18C and the bigot bang
Future scholars of the Abbott government will have much to ponder. Eight months in and, from income “levies” to the reintroduction of the peerage to joint strike parental leave, dysfunction junkies will be spoilt for choice. But nothing, nothing, can compete with the early masterpiece – the absolute stuffing up of the 18C “racial insult” campaign, and the cause of “freedom” on which the culture warriors bravely rode out, in all directions at once.
That it has been a stuff-up, there is no doubt. What was meant to be a symbolic, straightforward excision of part of the Racial Discrimination Act that represented the worst of political correctness, a Keating-era relic, an insult to freedom, has become an electoral disaster for the Liberals, especially in western Sydney, an area they had hoped to turn into a permanent battleground rather than a Labor haven. The dodged-up version of the law the Liberal party room forced on Attorney-General George Brandis was bad enough. But multicultural groups rejected even that, coming together in a joint opposing submission. This, for the Libs, was an unparalleled anti-triumph – people who a few years ago were in some cases firing AK-47s at each other, had come together to hate on the Abbott government.
The stunning reversal on the 18C issue, and the government’s utter blindsiding by it, is about more than a political gambit gone wrong. Doubtless the move was partly designed to appeal to a few Anglo voters, and to curry favour with News Corp, which had run the slapping down of Andrew Bolt as a national issue, even though it failed to catch fire with the readers of their tabloids. But at root it came from a specific idea of what freedom is and the role it played in Australian life. For George Brandis and the think-tank commanders of the Institute of Public Affairs and Centre for Independent Studies, there’s only one idea of freedom and that’s the “negative” ideal of classical liberalism – freedom as purely a restraint on the state from interfering in your actions. In that respect, Brandis and co are Americophiles to rival their Labor counterparts, though their admiration of the US’s Bill of Rights stops short of suggesting we get one.
Trouble is, we’re not the US and never will be, and our understanding of freedom and the good life has never rested on that classical liberal notion. We’ve always been a social liberal nation, believing in an ideal of “positive” freedom as well. That second freedom, as defined by the 19th-century liberal T.H. Green, is “the capacity for self-flourishing”. Put simply, you aren’t free to be fully human if you’re starving, no matter how many rights you have, or if you can’t prevent your neighbourhood being carved up by developers, or if daily life involves a gauntlet of racial abuse.
The eight-hour day, the Harvester judgement, Country Party agrarian socialism, multiculturalism, the green bans and beyond: as a nation, we believe that freedom has a collective as well as individual expression, and the right challenges this at its peril. Thus, John Howard lost on WorkChoices and Tony Abbott is losing on 18C.
How did they get it so wrong? Instructive was Brandis’s response to Penny Wong, after his disastrous comment that “people do have a right to be bigots”. In his full wobbly fury, Brandis remarked: “Well, do you know, Senator Wong, I think a lot of the things I have heard you say in this chamber over the years are, to my way of thinking, extraordinarily bigoted and extraordinarily ignorant.”
For anyone not wrapped up in the classical liberal fantasy, this is asinine. By “bigotry” Brandis meant “stuff that is mean to people I like”. It’s the old student politics whine writ large. “Why doesn’t the student union have a men’s room, huh?” “Why isn’t there a white studies course?” It fools no one except snivelling white guys, and least of all the hundreds of thousands of non-Anglo Australians spread across western Sydney.
Bigoted language is, above all, racist language. It has a material and collective effect unmatched, arguably, even by misogynist or anti-disability insult. When Brandis announced the (legal) right to be bigoted – quite a proper observation – it was heard as “it is reasonable to be bigoted”, a much different thing. Coming at the same time as the reintroduction of imperial honours, it delivered a clear message to non-Anglo Australians: you are marginal to the Australian experience, which remains an expression of Anglo identity. No wonder new Sydney Liberal MPs such as Craig Laundy and David Coleman are threatening to cross the floor, and others are drafting a softer revision of 18C. When Jewish groups put a lot of energy into opposing the changes, even Brandis got the yips, ruling that Holocaust denial would count as racial vilification, rendering the whole revision incoherent.
Personally, I’m opposed to 18C in its current form. I want a Jeffersonian public sphere detached from the state, where one can, legally, call for civil disobedience and direct action against the state. Given that, how could one push for state regulation of others’ speech, aside from the most directly inciting and lethal?
But that is exactly where classical liberalism draws the line. Property comes prior to liberty, and grounds it, in their assessment. Thus, while Liberals bang on about free speech, their state governments mount relentless attacks on it, from Campbell Newman’s Stasi-esque laws on personal association, to Denis Napthine’s ban on public protest, to the push in Tasmania to outlaw consumer boycotts. No one is fooled, and in a lefty little-Denmark-down-under such as Victoria, the desperate protest ban – designed to smooth the passage of the widely disliked East West Link – may be enough to wipe out the government’s wafer-thin majority all on its own. It would be reminiscent of the contribution of the “save our suburbs” movement to Jeff Kennett’s demise in 1999.
And if George Brandis gets rolled on 18C, he will have no honourable choice but to resign as attorney-general. Such governments are punished not for their daring, but for their delusional hypocrisy, and for not understanding the character of the country they seek to govern. If you’re going to ride out to do battle, make sure it isn’t on a hobby horse.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 10, 2014 as "The bigot bang". Subscribe here.