In the old days, it was all so easy. John Howard would declare his position on a contentious social issue, the Left would scream in rage, Labor would twist itself into knots second-guessing whether it was being wedged and how to avoid it, Howard would emerge looking reasonable and in touch with mainstream Australia. But the basic art of dog-whistling has proven beyond the Abbott government. Indeed, so staggeringly inept was yesterday’s “burqa” ban that even the Coalition’s media loyalists deserted it in droves.

And this was a Coalition decision, not an independent one by Speaker Bronwyn Bishop and Senate President Stephen Parry. Bishop is the most blatantly partisan Speaker since Labor’s appalling Leo McLeay, continuing to sit in the Coalition party room and openly taking instruction from Leader of the House Christopher Pyne — although Pyne was angrily denying any connection with the decision this morning, insisting he disagreed with it. But the decision came in the immediate wake of Coalition MPs trying to initiate a debate on banning what they insist on calling the “burqa”, with the unsubtle encouragement of the Prime Minister himself and, according to media reports, his chief of staff.

Then there was the remarkably tortured logic in the decision of trying to justify singling out one particular form of dress in a building where people are screened and scanned when they enter at the front door, and for a form of dress that no one could remember ever having been worn in the building. Someone in a “burqa” might heckle from the public gallery, so the explanation went, so they needed to be identifiable so they could be removed. Given the dearth of burqa-clad visitors, the possibility of burqa-clad hecklers seems remote indeed — and one entirely unrelated to the heightened terror threat level that is supposed to have initiated this whole discussion. Not merely is no one in physical danger from heckling, but Parliament has operated for over 20 years, 13 of them during the War on Terror, perfectly well despite apparently being subject to the threat of burqa-clad hecklers.

“It reduced one of the world’s most confident and successful democracies — and multicultural societies — to the level of a ranting old bigot on a bus.”

What this Coalition government lacks, though, is John Howard’s political intuition. The “suburban statesman”, as Mark Latham called him, was an expert dog-whistler, but he would have spotted that appearing to endorse the more extreme sentiments being peddled by the likes of Cory Bernardi and the otiose George Christensen, rather than distinguishing oneself from them, undermined the narrative of a mainstream, moderate leader. After all, Howard had learnt the hard way, first as opposition leader in the ’80s and then as prime minister facing Pauline Hanson, about the limits of pandering to bigotry. And he would have spotted that the imagery of singling out Muslim women and segregating them behind glass was damaging and provocative.

No one in the Prime Minister’s Office appears to have that political nous, or a capacity to read the mood of the PM’s colleagues. On Wednesday, George Brandis deliberately used much stronger language than Abbott on how it was none of the government’s business what people wore. Even Andrew Laming, an MP not normally noted for his political savvy, offered eminent good sense on the topic in, of all places, the Telegraph. But it was only once even the government’s media cheerleaders condemned the Bishop-Parry decision did Abbott move to nix it, thereby appearing not moderate or sensible but reactive, and leaving the Speaker and the President painfully exposed — they now have to find a way to backflip on their decision while leaving intact the pretence that they’re independent of the government.

It may only be symbolism, but symbolism can be powerful. The whole saga went beyond the usual petty politics of ignorance, dog-whistling and exploiting national security fears. It made Australian democracy, and all of us who have a role in it whether as politicians or officials or media practitioners, feel small-minded, insular and craven. It reduced one of the world’s most confident and successful democracies — and multicultural societies — to the level of a ranting old bigot on a bus. And it sent yet another signal to the Muslim community, Abbott’s belated effort to retract it notwithstanding, that they are different to the rest of us, different in a way that scares us and makes us want to punish them. Howard, too, would have sensed the danger there, if only because of the national security risks from continuing to fuel the alienation of people in the Muslim community.

“They hate us for who we are, not what we do” is the consistent line from the government. After yesterday, that’s harder to maintain than ever.

Peter Fray

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