The recurring highlight of the federal government soap opera these past few weeks has been watching the “big swinging dicks” sticking their, um, necks out just a little too far for what’s turned out to be an increasingly sceptical public conversation in both social and traditional media.
The government’s pitch has been driven by fumbled nostalgic appeals to 20th century white picket fence identity politics, already more sentimental than real when it seemed to work so well for the Howard government a couple of decades ago.
From the “drums of war” with China, through the legal over-reach of defamation to smother the ABC’s Me Too reporting, and on to the ban on Australian citizens returning from India, the government is struggling to find its footing on what it would have thought were safe culture war battlefields.
Public opinion is leaving them behind. The government’s attempt to gin up a lovely war has been damped down — from Hugh White in The Saturday Paper, who called it “one of the biggest failures of statecraft in Australia’s history”, to Paul Kelly in The Australian, who cautioned against cancelling the lease on the Darwin port. “The biggest mistake people can make,” Kelly writes, “is to think the China relationship cannot get worse”.
Meanwhile, the government’s ban on Indian Australians coming home was called out across the media. For News Corp’s Andrew Bolt it was a “mean and irrational” act which “stinks of racism”. For Guardian Australia‘s Katharine Murphy, appearing on Insiders, it was “morally repugnant”.
The government plays these cards because of the near-universal confidence among the political elite (both party and media) of the enduring power of Howard-era dog-whistling — “we’ll decide who comes to this country” — aimed at “real Australians”. It’s a settler populism performatively reflected in Morrison’s daggy-dad-from-the-Shire shtick.
It’s an assessment trapped somewhere in 2001, where the MV Tampa remains floating off the Western Australian coast. All Morrison needs to do is get his whistle into the right key.
The political class may still look a lot like 2001. But Australia? Not so much. We’re more diverse, more urban, more educated. Politics lags behind demographics. Sure, there’s still a group identifying with the politics of “little Australia”, and a media which feeds its fears (it’s the News Corp business strategy, after all). But year after year it’s harder to build a durable political majority off it.
George Megalogenis (a leading media sceptic on the politics of “little Australia”) has been highlighting the big shift in the country’s make up. As of 2013, half of all Australians are either born overseas or have at least one parent born overseas. The result, he wrote in the Nine mastheads this weekend, is that “the race card just doesn’t stack up in Australia”.
At the same time, generation after generation of Australians are becoming educated. Over 55? You probably didn’t finish high school. Under 50? You almost certainly did — and probably have some post-school training and education to go with it.
According to Morrison at the now infamous Australian Christian Churches conference, these seismic shifts — mixed in with the impact of international travel and the globalising force of a transnational social media — are “corroding and desensitising our country and our society”. The diversifying identity of modern Australia, he seemed to warn, “is going to take our young people”.
Structurally, the off-the-cuff speech is a dog’s breakfast, but it reveals a Morrison filled with an existential dread that Australians are losing their connection to a particular vision of the Australia; the “one and free” he reflected in his New Year’s Eve rewrite of the national anthem.
“And we’ve gotta pray about it and we’ve gotta call it out. And we’ve got to raise up the spiritual weapons against this,” he exhorted the faithful.
This “last days” dread underpins the government’s adoption of a tactical hand-me-down from Trump. If the dog-whistle doesn’t work, pull out the trumpet. Talk more, talk louder.
As the audiences decline, they have to be made more fearful with claims made more extreme, and so we end up with Australians stranded in India and the country’s leadership seemingly embracing the threat of a nuclear war.