Mark Latham CPAC conservative action conference one nation
Mark Latham at the 2019 Conservative Political Action Conference (Image: AAP/Bianca De Marchi)

Boy, Labor Senator and former NSW premier Kristina Keneally really pushes the buttons of extremists.

“Send her back,” the crowd at Friday’s Conservative Political Action Conference chanted about her. Presumably they meant send her back to the land of her birth, the United States, from where the whole idea for the gathering — and a number of the speakers — had come.

“Didn’t really think that one through, hey guys?” Keneally noted.

Keneally was the one who had noted that some of the speakers at the far-right festival were as extreme, or more extreme, than other visitors, like the unfortunate Milo Yiannopoulos, who had been banned from Australia by the government. Attendees then promptly spent the event obsessing about Keneally. But then, articulate women often seem to terrify and enrage the right these days. Look no further than event speaker Mark Latham, who has repeatedly attacked articulate women like Rosie Batty, Lisa Pryor, Keneally and Wendy Harmer; even a News Corp columnist pointed out his “hatred of women”.

Events like CPAC, even if an import (like pretty much all right-wing rhetoric in Australia; the right may pledge patriotism but they invariably outsource to foreigners what passes for their intellectual substance), demonstrate the business model of exploiting white male rage. The main trick is to transform any potential questioning of white male privilege into an existential threat, granting the most privileged members of society the coveted status of victimhood.

The attendees at CPAC thus believe they are not members of Australia’s elite. Speaking were a former PM, a former opposition leader, a former deputy PM, a former prime ministerial chief of staff, government MPs and columnists for the dominant media company in the country. It literally could not get any more elite unless Scott Morrison had showed up to publicly pray with them. Still, they believe they’re beleaguered victims of evil, unnatural forces conspiring to destroy them.

But “send her back” was more than another example of how articulate women enrage right-wing men. It was another import, taken from Trump’s recent racist attacks on Democratic congresswomen, and combines tribalism with misogyny. It’s a group of privileged white people in a colonial settler country (at least the United States has a history of treaty-making and reparations for its indigenous peoples; white Australia hasn’t even got that far) arrogating to themselves the right to decide who is fit to be part of their society, and indicating that an articulate female should have no place in it.

Not even a white Catholic former Sky News presenter. God help Gladys Berejiklian if she ever upsets this coterie of dinosaurs.

The failure to condemn the call “send her back” is another example of the steady failure of conservatives and the mainstream right to criticise or punish the extremism of those on their own side of politics. The left is riddled with its own hypocrisies, of course, and has a similar double standard when it comes to the rhetoric it will tolerate from those on its own side versus what it claims is unacceptable from conservatives. But right-wing extremism gets minimal conservative condemnation.

One Nation — an outfit that during the Howard years was beyond the pale for the Coalition — sent apparatchiks to the United States to seek foreign funding to overturn the Howard-Fischer gun laws. The response of the right (circa 2019) to this extraordinary act of treachery was some token and belated condemnation and nothing else — the LNP in Queensland still eagerly swapped preferences with One Nation candidates, not merely overlooking but rewarding its extremism. That helped One Nation to its best ever federal election result.

Bit by bit, this convenient indifference to, or even rewarding of, the far-right by conservatives legitimises ever more extreme views, lowers standards of political discourse and encourages extremists. The result is plain to see in the United States, where political standards for both rhetoric and conduct are in the gutter.

In this context, it was particularly disappointing to see former deputy PM John Anderson participating in CPAC. During his political career, Anderson was a byword for decency and morality and helped lead the fight against One Nation; now he seems happy to mix with people who make One Nation look vaguely moderate.

With such toleration, this won’t be the last time “send her back” is heard here. Indeed, that kind of contumely is likely to become more and more common.

Peter Fray

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