It’s easy to forget that Rowan Dean wasn’t always like this. Before he told Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane to “hop on a plane and go back to Laos”, before he blamed the Grenfell Tower tragedy on “climate change alarmism and progressive politics”, before he said Stan Grant “shot to long-overdue leftie prominence in late 2015 when, after years of ignoring him, the Luvvies finally sat up and noticed he has Aboriginal ancestry”. Before all that, he was just a standard conservative commentator.

The Rowan Dean blog (last updated April 23, 2012), which used to republish his Australian Financial Review columns, includes observations about the absurdities of a Cadbury ad campaign, and a piece riffing on the calamities of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Labor Party as though the internal party ructions were a TV mini-series that had undergone a change of writer midway through. There’s a gentle prod at the potential PC concerns of the Cadbury ad, and a general amusement at Labor’s expense, respectively, but neither shrieks about the “hard left”, or multiculturalism, or identity politics.

His first column for The Spectator Australia, “Blame culture” — published in July 2013 — is relatively even-handed and thoughtful and even expresses some sympathy for then-recently ousted former prime minister Julia Gillard, who was, at the time, a prime target for some the nastier elements of the right-wing commentariat:

“It is intriguing to imagine what Julia Gillard would have been like as prime minister without the two men who did their utmost to sabotage and destroy her career: Kevin Rudd and John McTernan. Certainly her tenacity and self-belief, faced with a genuine external threat, could have been used to the national advantage. Had she applied her talents to one achievable reform at a time (much as John Howard did with gun laws and the GST), her legacy would be vastly improved.”

So when did this change? Well, a column in The Daily Telegraph in December of last year perhaps offers a clue into the beginning of his very public mutation into some kind of right-wing Howard Beale:

“I used to be a supporter of an Australian Republic, a supporter of gay marriage, and a supporter of multiculturalism. Then the Left came along and turned me off all three. Nice work, guys! Oh, sorry, I can’t say ‘guys’ because the Left told me that’s a sexist word. My mistake. So I’ll say ‘Nice work, team’ instead. Oops, can’t say ‘team’ either, ever since Tony Abbott uttered the phrase Team Australia and every Lefty — including Malcolm Turnbull — piled in on top of him because the word ‘team’ is offensive to Muslims, apparently.

“OK, so how about I say ‘Nice work, gang’? Is that better? Or is the word ‘gang’ offensive to, you know, gangs?” 

He goes on like this for a while. In the midst of this cacophony he says, “Up until two years ago I thought gays should be allowed to get married and said so on numerous TV shows”. So let’s check in with him in 2014 — around the time he took over as editor of The Spectator Australia — and chart his progression from simply right wing to … well, something more colourful. 

Shorten comes cleanThe Spectator, August 30, 2014

“Federal Labor leader Bill Shorten has revealed police have cleared him of an allegation that dates back nearly 61 weeks …

“Mr. Shorten said the allegations were made against him in a best-selling fantasy novel called My Story that is about to be released.

“’Late last year I learned that a claim had been made about me, going back to when I was 46. It was made to a large, sobbing crowd of hysterical women in the Sydney Opera House. I will not go into details, except to say that the allegation was untrue and abhorrent. The allegation was made by someone I knew briefly at that time when she was Prime Minister of Australia.’” 

In case you couldn’t tell, that quote is supposed to be satire. And this is where Dean starts to get a little weird; he takes elements that were public at the time — the rape allegations against Bill Shorten that were dropped in August 2014, his role in ousting Julia Gillard in favour of Kevin Rudd, and the general factional chaos afflicting the Labor Party — and throws them together with all the enthusiasm and clumsiness of a drunk making a 2am meal after a night out. It toys with sexual assault as joke fodder and takes a couple of paragraphs before it makes any sense. It is a sign of things to come. 

There’s no need to take offence, even if it’s offeredThe Courier-Mail, August 29, 2016

“When the woman threw the banana at Eddie Betts, it was an incredibly offensive act. Or was it? Let’s assume for the moment that the woman did intend to harm Betts — not physically but psychologically. Let’s assume, rightly or wrongly, that she wished to convey something like: you are an ape-like creature so here’s a banana to feed on. As I said, deeply offensive.

“Yet Betts simply refused to take the offence. In fact, not only did he simply shrug it off, he went on to actively forgive her for her insult. What a legend.

“Compare that to the actions of the entire ‘grievance industry’, in whose warm and fuzzy embrace we can include Adam Goodes, Waleed Aly, and the woman at the heart of the QUT case. Goodes, you will recall, when confronted by a little girl yelling ‘ape’ pointed her out in the crowd. She was hauled off and Goodes was, in my view laughably, made Australian of the Year. In that position he bizarrely went on to say he was ‘ashamed’ to be Australian.

The use of one vilified minority (who was good enough to keep his trap shut) to discredit another (who wasn’t), the grouping of a disparate and unrelated group into an “industry” who do nothing but search for things to complain about, and, finally, a, shall we say, selective approach to the facts. It is true that Adam Goodes said that John Pilger’s documentary Utopia brought him to tears and that the muted response embarrassed him as an Australian. But, in the acceptance speech for that “laughable” award, he also made the same point Dean is frantically pushing in his column: 

“There are always two ways we can look at a situation. We can choose to get angry. Or not. We can choose to help others. Or not. Or choose to be offended. Or not. We can keep our silence or educate ourselves and others about racism and minority populations.”

One year on, and what has Malcolm Turnbull done? (Under the subheading “THESE JOKERS ARE MISSING THE HUMOUR”) — September 5, 2016 

“HOLY Frightbats, Batgirl! Yet again, the politically correct enemies of free speech have gone feral over a harmless piece of clothing. Two years ago it was Woolies who panicked and removed their T-shirts from the shelves after a social media lynch mob accused them of ‘racism’. ‘If you don’t love it, leave’ was the offending slogan, which actually sounds like common sense to me.

“This time it’s the frothy-mouthed feminists who have got their T-shirts in a twist. A cute girl’s pink top at Target was emblazoned with: ‘Batgirl To Do List: Dryclean Cape, Wash Batmobile, Fight Crime, Save The World.’”

We would not be shocked if Dean had gotten the phrase “yet again, the politically correct enemies of free speech have gone feral …” translated into Latin and tattooed onto his stomach.  

The beauty and fun of Identity PoliticsThe Daily Telegraph May 15, 2017  

“To play Identity Politics, you have to have a full house of as many ‘diverse’ and ‘inclusive’ identities as you possibly can in your hand at any one time. The gayer, more leftie, more gender-fluid, more racially colourful the better. For a royal flush, you need five LGBTIQ cards in your hand — including a queen, obviously.

“Alternatively, you can play with two of a kind: two gays and two greenies. Or perhaps a Muslim, an indigenous Aussie, a transgender and an ecowarrior. Take your pick.

“The only hand you dare not play is a set of straight whites.”

And with this, we reach peak modern Dean — a formidably unfunny conceit stretched to snapping point (oooh, a queen, I get you!), a visceral hatred of activists and minorities (which he interchangeably classifies as identities, which an individual can chose and will confer upon them unearned privileges) and, of course, the dish is laced with a lip-smacking dose of self-pity. Any trace of the writer who sought to genuinely engage with the ideas and processes of politics is long gone.

Peter Fray

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