Banging the nationalist drum didn’t work for Tony Abbott. It won’t work for Malcolm Turnbull either, writes Ben Eltham.
It was Samuel Johnson who first gave us the famous quote, “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”. Johnson is thought to have uttered the quote in April 1775. He was decrying the nationalist tone of British politics at the outset of the American rebellion.
Johnson’s pamphlet The Patriot remains one of the most acute discussions of this perennial topic.
“A man sometimes starts up a patriot, only by disseminating discontent, and propagating reports of secret influence, of dangerous counsels, of violated rights, and encroaching usurpation.
This practice is no certain note of patriotism. To instigate the populace with rage beyond the provocation, is to suspend publick happiness, if not to destroy it. He is no lover of his country, that unnecessarily disturbs its peace. Few errors and few faults of government, can justify an appeal to the rabble …”
Johnson’s remarks have seldom seemed so relevant, as democratic governments across the Western world march in lock-step to the beat of a nationalist drum.
In Britain, in the United States, France, and in Australia, political leaders are disseminating discontent, propagating reports of secret influence, and instigating the populace with rage.
Donald Trump and Theresa May are leading both their countries in a remarkable turn to nativism, populism and patriotism. Their slogans of “America First” and “Brexit means Brexit” signal a dramatic retreat from internationalism, and indeed from liberal principles in general.
Australia is certainly not immune from the gales of populist unrest. If you’ve been following Australian politics this week, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Adrift in the polls and with his own position looking increasingly tenuous, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is trying his own brand of political populism.
With cries of “Australia first” and “Australian values”, Turnbull has flipped the switch to patriotism with two major announcements in immigration policy.
On Tuesday, Turnbull took to Facebook to announce the government was scrapping 457 visas, a prominent immigration program that brings skilled workers to Australia. The government is “putting Australian workers first.”
Yesterday, Turnbull announced changes to the Australian citizenship test, claiming a new test would ensure new citizens pledged themselves to what he called “Australian values.” Citizenship rules will be significantly tightened, the English test will be made harder, and prospective citizens will even be asked, in the chilling words of the government media release, “to show the steps they have taken to integrate into and contribute to the Australian community”.
The political symbolism was as obvious as it was heavy-handed. The Prime Minister was at pains to utter the flavoursome phrase of “Australian values” as often as he could, almost as though he was savouring the taste. Here, at last, was a political wedge with which the government could go on the attack.
Not that Turnbull’s list of “Australian values” is all that remarkable. “The rule of law, democracy, freedom, mutual respect, equality for men and women”, as he said, are indeed noble values, though many would argue about whether the Australian government actually adheres to them.
No matter. The political theatre of patriotism is exactly what Turnbull needs to get the national conversation shifted from housing, which was badly hurting the Coalition.
The housing debate is ruthlessly exposing the Coalition’s weakness in economic policy. In a sluggish economy of stagnant wages and accelerating inequality, the government can offer nothing except cuts to company tax. Meanwhile a major social crisis has developed in the housing market, which the government has been loathe to recognise.
Simply put, Malcolm Turnbull’s government has no answer to Australia’s housing affordability problem. It has ruled out all the best policy suggestions that could address it, like abolishing negative gearing and the capital gains tax discount.
Paralysed by the power of the property industry in the Liberal Party base, and with vast vested interests in the form of their own investment properties, the government and indeed the Coalition backbench will never accede to policies that might see house prices fall. Voters are coming to realise this.
So switching the media space to patriotism makes perfect sense. It gets the discussion away from affordability and onto ‘security’, that nebulous but powerful word so beloved of unpopular governments everywhere.
Turnbull and his advisors appear to have plumped for another round of security theatre as the best way to shore up the Prime Minister’s vulnerable leadership. In the foreground, an increasingly active Tony Abbott continues to undermine. And so we’re getting skilled migration crackdowns and citizenship culture war.
Turnbull was already on the attack yesterday morning, calling on Labor to support the government’s changes to the citizenship. The wedge is clumsy, but it may still prove effective, because Labor is terrified of appearing unpatriotic. This is how the nationalist ratchet works: winching Australia in sudden lurches to the right. No wonder Cory Bernardi and Pauline Hanson are claiming credit.
The good times will keep rolling. Next week brings Anzac Day, which will give Turnbull another chance to strut the national stage. Anzac Day is becoming an increasingly militarised and jingoistic national celebration, in which imagery of sorrow and sacrifice has given way to displays of military power and affirmations of patriotic loyalty. That should provide a perfect backdrop to some more “Australia first” sloganeering.
But before we get too wrapped up in the flags and the cenotaphs, it’s worth asking whether any of this will actually benefit the government.
We’ve been here before: the latter stages of Tony Abbott’s doomed prime ministership were also increasingly strident and nationalistic. Abbott spent much of 2015 issuing terrifying warnings about Islamic State and terrorism. In May 2015, he announced new changes to citizenship in tones of near-hysteria. In June 2015, he warned that Islamic State was “coming for us all.” At one stage he was to be found literally in the ASIO bunker, poring over out-of-date situation maps cribbed from the Washington Post.
It didn’t work. Abbott remained deeply unpopular. Voters continued to focus on domestic issues. As the Australian flags multiplied at media conferences, so the Coalition’s poll figures sunk. Abbott was gone just three months later.
So it’s an open question whether Turnbull’s latest lurch to the right will achieve any real improvement in his declining political fortunes. The patriotism play also exacerbates one of Turnbull’s biggest problems: people think he’s betrayed his ideals to hold on to the highest office. Nothing in this week’s announcements would dissuade anyone from that view.
There will also be examination of the details of these two policy announcements, some of which loom as major political problems for the government down the track. On some readings of the new visas replacing the 457, some industries will no longer be able to hire overseas scientists, academics and programmers.
Preventing universities and tech companies from hiring top flight international talent will hurt Australian innovation, precisely the thing Turnbull used to be so identified with. It will also annoy some of the Coalition’s key backers in the corporate sector.
Then there is the pressing question of what message this sends to the world about Australia’s openness and tolerance. It’s clear enough what that message is: Australia is shutting the door to the world’s talent. Never been a more exciting time to be an Australian? Not so much, it would appear, if you want to become a new one.
But much more than the policy implications, it’s what this latest tilt at ‘Australian values’ says about the man Malcolm Turnbull that matters. A politician who made his career out of presenting himself as moderate, meritocratic and cosmopolitan makes a poor demagogue. We just don’t buy it. Tony Abbott really believed the sky was falling; it’s hard to believe Turnbull is similarly afraid… unless what he’s really afraid of is losing his own job.
As Johnson wrote in The Patriot, it is possible to deceive the credulous, “by deceiving the credulous with fictitious mischiefs” and “by appealing to the judgment of ignorance”. But, as Johnson concluded, it is also possible for the nation to “unite in a general abhorrence” of politicians who “arrogate to themselves the name of patriots.”
Turnbull runs the very real risk that many in the electorate will not believe he is a genuine patriot: that he is mouthing these slogans out of desperation, not belief. That would smack of hypocrisy, a commodity with which this government is already well supplied.