Malcolm Turnbull is having an argument with his imagination. When he makes the case against changing the date on which Australia Day is celebrated, he pretends as if the advocates for this change are campaigning against Australia itself.
On the floor of the parliament this week, he built a straw man and then jelly-wrestled it. “We have so much to celebrate,” he said, and no one disagreed. “We have so much of which to be proud, in a world riven by discord and violence,” he said, and no one disagreed. “We are united in our Australian values,” he said, and no one disagreed.
When the Yarra Council voted not to celebrate Australia Day on January 26, it did not vote against Australian values. It voted against a date of dispossession, a date of unnecessary hurt and exclusion, which has a history as a national holiday dating back less than 25 years.
Malcolm Turnbull knows this. He also knows there is no good argument against moving these celebrations. That is why he wrestles with his straw-man “values” instead. It is a spectacle of distraction.
This is not about Australia Day. Certainly, it is not about the date Arthur Phillip arrived at Sydney Cove, raised a Union Jack and declared British settlement of the east coast of Australia. It is about the social anxieties of a class of people for whom the world no longer makes sense, for whom the sharing of rights and power represents a kind of terror.
On talkback radio, Tony Abbott confessed as much. “Whether it be political correctness rampant in our schools, the gender fluidity stuff which is part of the Safe Schools program which has been institutionalised in Victoria, so many people are anxious about these assaults on things we have always taken for granted,” he said, answering a question about Yarra Council’s decision.
“And this is one of the reasons why I think the same-sex marriage vote is suddenly in all sorts of trouble, because people are worried about the real agenda of the people that are pushing these things.”
This is the lie of Australia politics. Nothing is considered on its merits. Everything, apparently, is connected: traditionalist marriage and transphobic bullying and Australia Day barbecues. The past is held on to like tinned hams in a survivalist’s bunker.
People like Tony Abbott don’t want Australia to change, because for them it’s pretty good. They fear the butterfly effect of equality. The recognition of others’ rights is only a threat to their own.
Theirs is an Australia of selfishness and homophobia, ignorant of its history, self-satisfied in its racist superiority. They find comfort in their own fears, in the blinkers that make the world small enough to feel like home.
To listen while they use this country’s parliament as a barricade against equality is to feel true disgust. Here are the Luddites, smashing the machines of the future. Here are the holdouts, fighting imagined enemies in a war they have already lost.
They argue as if this country were a house of cards. So wrong are they, so deceitfully self-interested, they make you wish it were.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 19, 2017 as "Damn the barricades".
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