He’s the epitome of mild-mannered, so it’s a measure of his effectiveness, and the state of the political-culture wars, that the departure of Tim Soutphommasane as racial discrimination commissioner has been a cause for such rejoicing on the right, and their determination to put someone in — Andrew Bolt, frozen Walt Disney, “The Skull”* — more to their liking. “Nothing can happen until TimSout’s out,” appears to be the refrain.
Well, if the entire conservative agenda on immigration and culture is being stymied by one diligent hardworking operative, then it’s in dire straits indeed. But whatever theoretical disagreements one can have with Soutphommasane — I would say that I once hoped he would marry the daughter of Imre Salusinszky, and hyphenate names Glebe/Fitzroy North style, but then I would have to report myself to him — no one can deny that he has taken the fight to the right, to their lazy fiction of a conservative silent majority of known views, from day one.
Soutphommasane’s liberal, mildly social democratic multiculturalism, isn’t much to my taste; I think his notion of a culturally engineered “Progressive Patriotism” — which was influential on Rudd and Ed Miliband for a while — is a misunderstanding of what patriotism and love of country, place, community actually is, but that’s of little matter. In multicultural societies shaped by waves of different migrations, and a founding Indigenous/non-Indigenous division, we are simply going to have to get used to the idea that our attachments to country are multiple, and to multiple objects.
Hand on heart, I am never really going to get used to large areas of the centre of Melbourne having become one vast Chinatown; but then, my Melbourne was one of Greek, Yugoslav, Lebanese cafes and bars, which had displaced the Anglo-Celtic world of pubs and caffs. There’s no point trying to suture these disjunctures with a patriotism of abstract values: the only result of such processes is Howard, is Brexit, is Trump. We need to go in the other direction, back into the ground of where we are, and acknowledge its multiplicities. Luckily, Tim has been so busy with the casual racism of so much Australian social life, he hasn’t had time to bang the drum for much of that stuff.
I don’t always agree with his stance on where state intervention and public behaviour lie either. But there needs to be, in every cause, people who fight for nothing other than that cause, and Tim Soutphommasane has been that. He has displayed fidelity to his project. It has coincided with, and he has been contributory to, the unmasking of the “silent majority” thesis of conservative social life, which bit the dust with the Yes victory in the same-sex marriage referendum. His companion Tim Wilson, that political neutrino, left not much more than a victory for McDonald’s, and the smell of a soapy fart; Soutphommasane has changed the national conversation. Well burrowed, in the bureaucracy, TS.
*a notorious neo-Nazi presence in Sydney in the 1960s and 1970s. I imagine the Festival of Dangerous Ideas is trying to find him, even as I write.