Incensed By Its Irrelevance, The Coalition’s Far Right Is Running Riot


ANALYSIS: The eruption of the Safe Schools crusade in the right-wing of the Liberal Party is the last thing Australia, or Malcolm Turnbull needs, writes Ben Eltham.

On the face of it, you’d think a program that helps address bullying in high schools would be something all politicians would support.

Adolescence is a wonderful but fragile time. We know that many teenagers struggle with issues like depression and mental illness. These problems are exacerbated by bullying over issues like identity and sexuality.

Learning about the fluidity of gender identity, and the vast diversity of human sexual orientations, would seem to be vital knowledge for any human being in the 21st century. People come in all shapes, sizes and colours. There are lots of different forms and expressions of love.

So something like “Safe Schools”, an opt-in program for high school teachers and students seeking to better understand and address important issues like gender and sexuality, should be a no-brainer.

But brains are unfortunately in short supply when it comes to emblematic issues like sexuality – especially for the right-wing of the Liberal Party.

For the conservative culture warriors who constitute a key faction in the modern Liberal Party, queer sexuality and fluid gender identities are not merely a fact of modern life. They are an existential threat to conservative self-image.

And that is why the Safe Schools program has become a lightning rod for far right paranoia and hatred.

The issue exploded this week after a Liberal Party backbench revolt forced Malcolm Turnbull to call for an inquiry into the Safe Schools program, to be led by Education Minister Simon Birmingham.

Right-wing Liberals celebrated, then lined up to attack the program in Parliament.

Liberal MP Brett Whitely claimed yesterday that Safe Schools was an “extraordinarily dangerous program” that sought to “stamp out gender entirely, to create confusion and doubt in children’s minds about their gender.”

Queensland LNP senator Barry O’Sullivan told the upper house that the program wanted to “deconstruct general norms that reflect society.”

Western Australian Liberal Andrew Hastie told the House on Tuesday that Safe Schools was “more about advancing ideology than equipping children with techniques to deal with bullying.” Hastie argued the program “pushes its own form of bulling by pressuring young children to conform to a particular view of sexuality.”

Even recalcitrant Labor senator Joe Bullock has had a swing.

And then there was Bernardi himself, who led the Coalition party room revolt this week. He compared the program to that bugbear of the conservative imagination, “cultural Marxism.” Last night he told Sky News that Safe Schools “intimidates” children to conforming to a “homosexual agenda.”

Bernardi, Hastie, Whitely, O’Sullivan, Bullock: in case you hadn’t noticed, every single one of these politicians is white, male and straight. Not a whole lot of diversity there.

Terms like “cultural Marxism”, “general norms” and “homosexual agenda” tell you exactly where this sudden upwelling of concern for our nation’s school students emanates from: a hatred for what they see as sexual deviance, and a thinly-veiled fear of the other.

As Jason Wilson has carefully established, the “cultural Marxism” label is a favoured term of the American far right, dripping with anti-Semitic overtones. Bernardi joins such figures as William Lind and Anders Breivik in his campaign against the “cultural Marxism” agenda.

Leaving aside the vicious views of the people espousing it, the idea that a handful of refugee German philosophers somehow infiltrated western culture during a brief visit to the United States during the Second World War is frankly ridiculous – even if a conservative ABC journalist happens to believe it.

new matilda, gramsci
A memorial to Antonio Gramsci. (IMAGE: angrodZ
, Flickr).

I think we can agree that this campaign is not about the insidious influence of Gramsci and Adorno. It’s about attacking a target of opportunity in the never-ending crusade of the conservative right.

The reason that a program like Safe Schools has been attacked is not just because of the forthcoming gay marriage plebiscite. It’s much deeper than that. It’s an expression of the howling rage of a group of right-wing culture warriors who know they are losing the war.

And that’s the problem for movement conservatives like Cory Bernardi. In the looking-glass paranoia of the conservative worldview, sexual diversity is a threat to be combated. Queer sexuality is profoundly destabilising to a fundamentalist worldview that still clings on to manufactured verities of heterosexuality, buttressed by an aggressive, evangelical Christianity.

From this paranoid perspective, accepting that there are kids in our schools questioning the norms of heterosexuality is tantamount to accepting that these views are up for debate – that they are not in fact the natural order of things, ordained by God and sacralised by scripture.

And there is a sense in which Bernardi and his fellow reactionaries are right: the hetero-normative worldview is indeed crumbling.

Not only is queer culture no longer repressed, it’s increasingly normalised. The Mardi Gras has become a national institution. A lesbian with a life partner and two children is Labor’s leader in the Senate. An openly trans woman is a Group Captain in the Air Force. “LGTBI”, once a strange acronym heard only in student union workshops, is now a common, even mainstream term, understood by most millennials. There’s even a gay Liberal MP from Western Australia.

As for most younger Australians, the idea that their gay and lesbian friends can’t get married strikes them as offensive, even bizarre. Who could possibly think that?

Cory Bernardi and his dismal band of culture warriors, that’s who.

If you need further proof, you need only look to the emails New Matilda published yesterday, which showed a concerted campaign had been orchestrated against the Safe Schools program by the Christian right. As one constituent wrote in an email to New South Wales parliamentarians, “I just believe homosexual behaviour is wrong.”

And so let us spare a thought for the Senator from South Australia. If you care passionately about protecting society from this unstoppable tide of diversity, these are indeed dark times. It’s not just that society appears to have abandoned many of its former certainties, like the sanctity of heterosexual marriage. It’s that everyone seems so damn relaxed about it.

Only someone deeply threatened by the thought of teenagers expressing a non-heterosexual identity would find the Safe Schools program objectionable.

And that’s the obvious truth of the anti-Safe Schools campaign. This is not about protecting kids at all. This is about the prejudice of conservative minds.

The latest outbreak of culture skirmishing in the right-wing of the Liberal Party is the last thing Malcolm Turnbull needs. Middle Australia shows no inclination of joining Bernardi in his homophobic crusade. Worse, it confuses the government’s muddled messages still further.

Thrown off balance by Labor’s negative gearing policy, the government has been at sixes and sevens in recent weeks on tax reform. Perhaps today’s Defence White Paper will provide a circuit breaker, but that’s unlikely.

What’s really required is some discipline: for the Coalition to agree on a tax policy and stick to it. But we’ve seen no sign of that yet. In the meantime, the right wing of the party is running riot.

Turnbull came to the prime ministership with the promise of a “mature government”. So far, 2016 has been anything but.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.