David Leyonhjelm

Popcorn time. In the Oz this morning, Planet Janet intones: “PM must reform 18C now: We all lose if Malcolm Turnbull doesn’t address the Racial Discrimination Act.”

Thanks, Planet. In these vexatious and frustrating times, humour is a tonic. At that header and strap, I actually laughed out loud.

Good ole 18C, coming round Mt Molehill for what is it, the fifth, sixth time? I’ve lost count. We’ve all lost count.

Those most keen on having it modified appear to have hit on a new strategy: sheer boredom. We will eventually become so driven mad with tedium that they will get their changes passed, as a way to make them shut up about it.

[Rundle: Leak, Hanson and the amazing, all-crazy, all-collapsing right]

We don’t lose if 18C remains unchanged; we don’t win if it does. Like m’colleagues Keane and Razer, I’m not a huge fan of the “insult and offend” provisions in it, and like them, I’m not fool enough to believe the provisions’ existence matters much.

Rarely used, except in the comment section of the media, it roared into the centre of public life because Andrew Bolt launched one of the most vicious, fact-free attacks on a known group of people, and based his assault on their identity — as mixed-race or light-skinned — to the numerous falsehoods in an article.

Bolt’s obsession with their mixed heritage echoed his cultural background — Dutch neo-Calvinism, a 19th-century movement that elevated “purity” as the supreme virtue.

Thus, the long vertrek from there to here began, not around issues of censorship, or how insult, offence or threat could be defined, but around whiteness. The right then tried to take it up as a general issue. Paul Kelly called it, ahem, one of the most important issues of our time. When the law change went down in flames, he blasted people for turning it into an unwinnable IPA-led crusade. That’s our Paul.

The 12 months or so when the right, and then the Abbott government, tried to define it as a contextless free-speech issue fulfilled a fantasy the Liberal Party had about itself: defenders of freedom, etc, etc.

That came up against the fact that the Libs were a multicultural clientelist party, who pay their obeisances to myriad ethnic “communities” every election. Two thousand submissions from the community(s) later, it was obvious, even to Tony Abbott, that the 18C rewrite — a near total gutting of the provision — was, in fact, a suicide note. (When Jewish peak bodies opposed any changes, Bolt sulked, muttering about their failure to return the support he’d given them. That was my favourite bit.)

By discontinuing that little crusade, Abbott may well have saved Malcolm Turnbull’s government. Gutting 18C would have lost the Liberals Reid, their recent acquisition in Sydney’s west, at the very least, and maybe one or two others besides. It would have gained them nothing. Whatever interest had been around in the mainstream during Bolt’s case has long since flown back to the fringes.

[Take note, David Leyonhjelm: 18C is not all about Andrew Bolt]

Now, after a little holiday, it’s back. Not tanned, but whiter than ever.

Essentially, the 18C campaign has re-emerged from two distinct sources. One is the IPA camp within the Coalition — James “Benjamin Button” Paterson and those types — who are emphasising the abstract, free-speech, limited-government aspects of it.

The arrival of the four One Nation senators has re-emphasised it from another angle: the put-upon, strangers-in-our-own country, whiteness angle.

And Senator David Leyonhjlem has kindly brought the two together, with his lame non-troll of reporting Mark Kenny for calling him an “angry white man”. The case law is full of such trolling, and it has been rejected before, not only because of the white/non-white imbalance of cultural power, but because you have to do more than just mild insult to reach the 18C provision.

You’d have to call Leyonhjelm something like, I don’t know, a six-foot circumcised albino penis, something like that maybe. Even then …

Leyonhjelm is playing dumb on this one, arguing that offence is a purely individual act, “whether I choose to get offended or not”. That’s obviously asinine. Language is an intersubjective act, the meaning and impact of words having a socially determined meaning.

Otherwise there wouldn’t be such a thing as an “insult”, and there clearly is. Hard to tell whether Leyonhjelm believes his crackpot theory, but he’s a classical liberal, and that individualist incoherence is central to the philosophy.

In any case, if Leyonhjelm thinks he’s advancing the cause of 18C revision, he’s dead wrong. The more the issue is tied to the butthurt, poor-me, self-pitying whiteness of the hard right — whose statism and dirigisme Leyonhjelm doesn’t have much in common with — the more toxic the reform becomes.

There are plenty of people who might be neutral about it or favourable to such a reform who have no desire to be associated with a ressentiment-filled, white-skin crusade. That’s not only for reasons of revulsion at the rich history of such, but also because it’s a class marker.

White resentment is the movement sweeping the world at the moment, rising up among marooned social classes, left behind by recent tech, economic and cultural changes. Many have much to be angry about, but the mythologised victimhood by which it’s expressed is repellent — especially to social classes who haven’t had the same misfortune.

That would seem to be a particularly stupid way to push the redrafting of 18C, if that is what you want. If it was too much for Tony Abbott with a 14-seat majority, it would obviously be poison for Turnbull with a one-seat majority.

[Rundle: Don Dale, Nauru — this is who we are]

There is no guarantee that Craig Laundy in Reid would not cross the floor, and he may not be the only one. Nor is there any guarantee that Cathy McGowan or Bob Katter would support a revision (Katter relies on various north Queensland ethnic groups as part of his base, in his eternal attempt to get a Senate seat for his party) .

But of course, in this new go-around, 18C may be playing its third role, that of catalyst and forcing-agent. For it appears that the campaign against Malcolm Turnbull has already begun. Whatever the Coalition equivalent of Trotskyist permanent revolution is, it’s on. No one who really prioritised getting a three-year term would push this impossible issue now. Its political use is to create maximum chaos for Turnbull internally, after the census debacle has further damaged his leader-image externally.

Has any Australian PM ever been in a weaker position after an election? You’d have to go back to the permanent instability of the first decade, of federation, pre-fusion, when no one could get a majority. Then you have to factor in what has become the most extraordinary story of the past year: Malcolm Turnbull’s utter lack of leadership qualities, his anti-ability.

How can such a leader survive the squeeze that an internal 18C campaign would put on his premiership? He can’t obviously, or not without sustaining further mortal damage. If this scenario is more than fanciful, it means that the conservative forces intend to create unceasing chaos, which makes either a spill or the calling of a sudden election, and then a spill, inevitable. And then, unimaginable as it is now, Tony Abbott will return. He looks calmer, wiser, his worst excesses have been forgotten, and compared to the chaos that precedes him, he’s a safe pair of hands.

Maybe, maybe not. Whatever the case, it’s back. Eighteen C, the McGuffin of Australian politics — a white-skin cause in a one-seat majority government, riven by division, with a leader they’ve lost confidence in. Popcorn time.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey