There are more important matters for Australia, and for indigenous politics, than the treatment of Adam Goodes by a contingent of the AFL crowd: forced removal of WA communities, youth suicide, health, education, etc, etc. You name it. All having more impact than the effect on one man.

And yet …

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There is also nothing of greater importance than the treatment of Adam Goodes, for it goes to the heart of universality and citizenship. Footballers get booed, and some of them get booed for a while on a systemic basis. No one has been booed as concertedly and systematically as Goodes.

Prompted, it is alleged, by his spear-chucking routine — the sort of stuff US gridiron footballers do on the sidelines after a touchdown all the time — the initial aim appears to have been to mozz Goodes, put him off his game.

Thereafter it became something else, an attempt to get in his head and — telling phrase — under his skin. Eventually it acquired a dynamic of its own among a self-selecting crowd, a mix of bullying, resentment and crowd power.

The obvious meaning of the gesture — that Aborigines cannot be full citizens, that if they are footballers, they must behave as shy country boys, grateful for a run — was what called out a wider response, starting from the left and the liberal left, and spreading across the centre and the right.

The latter eventually saw no alternative but to call it out as “racism”, the term coined by Leon Trotsky for behaviour and attitude that was not programmatic racialism, of the Nazi type. The centre-right hates using the word, because it acknowledges that we live under collective conditions, but it is sometimes necessary.

Thus The Australian‘s editorial thundered out that the racist abuse must stop. Doubtless this is all part of its commitment to a better Australia, and this commitment to universality has nothing to do with another campaign — against so-called “xenophobia”, its term of abuse for anyone who would question the wisdom of the China-Australia FTA, the TPP or any other trading away of sovereignty.

But not everyone from the right was on board. In News Corp’s tabloid wing, columnists Andrew Bolt, Miranda Devine and Rita Panahi had conducted a sustained criticism of Goodes as the true culprit, who had “caused” the booing by having opinions, and “throwing” an imaginary spear. That this was called by many of Goodes’ critics “threatening the crowd” showed the response for what it was — hysteria, the affliction where one takes the symbolic for the real. The tabloid columnists were joined in their high dudgeon by Paul Sheehan in the SMH, the columnist Fairfax retains to sate the enlarged-prostate section of the readership.

The Oz has turned on Bolt et al, and it has turned on them in a way that suggests a real rift in the right commentariat, rather than a staged spat. They have criticised Bolt before, of course, for his opposition to indigenous recognition in the constitution, but now they’re going further, undermining both him and Devine, questioning their accuracy and consistency, in their niggling “Cut and Paste” section (a section both Bolt and Devine have used as sources for blog material in the past).

That was all popcorn stuff until this week. Now it’s Gold Class, deep armchair, waiter service, touch-of-a-button movie marathon stuff. The Oz appears to be out to question not only Bolt’s credibility, but his reach and readership (mocking his comments string — for godssake, demarcation! That’s our job). In other words, one part of News Corp is undermining the sales capacity of the other.

That suggests that something more than the issues at hand are at stake. Not hard to guess what it is. The centre-right is jettisoning a lot of the political junk it relied on from the mid-1990s well into the 2000s — from Keating’s surprise victory against a liberal free-market agenda and the return of Howard on an “anti-political correctness” ticket through 9/11 and Iraq to Rudd-Gillard and the time of Tone.

Through nearly two decades that right mix worked well — Australian economy and society was steadily neoliberalised, and the feelings of alienation and atomisation that engendered were slated home to a series of fake causes: political correctness, the elites, multiculturalism, the elites, division, the elites and so on. Such a period was made for, and made by, people like Bolt, Sheehan and Devine.

That they were journalists, the very metropolitan elitists they purported to defend their readers against, was of no import. Indeed the more absurd the ventriloquism the better. Miranda Devine is the daughter of former Oz consigliere Frank Devine.

But that mix of neoliberalism and implicitly communalist populism only works for so long — especially when such economic liberalisation is accompanied by a steady multicultural immigration program. It was over the course of the Howard years, while he fanned the hysteria on boats and the War on Terror, that metropolitan Australia decisively lost its residual European character and became a genuinely Eurasian society.

The mid-stage multiculturalism of the ’80s and ’90s kept non-Anglos/non-Europeans as peripheral (more than marginal, less than central), still a little exotic (those endless SBS shows where old men played bouzoukis in community halls, remember them?). The sheer numerical heft of the Howard era changed that. Power remains unevenly distributed, but cultural presence is far more genuinely multiple and hybrid than it was two decades ago (aided of course by the decentralisation of culture due to the digital revolution).

This transformation had a roll-over effect — into indigenous/non-indigenous relations, and in regards to gender and sexuality issues. People in the big cities who want to “go back” to something now have nothing they can reliably conjure up. Australia has been genuinely reconstructed, and in that respect it has left the populist right high and dry.

That’s why, on a whole range of issues — Goodes, racism, recognition, same-sex marriage, “foreign gangs”, “self-loathing leftism” etc, etc — the populist right now looks ever so slightly ridiculous, save to their loyal and diminishing readership. The language they borrowed from US neoconservatism and the culture wars — language Howard was the first to deploy — worked for a while, but it sounds alien and imposed now.

That doesn’t mean they don’t have a following, or that the tabloids’ readership has stopped being centre-right on cultural and social issues. But they’re centre-right in a different way than they were 20 years earlier, and the Goodes-booers and the Bolt fan club increasingly appear as a self-selecting crowd, resentful, obsessive and self-pitying. Quite simply it’s possible for people to hold centre-right/conservative points of view and look back at a lot of the argy-bargy over the last two decades and wonder what all the the fuss was about.

The non-populist right has realised that it needs to reconstruct its politics, especially as it now wishes Australians to abandon the last of their collectivist impulses. That was always the problem with populist rightism — its cultural collectivism would reinforce a strong residual industrial collectivism. Quite a few of the people who voted Howard in on boats voted him out on WorkChoices, and they did so out of the same idea of what Australia was, a “people’s home” in the slogan of the Swedish social democrats, to be defended without and within.

Hence the suggestion that any opposition to the further globalisation of the economy and filleting of Australian conditions and quality of life is “xenophobia”. Hence the desire for a minimal recognition model, nailed down, so we can look the rest of the world in the eye. Hence the desire to get same-sex marriage done and over, because many of its supporters, prosperous and new class people, can be appealed to by globalised individualism as against collectivist populism. And so on.

The only question is how far News Corp will go in such a reconstruction of the right. Their tabloids’ profits pay for their gold-leaf-printed broadsheet. But they were profitable before Bolt, Devine et al, and they will remain so after them. Goodes had the wisdom to realise that no one is indispensable, took himself out of the game for a week to regroup and return to play at his best — so as not to be hounded out. I wonder if Andrew Bolt will do the same?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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