Gang of fear

Christopher Pyne doesn’t understand the question. That’s the point of a dog whistle: not everyone can hear it.

A journalist asks if he is afraid to go out to restaurants in Melbourne, and he looks confused. “No. Why?” He looks the other way, laughs. “Should I be?”

The journalist explains that the prime minister has repeated this claim, first made by Peter Dutton, that people fear going out to dinner in Victoria. “Oh,” Pyne remembers, joining in the alternative reality where this is true. “Because of the gangs, the violence. I’m sorry, I wasn’t following you … I didn’t understand the question.”

Pyne is this government’s willingness. He has a schoolboy’s desire to please. As soon as he was reminded of the act, he was eager to play along. The smile never left his face.

On Thursday, Dutton joined in again. “It’s like some parallel universe going on down there at the moment where you’re not allowed to refer to these people as ‘in gangs’,” he said. “I mean, it’s fairyland stuff.”

Dutton freights in a kind of mock indignation – in sarcasm, the lowest form of politics. “I’m a racist, and there’s been a 70 per cent spike in the number of complaints to the Human Rights Commissioner in Victoria because I called people involved in home invasions ‘African gang members’, even though they’re of African descent and they’re involved in gang activity in Victoria.”

Malcolm Turnbull indulges this. He pretends the rule of law has broken down in Victoria. He talks the same fiction as the pamphlets his party is stuffing into letterboxes, with photo library youths and warnings of gangs in hunting packs. The same pamphlets ignore the drop in crime, the absence of evidence that Sudanese migrants are over-represented among offenders.

“There is concern about the state government’s failure to uphold the rule of law on the streets,” Turnbull says. “There is a real concern about that.”

And again: “The fact is there is a gang issue here and you are not going to make it go away by pretending it doesn’t exist. At some point you have to be fair dinkum and you have to acknowledge that there is a concern, people are concerned about it.’’

And again: “I have heard people, colleagues from Melbourne, say that there is real anxiety about crime in Melbourne. There is real concern about street crime. There is real concern about Sudanese gangs.”

And again: “It is critically important that people are not afraid to go out and not afraid to walk the streets and it is important that the police have the full backing of a government.”

This is the pantomime to which Christopher Pyne was being understudied. He was laughing because it was so ludicrous. The prime minister would claim for the sake of a few byelections and the Victorian Opposition that the second most populous state in this country is without the rule of law. He would claim that Sudanese gangs roam the streets, that people are fearful to leave their homes, that the police have lost the support of government and control of the cities.

Christopher Pyne might laugh, incredulous and aloof, but this joke is a serious one. This little, scripted farce is about the oppression of a single minority; it is about the politics of division and the effectiveness of racism in maintaining anxiety. It is about the eagerness of our politicians to lie for votes.

Peter Dutton is right about one thing. He is a racist. That’s the problem with sarcasm: if you are already lying, it’s hard to burlesque the bit you want people to believe as true.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 21, 2018 as "Gang of fear". Subscribe here.