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.