Labor Day is out in cinemas just now. It’s a terrible movie, but that’s what makes it interesting. Escaped convict moves in with mum and daughter, turns out to be a better dad than the deadbeat who knocked her up, etc etc. But is it a family? Is it a hostage situation? Is that a tautology? The monogamy-as-Mexican-standoff genre is plentiful, from Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down to The Ref and beyond.
But the best of them is a variant form: Dog Day Afternoon, in which Al Pacino holes up in a bank with a sidekick who is clearly in love with him, robbing the joint in an attempt to get the money to pay for his transgendered lover's desired sex reassignment. The movie is a classic tale of how hysterical desire can make any scenario look rational. It established Pacino as the embodiment of that particular form of tortured masculinity.
If you wanted to make a doco entitled The Abbott Government: The First Six Months, the simplest thing would be to stream Dog Day Afternoon and train a camera on it, especially the point where Pacino's hapless accomplice Salvatore gets shot in the head. Attica! Attica!
Masterminded by Abbott/Pacino, the raid, (the election), goes smoothly, but routine tasks must then be completed, at which point everything starts to go wrong. As the chaos unfolds, the hysteria grows, and Abbott’s flabby, self-pitying offsider Brandis/Salvatore (or Pyne, if you prefer), starts muttering about a suicide pact: "you said we’d kill ourselves if it went wrong!" Finally Abbott's lover turns up — Bolt — to reveal that he is the true beneficiary of all this effort, and berate them outside the vault, with a megaphone. When eventually the most basic victories appear beyond them, Abbott brings back the honours system. None of it ends well…
What is remarkable about the Abbott government is that they have turned 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act and free speech, minor matters on which some members of the government had become obsessive, into major negatives to which many people feel they have no alternative but to respond. And not just the left-liberal usual suspects either. The attacks on 18c appear to have undone much of the work that was done through the Howard years, and in opposition, to create a modern Australian conservatism that was uncoupled from a specific anglo-imperial vision of Australian life.
Howard’s management of the anglo-Australian heritage was a minimalist model. Rather than resist a republican push, he staged a rigged referendum, to make monarchism look defensive and beleaguered, rather than repressive. Explicit attachments were confined to small sentimental moves, such as protecting Don Bradman’s name from commercial use. It was a measure of the degree to which he’d lost touch in 2006-7 that he so badly mismanaged the final act of culture war — curriculum redesign, insisting on a rote-learning chronicle for history that even his closest supporters found unteachable.
During the fuss over knighthoods last week, Howard argued that the dignity of such titles is undermined if they are restored and abolished with every change of government. A solid conservative point, but there is a more immediate political one: Australian conservatism is finished if it adopts the master’s discourse, by re-establishing anglo Australia as the centre of social and cultural life, and pushing everything else to the periphery. Which is exactly what has occurred with the politically disastrous coupling of the redrafting of the 18c provisions, and the restoration of honours, all in one amazing week.
The bank raid went wrong early, with George Brandis being forced into a kludged version of his 18c redraft by a nervous party room, a blundering attempt to define Holocaust denial, and by the time that was all under way, Abbott/Pacino burst out of the bank to announce that Ron Walker would be the new warden of the cinque ports. How did they stuff this up so comprehensively?
That answer is in two parts. The first is that liberals like Abbott, Brandis, Pyne, Scott Ryan et al, are genuine in their belief that there should be minimal controls on speech. From the outside, it’s a one-sided idea of freedom — state Liberal parties across the land are destroying free association and organisation willy-nilly — but that’s the whole point. "Free speech" is really "free print/broadcast", the right of the propertied to issue opinions in a dominated space. New rights bureaucrat Tim Wilson’s notorious call on Twitter, to spray the Occupy protestors with water cannon, captures that perfectly. There is nothing inconsistent about it. For so-called "classical" liberals like Wilson, property is prior to humanity itself, which is why such liberalism, born in 17th century England, and honed in 18th century north America, could so easily accommodate slavery as an institution.
Liberals of this type don’t see this contradiction, because it accords perfectly with the propertied world in which their politics sits. They have neither the desire, nor the genuine ability to critically reflect upon it. That is often an advantage, hence the tag, taken half-proudly by the right, of being the "stupid party".
This liberal self-idealisation is part of the identity Abbott, Brandis et al, developed during their formative student politics years. Back then the enemy was the Left, who argued that speech acts always came from a place of power — or lack thereof, and that there was no level playing field. In the 70s, when a Left was still viable, that meant a "no platform" policy in universities, denying people the opportunity to speak not simply because they were odious to all (such as fascists or racists), but also because they were simple free-marketeers, or sociologists with a biologistic bent, or pro-Israeli, or whatever. I came in at the end of this process in the mid-80s. I never liked it at all, as a policy, and I continue to think that 18c should be all but abolished. But it held sway then, and it holds sway now
The trouble has occurred because the student-pol Liberals would like to believe they are part of a genuinely liberal party, which regards the public space as a minimally regulated agora of free individuals, and they ain’t. They’re in a party which has become, in its pursuit of a solid majority, as reliant on multiculturalism as Labor became from the 1970s onwards. By "multiculturalism" I mean the specific policy approach that defines a multiethnic society as having a number of self-contained "communities", with "leaders", one can talk to, and deal with.
This essential multiculturalism is an inevitable development from mass immigration — people arrive, poor, lonely, with no English, leaders emerge, networks are organised. When political parties tap into it, it becomes an institutionalised structure. It has survived long after the need for it diminished. New arrivals come from a globalised culture, most with some English, and knowing what to expect. The world is shopping malls and satellite TV, and relocation is not the wrench it was.
But still the multiculti "community" model survives, largely because both Labor and Liberal have made it a votes/patronage delivery system. So, if you’re a lawyer above a take-away in Stixville, West Sydney, and you can organise 100 Biddleonian-Australians to eat steaming fnung with the local candidate, and deliver their votes to her/him, you will then be cutting the ribbon at the new j’ai alai court that s/he gets funded —off the back of which, you become a local councillor, and on it goes. The community barely exists, they don’t much need your help, but suddenly a "community" has come into being, and you represent it, regardless of the opinions and values of the diverse people that politicians call on on you to speak for.
The Libs play this game as much as Labor. It has become their whole strategy for winning outer suburban seats in West Sydney, zone three Melbourne (remember zone three? Bring it back!) and so on. Numerous Liberal branches in these areas are no more than multiculti community groups rebadged. We saw this in the 2013 election when Jaymes Diaz, the hapless Filipino-Australian candidate for Greenway, was gotcha-ed by a routine policy question, and the party’s chance of winning the most marginal NSW seat disappeared. If the Libs didn’t pander to multiculti they would barely have a presence in these regions.
Now, enter Andrew Bolt, Abbott’s psycho wife, megaphone in hand. Bolt’s war on multiculti was personal too. Having been something of a characterless individual until his 40s, gradually moving rightward, he had taken to his role as a right-wing columnist in the Herald-Sun with gusto. His growing fame appears to have coincided with a deepening obsession with notions of beleagured whiteness, constructed as the "division" of "one people" by a multicultural mafia.
By the time he hit his 50s, Bolt’s obsessions appeared to be coming from the lower depths of 20th century European reaction — mutterings about a "feral underclass", obsessions with recent African migrants, etc. So it was perhaps inevitable that he would become obsessed by essential notions of race, as measured by skin-tone, and whether people were "really" who they said they were. Though Bolt would hurl some accusations — proved to be false and libellous — that some "fair-skinned" aboriginal people were getting grants they would not otherwise get, that was not his main anxiety.
His principal allegation was that hybrid identity was being presented as "pure" identity. The obsessiveness of it was something not seen in mainstream Australian discourse since the eugenics of the 1930s (which continued as policy well into the 1960s), and it flowed directly from a European reactionary model of racial essence, in this case from the Dutch neo-calvinist traditions in which Bolt had been raised. Dutch neo-calvinism began in the 19th century as a movement for religious purity. It became political, launched parties, elected prime ministers. When the Dutch acquired a colonial empire, the "purity" obsession was transferred to racial matters.
South African apartheid was its unique political expression, a way of living among people while keeping them separate through classification. Bolt’s obsessiveness about skin-tone mirrored the South African racial classification board’s annual, grimly hilarious findings by which "ten blacks had become cape coloureds, two whites had become Indians, three cape-coloureds had become black, and Mr Kwame Nkrumah was accorded the status of honorary white…"
People look at Bolt's doom-laden pronouncements, his mopey face, his obsessive blog-posting, his threats to quit, his sulks, and try to see an act. There isn’t one. The Herald-Sun had the good fortune to find and promote a right-wing hysteric, whose personal neuroses matched those of the ageing anglo audience they were trying to attract. The attacks he made on numerous "fair-skinned" aborigines were designed to hurt, to damage, to leave them as ungrounded as Bolt himself feels in his own European whiteness. Their mocking viciousness came from the primordial envy of the displaced white guy, of people who have a more concrete tradition of identity they can reach back to.
This was the worst possible test-case for opponents of 18c to attach their cause to, not only because it was bitter, obsessive and neurotic, but because it attacks the core of the post anglocentric conservatism that John Howard had established. Howard’s mantra in 1996 had been that Australians should feel more "comfortable and relaxed" than they had during Keating’s frenetic and ghastly period of neoliberal destruction combined with Down Under bildung. But that Howardian comfort station applied to personal identity too. By the time Howard achieved power, Australia had become a great multiculti American exurb, with the explicitly British tradition attached only to a few institutional vestiges.
While the further right still muttered about multiculturalism, spruiking some asinine fantasy of "assimilation" (to what?) Howard cemented multicultural identity by directing xenophobia outward, towards boat people. Since non-anglo Australian "communities" were as hostile to boat people as anyone, something sections of the left sought to strenuously deny, this move actually sealed the multicultural deal. The things that unite us — hating those conniving bastards coming from Indonesia — are truly more important than the things which divide us.
The Liberals are now caught between those two conceptions of their own party. Brandis was surprised to find the degree of resistance from particular multiculti groups who — surprise surprise! — having come out for the Libs, now wanted some form of recognition. Bolt et al seemed particularly disconcerted by the resistance from the Jewish lobby. The right has more or less co-opted Zionism as its own heroic narrative but they can't imagine why Jews might want some form of legal restraint on virulent anti-semitism.
Meanwhile, new Western/Southern Sydney members like Craig Laundy in Reid and David Coleman in Banks — white guys winning the seats the Libs need to break Labor’s West Sydney base — suddenly realised they might be sitting on a one-term career, as their electorate, criss-crossed and composed with the arrivals of the last 60 years, suddenly saw the party imposing a "them" and "us" conception not seen since the last season of Kingswood Country (oh, Altavista it, hipsters).
That confusion was perfectly expressed in Brandis’s remark that people had a "right to be bigots". He meant that as a legal right, to hold a private opinion and express it, separate from state control. I agree. Anyone from the Left should, since the opinions we want to express include the idea that it is legitimate to break the law, damage property and — in some circumstances — use physical violence towards political ends.
But most people don’t hear the word "right" that way. They think of it in social, and even intimate terms, in a sort of Seinfeld fashion. Do you have a right to play your music loud, to take food from someone else’s plate, to text during a movie, to use the word n***** if you’re not black? What most people heard is Brandis endorsing the idea that casually racist discourse should be all right in the staff room, over the barbeque, in the street.
Once again, notice the difference between Howard’s conservatism, and this mob. Howard called arguments about child-care, the "ultimate barbeque-stopper". He didn’t say which side he came down on. By not doing so, he mimicked the social process of the barbeque itself, whereby everyone just changes the subject whenever things get too hot. By comparison, Brandis, Pyne and co slam someone’s face on the grille if they disagree with them. (Exam question 1: The Slap is the Howardian novel. Discuss).
Just to add to the chaos, Brandis then claimed that "Holocaust denial" would come under the definition of "racial vilification". This was a desperate and gutless sop to the Jewish lobby — since Holocaust denial, malign and demented as it is, and based on no evidence at all, is an argument about evidence, without a necessary racial character. So Brandis, in such a judgement, seemed to be going further than the existing 18c law. But then, the exemptions from a racial vilification judgement are so total that the actual vilification statute barely applies. So, go figure. It was desperate politics, made up on the run, about as far from principled liberalism as one could imagine.
The only thing less effective than the Libs' prosecution of this case, was the liberal-left’s defence of 18c. It was pathetic. Taking the language of the liberal-right — about rights, individuality, etc — it tried to construct an alternative case, based on individual rights. This came out as the ghastly farrago of the "right not to be offended" or the right not to have your feelings hurt, or similar drivel. The centre of it was Fairfax, and its explicit expression was by Penny Wong who said of Brandis’s remarks:
“When he described me as bigoted, I turned around. As someone who has been the target of bigotry before, it was a difficult thing to hear. There’s no doubt there is a personal emotional response, an evoked emotional response.”
This is Senator Penny Wong, defender of the PNG solution, it should be remembered. By trying to construct a defence of 18c around individual feelings, the liberal-left played into a notion of victimhood, of the default position of subjectivity as victimhood. It was a clear sign that nobody really understood 18c, a legal kludge inserted without popular clamour, even if many people believed in its effects.
The way to support 18c was/is not to argue for individual rights, founded on the vulnerable human being, but to argue that rights have limits — that a multiethnic society allows a space of liberation to every citizen by curtailing the individual actions of some. Put simply, we have created a multiethnic, multireligious, a pluralist society, out of an anglo monocultural settler society. We want a public space in which there is a reasonable expectation of, let’s call it, non-viciousness. Nothing in the existing provisions of 18c prohibited the reasonable, non-hectoring advancement of any sort of argument you wanted about race, culture, etc. What it did exclude was vicious, baiting, unfounded attacks that made it impossible for people to get through the day, that turned public space into a war zone.
The case for 18c was necessarily communitarian, limiting, prudential — above all, conservative. It was, in the Burkean/Oakeshottian spirit, an ad-hoc measure, tailored to our specific history and needs. That left-liberals are so determined to defend it, is a measure of the profoundly conservative nature of that formation, a late Whitlamite-Howardian settlement. That’s why I, and some others on the left, want to see it minimised. Because without it, power relations are exposed. Six months ago, George Brandis and the Liberals looked reasonable, rational and plausible on the question of race. How is he, and they, looking now? How are they looking to the Syrian-Australian take-away shop owner in Auburn who voted for Craig Laundy because he doesn’t like the carbon tax, and thought the Libs were on his side?
Thankfully, just as hapless left-liberals were fucking up the argument, Abbott came along to refuck it, with the revival of honours. These were last used before 1983. Anyone who remembers honours needs to be over fifty. The message to non-anglo Australians out of these two moves together is clear: your lives, their content, their meanings, don’t really matter. You may have been here 60 years, raised children and grandchildren here, built the community, but it is still about Sir this, Lady that, you can still be called "dirty Lebo" in the street, and this government is ok with that, because that is someone’s right. Christ, what a great manifesto for what is now the most immigrant nation on Earth.
The decision taken by Abbott on the hoof to revive honours is a reminder that his politics is driven by his personal psychology: a boiling stew of establishment Catholicism, a Graham Greeneish childhood, sexual complexity and the neuroses to which conservatism is heir to. "What have we done?" someone cried out from the party room, when Abbott was elected leader by one vote. They are beginning to find out. The guy they trusted to pull off a simple bank job, really wants a sex reassignment and a helicopter.
If Labor can’t get within cooee of a first-term victory out of this mess, if it can’t forge a politics of universalism and communitarianism that suddenly sweeps away the Libs as ancient and disturbed, then it should be shot in the head like poor old Salvatore. Will that make it Labor’s day? No, I’m sure they can stuff it up.
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