Our hope for any public good produced by debate on 18C was presaged this week by Senator Jacqui Lambie. This politician, in the occasional habit of offering a true antidote to bullshit, said that her constituents did not care: “Tasmanians are worried about how they are going to afford to eat, they are worried about the price of electricity.” She reminded voters of the provisions in 18D and that proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act were a self-serving “distraction” by those with no plans to address the escalating pain of real survival.

This is our single hope, then: the Australian people will acquire the difficult skill of sorting policy wheat from the chaff of ideology. It occurs to Lambie, as it does very plainly to others in this era of income inequality, that the “right to be a bigot” cannot be exercised if one is unable to meet the costs demanded by an internet provider. It is not a “right” and should not be a right and should not even be a luxury afforded to a comfortable few.

The rewording of 18C is the grim and deluded vanity project of a Brandis or an Abetz, men who may genuinely believe themselves to be in touch with the “real” Australia, but have never had to fret about a bill.

Throughout his career, Jeff Kennett, who this week announced his resignation as chairman of Beyondblue, has been such a pampered ideologue. I have no doubt that he believed very earnestly that cheap civic pride and costly programs of privatisation were the way forward for the people of Victoria. I have no doubt that in his mental health role, he thought that the key to solving the growing problem of mental ill health was to “end the stigma”. Second only to feeling unwell, the “stigma” of illness is the greatest hurdle for a silvertail chasing good health.

For the rest of us who have endured mental ill health, “stigma” is just another concern on an everyday list. Add it to a pile of problems, largely built from a lack of material resources. You can’t find subsidised care. You can’t find work to pay for care. You can’t find anyone to mind the kids. That Uncle Kafoops has offered the opinion that you’re bunging it on, or that you should harden up, may not be the most of your worries.

[No, Beyondblue, we do not need more awareness about mental health]

That the true problem is “stigma” is the ardent and central belief of Beyondblue, a mental health organisation founded in the Kennett spirit of market competition. As a capitalist, Jeff did a great job. Beyondblue has eclipsed the good, research-focused work of dozens of other bodies and has, with its program of “stigma” detonation, largely crushed the cry of advocates for better and greater spending on mental health. In Australia, our budget for the sector has barely grown and remains at the smallest proportion of GDP for any OECD nation. This is what “awareness raising” has given us: no more money, no better workplace legislation to protect the jobs of the mentally unwell, no more hospital beds. What it has done is spread the dangerous conviction that “ending the stigma” is the simple solution to a complex of problems.

When Julia Gillard, the architect of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, announced her intention to take over from Kennett as Beyondblue chair, there was cause for optimism. This was diminished when she declared that she saw the organisation’s role as one of ending the stigma. In her official video acceptance, Gillard spoke of the advances she had seen in the conversation around mental health. Things are more open now, and the topic, for example, of suicidality is no longer taboo. But, she said, there remained more stigma to end.

Gillard did hint that she would not simply be filling Kennett’s big shoes but would approach the job with a different gait. Let’s hope. But, to affirm the work of “ending the stigma” is to accept the era’s ideological paralysis. The most important thing we can do, our pampered ideologues agree, is to speak better and more freely.

The aims of 18C’s opponents are hardly inconsonant with those of Beyondblue’s champions. The belief in a “freedom” destined to benefit only a fortunate few is elevated above all other material concerns. If only we are free to talk, they say, convinced that individual acts of repression are the greatest threat to our national wellbeing.

It is not, of course, a bad thing that we now feel freer to declare or seek help for our mental ill health. It is a bad thing that precisely in this moment of deluded public psychoanalysis, we are not “free” to secure the help that we say, and we know, that we need.

Peter Fray

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