Truth or dare

There’s a glint of excitement in John Howard’s eye, as if he’s found a lolly in his pocket. His brows hop up and down. His hands clasp his legs. He is saying out loud something he has long thought.

“Multiculturalism is a concept that I’ve always had trouble with,” he says, and the words seem to thrill him. “I take the view that if people want to emigrate to a country, then they adopt the values and practices of that country, and in return they’re entitled to have the host citizenry respect their culture without trying to create some kind of federation of tribes and culture. You get into terrible trouble with that.”

For someone who looks so much like the Magic Pudding, there is not much of Howard to go around. There is no generosity in him. There never has been. “I think one of the problems with multiculturalism is we try too hard to institutionalise difference, rather than celebrate what we have in common.”

Howard was one of a handful of Australians speaking to the Alliance for Responsible Citizenship in London, a conference of reactionaries gathered together by Jordan Peterson. Scott Morrison was there, as were Matt Canavan and Barnaby Joyce.

On the conference’s sidelines, Tony Abbott joked about the “rider” he used to slow action on climate change. “I think it is worth stating that the anthropogenic global warming thesis, at least in its more extreme forms, is both ahistorical and utterly implausible,” he said. “And I think that needs to be repeated. Ladies and gentlemen, the climate cult will eventually be discredited.”

Increasingly, right-wing politics looks like a game of truth or dare – although it is never clear which option a person like Abbott is choosing. The loss of the Voice referendum has obviously excited the right. Unsayable things are now being said. The old craftiness is gone and the prejudice is running naked on the lawn.

Jacinta Nampijinpa Price told the conference ordinary Australians had been “emboldened” by the referendum result. It’s unlikely an accident that the verb she chose almost always accompanies the word “racism” in a sentence.

Price wants people to know that it is “perfectly okay to be who you are, to be proud of who you are as an individual”. She does not explain what this means but it is not hard to guess. “The way forward from here,” she says, “is no more separatism, no more dividing us along the lines of race, no more political correctness, no more identity politics.”

This is the grand outcome of the referendum loss. To the “No” campaign, the vote was never just about constitutional recognition. It was about undoing decades of progressive change. The prize to them is the ability to say aloud every cruel and anti-intellectual thought, to indulge every bigotry and pretend they are doing so on behalf of a country too fearful to listen to the people it dispossessed.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 4, 2023 as "Truth or dare".

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