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Feb 26, 2015

Razer’s Class Warfare: top five moments of political distraction (including the apology)

The government's reaction to the Forgotten Children report is pure vaudeville -- and Gillian Triggs is the villain.

The problems with democracy are at least as old as democracy itself, and we see the ancient character of this week’s particular problem described in first-century satire. It was the Roman codger Juvenal who wrote of the people’s appetite for bread and circuses; we far prefer, he said, the cheap nourishment of political theatrics to decent policy, and given the choice between civic good and a ringside seat at a brawl with a mouthful of dough, we’ll abstain from a low-carb diet every time.

Politicians have been making bread and entertaining deceit for centuries, and to say that we are hungry for and fed on distraction is hardly a new observation. The president of the Human Rights Commission this week finds herself an unwitting part of this ancient problem. To help a desperate government find a solution to the “problem” of abused children in detention, Gillian Triggs’ value is diminished to the role of villain in a cheap federal entertainment.

It’s not a new form of comedy. But it is accelerated and played on a larger and more frequent scale. This week’s distraction could not be more of a dusty pantomime, with the Attorney-General coming across like the Widow Twankey and parts of the press responding to his “Oh, yes it is!” with “Oh, no it isn’t!”. Here we are in the dark, screaming at a harlequinade, with the topic of children in detention forgotten and debate on our national commitment to accepting larger numbers of refugees buried.

We’ve become inured to this colour-and-movement and less inclined to detect the real problems it obscures. Content to watch the spectacle itself and not the issues it purports to represent, we can be heard less often to shout “He’s behind you!”. I mean. After all. Who can blame us?

The resolution of a cheap debate in Canberra has all but become the resolution of the real itself. This has always happened, of course, and Edmund Barton got bullshit off to a flying start by blaming Asian immigration for everything that was wrong, introducing the White Australia Policy and insisting, “the doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman“.

What a dick, who would have no doubt become more of a dick with the increased opportunities for pantomime posturing the 20th century would go on to provide. Limited stages meant limited opportunities for the delivery of bread and circuses, but now, infinite exposure makes for so much more of the stuff Juvenal decried. This brief chronological look at the last quarter century of glitzy obfuscation is by no means complete. But perhaps it will help you make an entertaining sandwich.

5. Infinite mandatory detention. In 1992, the ALP was yet to be led by the soft science of focus groups but was led, often ably, by the gut of Paul Keating, whose taste for an imagined western Sydney led him to introduce section 54ZD of the Migration Act. This legislation, which came into effect in 1994, removed the 273-day time limit on detention and started a big argument about a small problem that continues to the present week. We were compelled to have an opinion about asylum seekers thanks to Keating, who was preparing for the “unwinnable” 1993 election in an atmosphere of sluggish growth and high unemployment. Of course, it was Hewson’s awful “Fightback!” and a poorly sold GST that won him the race, but this sideshow stands as a freakishly low form of entertainment in the cultural liberal’s otherwise tolerable career.

4. Native Title Amendment Act. It was in 1998 that Howard’s 10-point plan sought to undo the Wik decision and reduce the powers of native title to something like a very conditional fishing licence. To argue that this mean-spirited legislation, which was eventually passed after amendments were made to appease Brian Harradine, was set to do any good for the nation is a challenge. To argue that it provided the lurid backdrop for Howard’s cheap History Wars is not very difficult at all. Buoyed by the hot and insubstantial air of the “scholars” at Quadrant, Howard’s out-and-out denial of genocide, characterised as the “black armband view of history”, allowed racist idiots to feel like intellectuals — a tradition that continues to the present week.

3. The apology. Although it is remembered, and often officially archived, as an apology to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, Kevin Rudd’s apology in 2008 was limited to the stolen generations his predecessor had so absurdly redacted from history. While many Australians, both indigenous and non-indigenous, found the tribute moving, others sensibly criticised its partial and chiefly representational function. At the Marg Barry Memorial Lecture, Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning director Larissa Behrendt civilly warned the prime minister of “the key challenges that lay ahead of him if he wants to leave a legacy that goes beyond the merely symbolic”. In the now de-funded journal of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council, Tracker, Gary Foley was less polite when he spoke of the moment’s chief use in the construction of white Australian myths of benevolence. Whatever one’s view of the importance of political theatre, the fact remains that the chasm between indigenous and non-indigenous lives widened under Rudd. That this was a nice moment doesn’t make it less of a deceit.

2. The misogyny speech. A poll spike followed Julia Gillard’s famous parliamentary defence of her gender, which seemed spontaneous rage but was likely a collaboration with her then-adviser John McTernan. Of course, the fact of male architecture does not diminish the angry beauty of the feminist edifice. But what does is the legislation that passed in the Senate that day. Nearly 100,000 sole parents were impacted by passing of the Social Security Legislation Amendment proposed by Gillard. As some single parents, overwhelmingly female, were moved on to the NewStart pittance, they lost up to $160 a week and the advocacy of a leader who claimed to be feminist. Our most vulnerable women were sold out by our most powerful woman on that day.

1. Abbott and everything he does. You can blame the 24-hour news cycle or an atmosphere of anti-politics or the stupidity of the electorate if you like; Juvenal probably would. But the Abbott government, founded in spin and weaned on vaudeville, can’t blame the times entirely for its lack of a relationship to reality. From Hockey’s “age of entitlement” speech to the Prime Minister’s recent Muslim-trolling to the poorly executed diversion of making a Prince Consort a Knight, everything this government does seems to be driven by representation and not reality. We are living in a matrix where evidence-based policy, or any link to the real that precedes its representation, is dead. Tony took the blue pill.

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12 thoughts on “Razer’s Class Warfare: top five moments of political distraction (including the apology)

  1. wbddrss

    A good piece, I like it. Very challenging.

    With reference to:
    “This has always happened, of course, and Edmund Barton got bullshit off to a flying start by blaming Asian immigration for everything that was wrong, introducing the White Australia Policy ”

    I would like to add that the so “notionally” called “white Australia policy” was enforced by an “English Test”. If you want to link this test to racism you get the following lack of reciprocity about immigration between present and past governments in this world.

    1) The English test is still being currently used. All governments that have restrictive immigration also have similar restrictions around language. Why is Australia any worse or better off.

    2) Australia’s present restrictive immigration regime is ever so much more open than most other restrictive immigration regimes of past & present overseas governments.

    3) The reason we need so many immigrants is that women are having not enough children to replace the population as the population ages. Other countries also have this problem but they still restrict immigration. Leading to a smaller population. So why can’t these governments open up their doors & accept more immigrants.

    The conclusion appears to me that all countries have restrictive immigration policies and if Australia wants to restrict number & kind of immigrants then we could do the same. But we would have a falling population. The argument goes on and on. Why paint Australia as bad when so many people are happy to come here any way. Makes no sense to me and is hypercritical.

    To cap of this series of articulated irregularities. Why is it that computer programmers in India prefer the Anglo sphere than say South Korea. This brings up many issues that other peoples are of such different cultures & languages have more structural issues than Anglo Celtic peoples, so the transparency in an English speaking country can only encourage immigration to the Anglo sphere. This means criticism of Australia’s perceived inadequacies are just such exaggerated BS.


  2. Michael Anderson

    May not be the right place to ask but…

    Does anyone know if it’s possible to customise the daily crikey email to specifically exclude/drop anything written by Helen?


  3. Norman Hanscombe

    Outside of Crikey World, most Australian citizens seem to agree that there can be situations in which Australian Governments need the power to hold people in detention; but this is deemed even by Crikey as being the least important in their list, so on to #4.
    4. Native Title Amendment Act.
    Take out Crikey’s attacks on individuals they don’t like, and we’re left with the fact that when Wik was passed it was done to grant Legislated rights to mainland aborigines which were over and above anything they obtained via the Court’s decision re Mer. At the time Keating presented the Bill to Parliament, he stressed, among other things, that it did NOT endanger pastoral leases. After the Courts read into the Legislation interpretations which took away Pastoral Lease Rights, Howard moved to enact legislation in line with what Keating had told Parliament the Bill would do. The suggestion Howard’s proposals were in ANY sense similar to reducing Native Title to the status of a fishing licence would appear to be either an act of deliberate dishonesty or stupidity/carelessness.
    #3. With regard to “The apology”, Crikey surely should be aware that when what were seen as the two strongest cases were taken to the Court, they both failed. Quoting Gary Foley’s analyses doesn’t amount to much of a foundation for anything relevant to this issue. Crikey, and this isn’t the first time this has been raised, should consider putting some of its energy into an analysis of whether of so many well-intended do-gooder projects have had an effect re the gap between indigenous and other communities, including whether the effects have been positive or have in fact exacerbated the
    #2. The misogyny speech causes many intellectually competent members of the Left to cringe; but those with a sense of preservation tend to remain silent. For Crikey, of course, this is one of their sacred site areas, so out of respect for their elders past and present, let’s move on to the “top” example.
    #1 is “Abbott and everything he does.” It turns out I moved on to optimistically. It’s merely to let those more slow-witted than most who hadn’t been aware of it that the Crikey Commissars don’t like Abbott. Hardly what one would call newsworthy?
    P.S. Michael Anderson, delete Helen and lose some of the more psychologically quaint ‘stories’?

  4. Coaltopia

    Hey #2, don’t go into the light, you might turn to stone.

    Great piece – complimenting Bernard’s piece well on dog-whistling hypocrisy. Or is it a back-flip with a non-core promise half-pike? I forget.

    On enviro policy, let’s see what – potential all-Labor – eastern seaboard Laborites do on coal/gas expansions and “protecting the reef”.

  5. Ken Lambert

    Razer might be a little young to remember Keating’s maiden speech to the Federal Parliament in which he challenged the women to Australia to run home and remain barefoot and pregnant while he and his ancient mentor Jack Lang ran the country along good Catholic working class principles, larded with a healthy hate for the Protestant establishment and its forelock tuggers.

  6. Pippa Tandy

    Absolutely agree about the hypocrisy surrounding the Gillard mysogyny speech. So much damage was done to women with that Social Security Legislation. Labor needs to listen to their stories.

  7. Helen Razer

    @Ken Lambert. Goodness. I *do* remember rad-fem reference to that early ’70s speech around’92 when the ALP went all out to get the lady vote. And now, I’ve just looked at it again. It’s not quite Pauline Hanson’s maiden effort but OMG, as the young are wont to say!

  8. JennyWren

    Geez Helen I didn’t think you would fall for that one too. Gillard and Labor merely moved the ‘grandfathered’ (or grandmothered perhaps?) single parents onto Newstart, making the playing field level again for all. I know, I was one of the unlucky ones who separated after 30th June 2006 which is when Howard’s law came into being. Thing is, you stayed on pension until the youngest child turned 8 then bumped onto Newstart. Hence the lucky ones who kept their pension until kids grew up were more likely to have older kids you see? You could argue that Labor should have restored the pension to every single parent until adulthood but they chose the cheaper option. Make no mistake, the policy was Howard’s, Labor just evened it up for all.

  9. JennyWren

    @Pippa Tandy I know more than one of the protected single parents. I wasn’t one of them. I got a job when my oldest daughter turned 8 after about 2 years on the Single Parenting Pension. They didn’t until Gillard made it an equal playing field. As I said above, you could argue that everyone should have gone back to pre 30/6/2006 conditions, but don’t ever deny that it was a Howard policy. He loved to punish single mums, and reward stay at home mums with FTB A.

  10. Ken Lambert


    You might also remember that Professor Gillard, that well funded Adelaide pensioner produced her famous ‘misogny’ speech in defence of Craig Thompson that other charmer whom I am sure the rad-fem ladies would also put in their Keating pantheon of progressive Labor types. His MO was to redistribute poor health services workers wealth to the even less fortunate ladies of the night – without troubling the former with the details of the latter.

    I do admire Gillard’s robust and indeed ground breaking defence of such a public benefactor as Mr Thomson who tried in a gloriously self denying way to make such donations in secret eschewing publicity as all good donors do.