For a time yesterday in parliament, health minister Tony Abbott sounded
as if he was adopting the Danna Vale approach to demography, where only
white Christians count as Australians. Talking about Simon Crean’s
preselection problem, he contrasted his support among the Greek,
Spanish, Vietnamese and Cambodian branches, then asked “Are there any
Australians left in the so-called Australian Labor Party today?”

The contrast with Abbott’s defence of multiculturalism in the current issue of Quadrant was sufficiently strong for Tony Jones to ask him on Lateline
whether he was “playing both good cop and bad cop simultaneously”. His
explanation – that “it was a jocular remark and when offence was
taken, it was withdrawn” – sounded less than convincing.

But when talking seriously about multiculturalism, Abbott hit his
stride. Jones argued that his endorsement of such propositions as “we
should be reluctant to impose any particular expectation on
[immigrants] other than that they will do their best in their own way
to make a constructive contribution to Australian society” amounted to
what Peter Costello had said “was confused, mushy, misguided
multiculturalism.” But although Abbott denied there was any conflict,
he did not back away.

Instead, he offered this thoughtful picture: “I mean, you use the term
‘assimilation’, you use the term ‘integration’ and a whole lot of
conclusions are leapt to by people who are looking to label people.
Well, I think the labels are unhelpful. I think the conclusions are
often wrong. In the end, everyone who is here now is on a journey with
everyone else who is here now. At different times other people will
join us and they will join the journey from their starting point. But
we’ll be on it together then.”

To which Jones said “you’re starting to sound a bit like Martin Luther King”.

The person he reminded me of, closer to home, was Brian Harradine –
also a hard-line conservative on many issues, but capable of the sort
of empathy with the less well-off that seems to escape Howard and
Costello. If the Liberals could merge Peter Costello on abortion with
Tony Abbott on refugees, they might just have a workable package.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey