John Hewson
The war on woke

The word “woke” has taken on too much negative connotation in our political debate. It has become a derisive term to disparage and effectively dismiss virtually any position that doesn’t accord with the extreme conservative, hardline right agenda.

It is ironic some of the most vocal supporters of free speech use “anti-woke” stances to suppress essential debate on important national issues, typically by running disinformation and scare campaigns. The Coalition is now almost indistinguishable from the United States Republican Party.

The term has been used for almost a century by African Americans alert to racial prejudice and discrimination, and conspicuously over the past decade as the Black Lives Matter movement gathered momentum. More recently it’s been appropriated by conservative groups to disparage those who promote progressive ideas, raising issues of injustice, identity, race and even climate.

The worst of the anti-woke campaigners, Sky News host and Spectator Australia editor Rowan Dean, has published a piece entitled “Turn Back the Wokes” in the August 19 edition of that magazine, in which he identifies woke with a socialist agenda he attributes to the Albanese government. He issued a rallying cry to conservatives to meet at the CPAC conference, claiming “the times now suit a determined conservative leader” because “the overreach of the left on net zero and the resulting cost-of-living nightmare, the destruction of small business and the insanity of the Voice are all fertile grounds for conservatives who have a genuine plan, as opposed to the unctuous and failed Turnbull–Morrison Labor-lite, sit-on-your-hands and grovel to the elites approach”.

There was little doubt where Dean was headed when he opened the piece with “Australians live in a dangerous era. The prime minister of the day, a communist sympathiser in his youth, wishes to impose a fundamental change upon our democracy without actually having bothered to read the fine print himself describing what that change will look like.”

Dean’s main point was that this country is now “in the throes of a new invasion – the invasion of the socialists”. He continues his alarmist rant to warn that “being conquered by the hard left will only ever end in tyranny, oppression, poverty and misery for the vast majority of the population”.

And he calls for conservatives “to begin the fight against socialism in a serious and determined fashion … an incoming Liberal government needs a cultural version of Operation Sovereign Borders – a well-thought-through plan to rapidly and efficiently ‘Turn back the Wokes’.”

It is concerning that Dean hasn’t learnt the lessons of European history – or perhaps he has, and like former US president Donald Trump is just utilising some of the finer points to make sure his message is both heard and feared.

His insistence on punching down, sneering at and demonising anybody who expresses an opinion that doesn’t sit comfortably with his own narrow agenda is worrying. In this he plants a seed of discontent that is divisive and dangerous. This line of attack shouldn’t be allowed to bubble along unchecked. This is irresponsible stuff.

“Woke” accusations have become a bullying, intimidatory technique, especially in the lead-up to the October 14 vote on the Voice to Parliament. It is the language that fuels misinformation and prejudice in support of a conspicuous conservative agenda aligning itself with Opposition Leader Peter Dutton’s negativity and obfuscation. All of which is clearly meant to be divisive and inflict a referendum loss on the prime minister. Not a thought is spared for truth and the national interest.

It really is quite sickening to hear “No” campaigners now accusing the government and its referendum of being divisive, when that has been the opposition’s strategy all along.

Dutton has most recently overlaid this with a serious dose of hypocrisy. He has committed to holding a new referendum if elected next time. Having consciously set out to divide the nation on the question of Indigenous recognition and representation, and having passed up the prime minister’s invitation to work together, he now claims his referendum would be a chance to unify the nation with the cooperation of Albanese.

In her address to the National Press Club this week, Marcia Langton, a distinguished professor at the University of Melbourne and leading campaigner for the Voice to Parliament, emphasised the proposed constitutional change was aimed precisely at reducing division.

“Where are the solutions from the ‘No’ case? They are using the referendum proposal and invitation from Indigenous Australians as an attack on the government. Those in the ‘No’ campaign have no policy answers to address the life outcomes of Indigenous Australians,” she said. Langton rejected Dutton’s proposal for a second referendum, declaring she would not work on such a thing.

“It’s not what we want. As Peter Dutton outlined the purpose of his referendum or to the extent that he did, is not what we asked for,” she said.

I really am at a loss to understand why the current Coalition seems so hell-bent on emulating the US Republican Party, exploiting the politics of division by weaponising the Voice, hoping to undermine Albanese and his government, and even, I am told, hiring Republican advisers to help to develop the strategy.

It is a national tragedy that there wasn’t a fulsome, informed debate about the issues. The slogan “If you don’t know, vote No” has shut down any legitimate curiosity about this important referendum question. So much for free speech, a genuine contest of ideas and essential public discourse.

It is hardly surprising the “No” case has been able to get away with its strategy of confusion, as most of the mainstream media has been either compliant or asleep, failing to adequately present facts and substance, preferring instead to run personalities and agendas.

Reports suggesting that leading “No” campaigner Warren Mundine is being courted for a Senate vacancy in New South Wales raise a host of pretty uncomfortable questions relating to our representative democracy. Clearly Mundine’s voice may continue to be heard unabated.

Australia has always prided itself on being an egalitarian society, raising politicians and public commentators of all persuasions, even the odd crazy such as Rowan Dean. Politicians like to say they are committed to leaving nobody behind, yet the “No” case on the Voice risks leaving First Nations people further behind.

For me, it has never been “Liberal, right or wrong”. It has always been a strength of our democracy that everybody gets a say; this ability to speak freely has always been a crucial facet of our culture and identity. Disliking something that the likes of radio host John Laws had said would promote discussion and debate.

Now these broadcasts are full of lecture and purely one-sided agendas. Hate speech is on the ascendance. And a ready cast of particular politicians can be relied on to lend support to uninformed views, actually closing down the possibility of any enlightening or even interesting debate.

Making people afraid to express a view or question what they might be hearing is dangerous, un-Australian and makes us small.

It was never the case that being a Liberal or a Labor voter determined your thinking, or meant that voting a particular way in a referendum was a forgone conclusion. Many ideas and views have been honed over tea and an Iced VoVo, or a cold beer after work.

It’s okay to think beyond your political affiliations. The discussion of ideas is fundamental to who we are as a people, and it’s essential to fairness, understanding and the growth and sharing of knowledge. It’s a good thing.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 9, 2023 as "The war on woke".

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