New Matilda columnist Michael Brull recently predicted Malcolm Turnbull would start targeting minorities to shore up support. Guess what happened last week.
Last week, I noted that when Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was previously politically desperate, he turned on asylum seekers. He wasn’t necessarily good at it, but it was grasped at as a “lifeline” by Turnbull as a wildly unpopular Leader of the Opposition.
I argued that Turnbull was pushing draconian laws and toxic rhetoric about Muslims as a desperate political move. Once again, Turnbull was looking to scapegoats to remedy his low polling numbers.
On the day my article was published, news broke that the Coalition had signed up One Nation to support their plan to cut welfare spending by $6 billion. The fact that One Nation had endorsed a Coalition policy wasn’t necessarily a sign that the Coalition had embraced One Nation’s policies. Yet the fact that they were working together was surely significant, and worth noting.
On Friday, Turnbull came out in defence of Bill Leak. The Murdoch press has worked itself up again over the Racial Discrimination Act, claiming how dire the threat to freedom of speech is from its racially offensive speech provisions.
Turnbull announced that Bill Leak isn’t a racist. In fact, “He’s an Australian, he’s a cartoonist, he’s a controversialist, that’s what he does, but he is a very colourful, passionate Australian of enormous artistic ability. Bill is a very engaging guy. He writes as colourfully and powerfully as he paints.”
Leak already had a history of offensive caricatures of Aboriginal people. The cartoon in question responded to the scandal at Don Dale with a crude caricature of an Aboriginal man, beer in hand, who didn’t know the name of his son. Instead of criticising the white people responsible for the systemic mistreatment of Aboriginal children, Leak shifted the blame, and kicked down.
At a time when the response to the cartoon was almost purely public criticism, Murdoch opinion writers already claimed that Leak was being persecuted for his bravery.
By embracing Leak, Turnbull sent a conciliatory symbol to the right-wing base of the Coalition. On Saturday, this was trumpeted in the Australian: “Abbott, Turnbull unite on 18C Bill Leak case”. Turnbull also described as “reasonable” a call for a parliamentary inquiry into the laws in question. The Australian reported that peak business groups wanted the laws reformed so that they wouldn’t have to pay “go away” money over allegations of racial discrimination.
These moves signified a few things. Firstly, Turnbull indicated to white Australians that he took their side against minorities who would ‘take away their rights’. He sided with those worried that political correctness was stifling our speech. He embraced Bill Leak as “colourful” and “passionate”. And he expressed zero empathy with those offended by Leak’s cartoon.
Then on Sunday, Turnbull announced that asylum seekers who come by boat would never be allowed into Australia.
Shrewdly, Turnbull said this would be backdated to 19 July 2013, when ALP Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had said that, “As of today, asylum seekers who come here by boat without a visa will never be settled in Australia.”
That still remains ALP policy. The difference between the ALP and the Coalition is mostly in rhetoric. ALP voters are generally more sympathetic to asylum seekers, so the party issues less strident rhetoric.
For example, Deputy Leader of the ALP Tanya Plibersek appeared on Q&A last week, shortly after the release of both an Amnesty International report, and a Four Corners report, documenting once again the horrors inflicted on asylum seekers and refugees on Nauru.
Plibersek cynically sought to use the issue against the government, urging Liberal Senator Arthur Sinodinos to watch the Four Corners program.
Finally, Tony Jones asked Plibersek “What about that idea that they should be brought back to Australia?” Plibersek replied: “I think we should be looking for third country resettlement. We’ve talked about New Zealand.” Jones asked if this meant there was “bipartisanship”. Plibersek explained that “it’s a very difficult situation now, having, for so many years, made this firm rule”.
That’s the difference between the two parties on the issue. The ALP claims to find it “very difficult”. The Coalition is more confident about detaining people on Nauru and Manus Island. Sinodinos also noted that, “Tanya, in her answer, made it clear that essentially both sides of politics are saying the same thing. In the current environment, we can’t bring them back into Australia”.
The legislation Turnbull is proposing would mostly serve to institutionalise already existing bipartisan policy on not letting asylum seekers and refugees into Australia. The difference is that it would prevent them from ever coming to Australia. Even 30 years later, to attend a funeral.
Pauline Hanson commented: “Good to see that it looks like the Government is now taking its cues from One Nation. Just like last time.” She’s right on both counts. And it was clear from the start that the Coalition was going to take its cues from One Nation.
Part of Turnbull’s problem is that he doesn’t appear to stand for anything, and appears captive to the right of the party. Another part of his problem is that the right-wing of the party felt betrayed by the ouster of Abbott, and have turned rightwards to One Nation.
The conservatives in the Coalition give Turnbull no room to win back prospective moderate supporters, who may have sympathised with the more socially progressive version of Turnbull.
Yet Turnbull has plenty of room to dog-whistle. Given the weakness of the ALP “opposition”, which is reportedly struggling to figure out how to respond to the asylum seeker announcement, Turnbull may not even pay a political price for his lurch rightwards. Yet.