Nigel Scullion

Nigel Scullion, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs 

The week so far has been dominated by the decision of the government to support Senator Pauline Hanson’s white supremacist-influenced “it’s OK to be white” motion, and the zig-zagging public stances that followed. 

The final, official line from leader of the government in the senate Mathias Cormann, and Attorney-General Christian Porter, was that an “administrative error” led to the vote.

While it is inarguably a fuck up, just what kind of fuck up was it? Is the “don’t ask us what we voted for, we’re just the government” — damning as it is — convincing, or was this a cynical attempt at dog-whistling that royally backfired? It’s illuminating to look at how the events unfolded.

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September 19: Hanson puts the motion

Hanson gave notice of this motion a month ago and it was initially due to be voted on September 20. As it turned out, time expired before the Senate got to it, so it was held over until the next sitting  day. The wording — “that the Senate acknowledges (a) the deplorable rise of anti-white racism and attacks on Western civilisation; and (b) that it is okay to be white” — did not change in that time.

The question follows, did the Coalition not have a position on September 20, the day it was expected to come to a vote?

October 15: before the vote

The motion was debated. Any Coalition senators claiming they were unclear on what kind of statement they were endorsing clearly hadn’t looked as closely as independent Derryn Hinch who said it was part of Hanson’s race to “the bottom of the sewer” with her former colleague Fraser Anning. Similarly, Greens leader Richard Di Natale pointed out the history of the “it’s OK to be white” slogan within the white supremacist movement, “where both these clowns [Hanson and Anning] get most of their material from”. 

The Coalition’s contribution to the debate was for Liberal Senator Anne Ruston to simply say “the government condemns all forms of racism”. 

Further, footage of the division shows Labor senators shouting “come on!” and “really? really?”. The footage also shows confused government senators double checking their voting advice. At one point, a female voice is heard responding “we’re standing up for western civilisation”. 

After the vote, Indigenous Affairs minister Nigel Scullion and Kenyan-born Lucy Gichuhi were both singled out for criticism.  

October 15: after the vote

In the immediate aftermath, at 7.42pm , Attorney General Christian Porter (though not in the Senate) tweeted that the vote was actually a confirmation that the government “deplores” racism.

Cormann was absent from the chamber and therefore didn’t participate in the vote, but also expressed his support for the motion, tweeting that the government “deplores racism of any kind”.

 

Lucy Gichuhi tweeted that she opposed white supremacy AND black supremacy and was voting for “human supremacy”.  

Eric Abetz said he was “comfortable” with his vote, telling Fairfax: “just as I have always condemned racism across the board, I was equally comfortable voting today to condemn racism against white people — noting that the motion did not denigrate anyone else.” 

October 16: leaks, tweets and muddles

A little before 7.30am the next day, anonymous leaks to senior journalists at Sky and the ABC began, spreading the story that the Coalition’s support for the motion had been a mistake, a failure of organisation wherein Senators hadn’t known what their position should be and didn’t understand what they were voting for.  

At 8.30am, Crikey started sending emails to Coalition senators asking if they could provide any examples of the anti-white racism that had prompted them to support the motion. Only three — Dean Smith, Amanda Stoker and Jim Molan — replied, and none gave an example. 

Just after 9am, Cormann held a press conference, during which he said the government didn’t support the wording of Hanson’s motion and they should have opposed it. The decision to vote with Hanson was, apparently, the result of an “administrative process failure”. Shortly after Cormann spoke, Gichuhi deleted her tweet, but not before it had been retweeted by Cormann and Abetz.

Cormann then claimed that his tweet (and Porter’s) had been specifically an endorsement of Ruston’s contribution to the debate, that the government opposed racism of all kinds.

At 10.10am, Porter’s office issued a statement pinning the blame for the whole thing on a member of his staff. 

It appears that, of the very large number of motions on which my office’s views are routinely sought, this one was not escalated to me because it was interpreted in my office as a motion opposing racism. The associations of the language were not picked up. Had it been raised directly with me those issues would have been identified.

October 16 afternoon: the do-over

At midday, Cormann asked the senate if they can re-do the vote so the Government can oppose it this time. Labor agrees and the vote is retaken. Hanson and her supporters didn’t show, and the vote against was so overwhelming that the final score didn’t need to be counted. 

Following the re-vote, Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion issued an apology, via the ABC’s Patricia Karvelas. 

I am sorry for any suggestion that either I, my colleagues or the Government supports any form of racism and I categorically reject any implication contained in yesterday’s motion that downplays racism and historic injustices against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

As a Crikey subscriber and someone who began working as a journalist in 1957, I am passionate about the importance of independent media like Crikey. I met a lot of Australians from many walks of life during my career and did my best to share their stories honestly and fairly with their fellow citizens.

And I never forgot how important it is to hold politicians to account. Crikey does that – something that is more important now than ever before in Australia.

Liz
North Stradbroke Island, QLD

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