The Lure of the Domestic


When the Prime Minister, John Howard, visited cyclone-hit northern Queensland in March, he said that in such times of trouble Australia can afford to help ‘our own.’ Opposition Leader, Kim Beazley has since railed against the import of Chinese apprentices, while repeating the mantra that what we need is ‘trades, trades, trades.’


How do these statements fit together?

Both embody the ‘lure of the domestic’ a phenomenon that affects not only organised politics, but also most aspects of Australian public life. This contemporary strand of populism, otherwise called the tabloidisation of politics, privileges the local and emotive, while encouraging us to see the world through the prism of our narcissism.

Yet opposition to the Coalition’s conservative agenda has largely been feeble, marginalised and forgettable over the past decade. A simple explanation: dissenters have also been suckered into thinking that their arguments should be easy-to-digest and populist.

When campaigners lapse into egocentricity their opinions are an easy target. Justified concerns about the sedition laws, for example, were lost amid claims by middle-class playwrights that they might be next and not an anonymous Muslim from Preston, or Lakemba.

Another problem has been short-termism. When a campaign’s impact is judged by a 10-second grab on the nightly news, or a stunt (remember the ‘No War’ painted blood red on the white Opera House sails) complex issues quickly get lost.

The domestic is defined as ‘of the home, household (and) of family affairs.’ To be lured by the domestic means an over-emphasis on the familiar at the expense of complexity. See the stories of tear-stained ‘Aussies’ arriving home from bombed-out Beirut on the nightly news.

Maybe this makes sense in journalism, but it causes problems when applied to sensitive political issues and long-term community campaigns. It also risks injustice continuing in another guise. Few knew, for instance, when Virginia Leong and her three-year-old daughter Naomi were freed from Sydney’s Villawood detention centre last year, that the toddler lacked Medicare entitlements, or that her mother had a debt of $500,000 for detention costs.

Or that when Australia’s ‘longest-serving detainee’ Peter Qasim left an Adelaide psychiatric hospital after almost seven years in immigration detention, his visa demanded he give up future legal challenges and leave the country whenever the government asked.

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett.

Missing is the broader context that explains how and why such abuses are allowed to occur. Official agencies the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) and Commonwealth Ombudsman that should act to correct and limit systemic excesses, are themselves limited. Stung by massive funding cuts 43 per cent of its total budget over a three-year period that led to the sacking, in 1997, of a third of its staff HREOC has weathered a campaign to undermine its independence. Mooted legislation, for example, requires Attorney-General Philip Ruddock’s go-ahead before HREOC can intervene in human rights and discrimination matters before the courts.

Both these agencies lack the power to compel ministers to act or enforce recommendations on the payment of damages. Their investigations largely remain private. In contrast, the best international human rights organisations work publicly and see this as central to their effectiveness. Working with the media, they embarrass governments while informing the public. Some, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), actively shape debate, as when the ACLU launched actions on behalf of Americans whose phones were illegally tapped by the US Government.

The value of this multi-faceted approach cannot be under-estimated. What happens in Australia is ad hoc, with campaigners contacting a handful of journalists and hoping for the best.

How might it be different? We need to move past the shock and awe fodder of human suffering, past the soap opera politics and self-indulgent expressions of public shame to a renewed interest in ideas as the foundation of social change.

One of the most refreshing aspects of David McKnight’s book, Beyond Left and Right: New Politics and the Culture Wars (Allen & Unwin, 2006) is its analysis of US conservatism. Behind the ideology is a ferment of ideas. Ideas whether about universal human rights or the nature of society are essential to oppositional movements. Not only do they maintain momentum over decades, they encourage people to focus on what matters.

Rather than accepting the government’s cynical worldview as the basis of politics and society, we need new ideas.

This is an edited extract from the essay ‘The Lure of the Domestic,’ which appears in Griffith REVIEW 13: The Next Big Thing (ABC Books, $19.95)

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.