the state to impose a single order based on a fantasy consensus.
Mind you, there were pickings for political connoisseurs. I loved the way in which Abbott presented the abandonment of 18c changes as “a luxury we could no longer afford”. It managed to evoke both the Blitz spirit of rationing and Churchill’s “truth with a bodyguard of lies” remark. A more open public society — what the Right call ‘“free speech” — had been the principle we would stand for, Voltaire, rhubarb, etc — and now that very principle had to be defended by relegating it to luxury status.
For Abbott, channelling this is easier than most. He’s from a tradition — the Catholic Right — that was as close to a clerico-fascist/Phalangist movement as Australia came. Abbott’s mentor, B.A. Santamaria, was a supporter of both Franco and Mussolini, and the Team Australia rhetoric is simply a mild Australian repurposing of the corporatist-nationalist mindset that underlies those movements. Any self-respecting liberal should gag at the notion that a nation-state can be compared to a sporting team — yet there this morning at Timmy Wilson’s Free Speech Freedom Jamboree, there was Freedom Boy giving the opening address (Brandis was meant to do it but pulled out as following his Sky interview yesterday — he had appointments all day curled up foetally at the bottom of a wardrobe, weeping) — and referencing “Team Australia”. Ironically? Didn’t sound like it.
Like many on the Left who supported changes to 18c, I got a lot of schadenfreude from the 18c car crash — actually, together with the Sky interview, car crash doesn’t cover it, it’s more like those ’70s extravaganzas where Evel Knievel jumped a bus over some other buses and failed to — while also being irritated at the crudity, stupidity and blind self-satisfaction of the government’s approach. Brandis killed the bill with his “right to be bigoted” remark (which most heard as “it’s all right to be bigoted”) and then his reply to Penny Wong: “A lot of the things I have heard you say in this chamber are … extraordinarily bigoted …’.
What Wong meant by bigotry was the remark that ruins your day, sends your kids crying from school (or not wanting to go), cuts deep in, and wears you down with repetition, because it is about your embodied self, what you most deeply are. What Brandis meant by bigotry was people saying things he disagreed with about the carbon tax. David Leyonhjelm strikes the same note at the Freedom Jamboree today, saying that he “refuses to be a victim”. Oh really, white, male, professional First World man? You’ve withstood the terrible racism directed at Swedish-Australians, have you smorgy-boy? How brave you are. Well, that’s the end of the matter.
This strain of self-pitying, self-satisfied white guy whining that presents as its opposite has been at the heart of the 18c push from the start — inevitably since it was constellated around Andrew Bolt, who embodies that European petit-bourgeois whining self-pity so absolutely, you’d think there was just a pile of clothes and a permanently on air horn where he sat. It was always going to do badly in a multicultural society — and the government ensured that would happen by continuing to suck up to multicultural society and treat the speech of individual Australians as something to be controlled by “community leaders”. When Brandis went to Muslim leaders to combat “radicalisation”, he treated speech not as a thing of freedom, but as an infectious agent, which could seize and transform people in occult ways. The “bacillus” model of “radicalisation” was an even more repressive model than the “material hurt” model of speech that lies at the root of 18c. Once done, that was it. Once you have a multicultural society with anointed “community leaders”, you have to have something like 18c — for you have constructed the social space as one of a negotiation between groups. Conversely, you can only get something like 18c abolished by going up against multiculturalism itself and insisting on the classical liberal notion — straight out of the 17th century — that the public sphere should be an open space in which individuals trade ideas like commodities.
You wouldn’t want to to underestimate what a defeat this 18c stuff up is for the Right. The 18C clause survived the Howard era because it didn’t throw up a major case like the Bolt one and could be left in place. In that respect Howard had helped consolidate major remnants of a model of Australian state and society cemented in the Hawke/Keating era. This was the first major challenge to it, and it needed a Team Liberal who had an understanding of the society they were campaigning in — and some respect for the claims of the opposing arguments, which derived from liberalism also, albeit of a different kind. They didn’t even begin to step up. The survival of 18c confirms — as a real Australian substantial belief — the notion that certain types of collective regulation enable freedom. Keeping 18c helps keep plain packaging, helps the push for stronger food labelling, and much, much more.
That is, in effect, what the Abbott government has now switched to — a Right form of collectivism around nation, based on an external/internal emergency, the enemy within. Whatever special attention is needed to some young men returning from the Middle East, the push for this extreme and omnibus bill is political in nature. So too is the ghastly funeral pomp around MH17. No matter what Abbott says, it isn’t a national day of mourning for 300 people in one air disaster once, 40 of whom were Australian. To them I feel a faint connection, for the others simply a fleeting sadness. To bundle the Australian dead into this national process is questionable enough; to say we are mourning 150 Dutch people as a nation is absurd and ghoulish and has cynicism at its heart. It’s time someone in the churches — who get used for this sort of stuff — started speaking out against co-opted ersatz grief, for it demeans the true thing itself.
In the meantime, we will see how the liberal intellectual Right reacts to this government turnabout. Will the endless bleating about the nanny state find any register for the mass collection and access of metadata, and the criminalisation of anyone travelling to Kurdish northern Iraq — which is currently running a global tourism campaign for godssake? Rather than the occasional “loyal opposition” piece, will they come out and identify the new reactionary and repressive character of the government they supported? Don’t wait up for it. They are, by and large, cowardly and sycophantic people, eager to huddle in corporate-funded lobby group/think tanks, conformists who holler about individuality, market fanboys who have never gained an income in it, people who get more inspiration from Ronald McDonald than from William Wallace. That’s why they lost this round and will lose the next. As always, opposition to a new round of reaction will come from the much larger, better organised and more courageous progressive forces around the country.