As emerged clearly from last week’s debate on ABC bias, there is a peculiar interpretation of “balance” afoot on some sections of the right.

Piers Akerman, for example, seems to think that mainstream commentators like Barrie Cassidy, Matt Price and Lenore Taylor are just left-wing equivalents of himself and Andrew Bolt.

Noel Pearson put his finger on it in Saturday’s Australian when he said “The problem is that in many cases what passes for mainstream debate is in fact a debate between the real mainstream and quite extreme ideas.”

Pearson is talking about Indigenous policy, but his remarks have much more general application. He describes what happened when he first started making the sort of arguments that won him considerable, if selective, acclaim on the right:

My indigenous friend and colleague Professor Marcia Langton … was hesitant about new policies that could be construed as concessions to the Right, even if those policies were correct. She thought the Right would not meet us halfway; instead, they were intent on waging total war.

As he says, her “concern was prescient”. When the debate moves, the ideologues move with it, staking out new and more extreme positions: “opinions that normally would be mean and ungracious in a generous, democratic country become acceptable and indeed de rigueur.”

Pearson sees the right now engaged in a concerted attack against Aboriginal land rights. How, he asks, “could Burkeian conservatives and Hayekian liberals countenance government arbitrarily taking away land that is the lawful inheritance of citizens?”

He might equally have asked, how could the followers of Burke or Hayek support torture, or detention without trial, or the repudiation of international law, or intelligent design, or the medieval fantasies of the Exclusive Brethren?

It’s possible that Akerman et al. are quite genuine about their complaints: that, being ideological warriors themselves, they assume anyone who reaches different conclusions from them is an ideological warrior for the other side.

Or they could be just engaged in a cynical power play. Either way, the quest for “balance” risks giving extremism a free run.

Peter Fray

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