"During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act." G.O.
As Tony Abbott’s Coalition government warns the Australian people of a tough budget ahead to pay back debt incurred from six years of Rudd-Gillard’s reckless spending (2007-13), a sense of déjà vu pervades the land. We have been here before. After the Whitlam debacle (1972-75), it was Fraser’s Coalition administration (1975-83) that had to repair the nation’s finances. Similarly, Labor’s Paul Keating bequeathed his nemesis, John Howard, a $96 billion debt – not an astronomical figure in today’s terms, perhaps, but quite something back in 1996.
The pattern seemed set in stone. Stage 1: Young and idealistic Labor politicians, full of colour and movement, sweep into office promising the world. Stage 2: The party commences and all seems bright and light and hopeful with no hangover in sight. Stage 3: The bills arrive and the manic reverie of free beer and skittles for all begins to sour. Stage 4: In the cold, grey morning after the night before, swinging voters demand the books be balanced and, somewhat reluctantly, vote in the stolid and fusty Coalition parties. Stage 5: The books balanced once more, carefree Labor politicians start promising the world.
Coalition prime ministers (and state premiers) have mostly accepted their role in Australian politics as the strait-laced parents who are no more than a resented necessity. It is all right for Mum and Dad to pay off your MasterCard but quite another to offer an opinion on “life-style” issues. John Howard (1996-2007) entered into the “History Wars” debate about the treatment of Aboriginals in the first half of the twentieth century, and he also appointed the odd conservative to the board of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), but by and large he concentrated on fiscal probity. Given the rising unpopularity of Julia Gillard’s minority Labor government (2010-3), the expectation was that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott would make himself as small a target as possible and prevail in the coming election by default. But Abbott surprised many in an address in 2012 to the pro-business Institute of Public Affairs (IPA). He promised to reform Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act if elected. A healthy democracy, asserted Abbott, only thrived when “robust speech from different points of view in the philosophical compass” is permitted, which must include “the freedom to be obnoxious and objectionable”.
Labor, several months before the September election, ditched Julia Gillard and replaced her with ex-PM Kevin Rudd. Maybe the chaos that attended this last minute change of leaders explains why the ALP allowed Abbott’s proposed Racial Discrimination Act reform to go under the radar during the September 2013 campaign. The unprepared Rudd, who appeared to make up policy as he went along, focused on the budget cuts that would occur if Abbott were to win office. “Cut, cut and cut!” he warned whenever a microphone was waved in his general direction, overlooking the fact that Australia had long ago arrived at Stage 4. Gillard demonised Abbott the year before with her infamous “misogynist speech” and would have fought Abbott on his socially conservative values rather than the economy – but she no longer had a say.
Apart from his bold move to “turn the boats back”, which has effectively solved the problem of irregular maritime arrivals in Australia, the Abbott government proved exceedingly cautious after coming to power. Some began to wonder if the Coalition had the ticker to take on the PC brigade and amend the Racial Discrimination Act. It came as something of a surprise, then, when Senator George Brandis, Australia’s Attorney General, announced in March of this year that Cabinet was ready to make a move. Most significantly, the Coalition’s proposed legislation would do away with the right of somebody to instigate charges against another person for “offending” them.
In an interview with Brendan O’Neill, the Attorney General conjured up the spirit of Voltaire (1694-1778): “…if you are going to defend freedom of speech, you have to defend the right of people to say things you would devote your political life to opposing.” Brandis can make recourse to the Enlightenment all he likes but somewhere along the line many of those who would define themselves as “progressive” thinkers came to believe that liberty is dangerous. People who, in an earlier incarnation, revolted against “The Man” censoring movies, magazines, pop songs and D.H. Lawrence are now adamant that “freedom of speech needs qualifiers and social agreement”.
The commentariat, with a few honourable exceptions, has maintained their rage against Brandis even though it will still be against the law “to vilify” or “to intimidate people” on account of “their race, colour or national or ethnic origin.” Supposed representatives of ethnic organisations have joined forces with the chattering classes to assail the Abbott government for threatening to “open the floodgates” to every kind of bigotry in Australia. The lowest gambit in the campaign to thwart Section 18C reform has been to conflate bigotry itself with Senator Brandis’ admission that the expression of bigotry is a likely outcome when citizens are free to engage in unfettered debate. If Brandis is not a bigot himself, his adversaries contend, then he must at any rate be an enabler of bigots.
Of course the Abbott government has a lot on its hands just reining in Labor’s fiscal recklessness. The Rudd-Gillard administrations, in a period of only six years, took government debt from zero to $16 billion a year in interest payments alone. There are Coalition politicians who wish the whole Section 18C controversy had been avoided so they could focus on the main game – the economy. When Attorney General Brandis first announced his proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act, one member of the Cabinet is rumoured to have wondered out loud, “Who’s been drinking the right-wing Cool Aid?”
Given that Tony Abbott’s leadership style has been cautious and pragmatic, his preparedness to court controversy is worthy of note. Some believe his intrepidness has to do with the 2011 conviction of conservative media personality Andrew Bolt for infringing the Racial Discrimination Act. Nine fair-skinned and urban Aboriginal Australians believed they had been offended, insulted and humiliated by Bolt’s contention that the pool of government scholarships, grants and suchlike would be better spent on rural and isolated Aboriginals who were patently disadvantaged. In other words, state-sponsored positive discrimination or affirmative action should be predicated upon social need rather than race. To those who despise Bolt’s conservative politics, he was and remains a racist. Conversely, almost every conservative in the land – including many rural and isolated Aboriginals – consider Andrew Bolt to be the victim of “New Racism”.
The heated debate in Australia about Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act obviously points to deeper issues at play. Class warfare has given way to a new kind of divide. For the modern-day Left or “New Class”, Australia is a diluted version of apartheid South Africa, a land of bigoted rednecks who need to be tamed or even silenced by the powers of the state if prejudice and narrow-mindedness are not to get out of hand. The likes of Andrew Bolt and by extension Tony Abbott and the Coalition government are racist, misogynist, Islamophobic, homophobic, xenophobic, jingoist and so on ad infinitum. They are, as Lenin put it so charmingly all those years ago, “former people”.
The world looks a little different from the other side of the barricades. “Progressives” might take the high moral ground on everything from so-called marriage equality and the rights of Palestinians to Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming but, from the vantage point of conservatives, they seem to be possessed of a new kind of atheistic religion. They feverishly campaign for the maintenance of laws against hate speech and yet a burning hatred characterizes their every denunciation of opponents. There is surely something Orwellian about the desire to suppress the free speech of a liberty-loving people. In these unusual times, George Brandis’ plaintive cry makes more sense than ever: “The state should never be the arbiter of what people can think.”
The paradox in all this, of course, is the long-time reputation of the Coalition parties as paternalistic accountants, lawyers and farmers. Against its better judgement, perhaps, Abbott’s government is riding the wild surf of freedom – nothing stolid or fusty about that.