Andrew Bolt’s claims that 18C suppresses him from openly debating Muslim immigration reveal a martyr complex. By Russell Marks.

Russell Marks
Bolt a martyr for the 18C clause

Andrew Bolt was alarmed and furious when Tony Abbott dumped his government’s plans to wind back section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. “What I’ve found really interesting is the reasons Tony Abbott gave today for dumping this,” he vented to Steve Price on Sydney’s 2GB radio station, just hours after the prime minister’s press conference. “It points exactly to the dangers I’ve been speaking about.”

A few minutes of awkward radio followed, as Price tried largely in vain to stay with Bolt. Eventually his guest made his point. “He’s gonna drop 18C so they’ll feel less picked on, they’ll feel more defended,” Bolt said. “But wait, don’t we need a frank debate, more frank than it’s been so far, into how the Muslim culture, the Islamic culture, people from certain Islamic countries in the Middle East – how they integrate here?”

Bolt, the Melbourne Herald Sun’s flagship commentator, now considered a leading conservative voice and syndicated nationally through the Murdoch tabloids, is indeed worried about Muslims. During the first 10 days in August, he aired his concerns in no less than 26 separate interventions across his column, his blog, his TV show and his regular 2GB spot. That’s not quite as often as he railed against “the left” (33), but a lot more than he said or wrote about Israel and Hamas (11), global warming (5) or, indeed, free speech (9).

“What is wrong with this religion?” he thundered on June 16 this year, posting excerpts of articles that described terrorist violence and other extremism by Islamists in 12 countries. “What in the faith leaves itself so open to such barbarity?” (August 26). “Who are we letting in?” (August 30).

The metrics are crude, but they do say something about Bolt’s method. His position on Muslim immigration, or indeed any other issue, seems more about opposing groupthink among what he calls “the left”. Bolt’s “left” is pretty broad – it includes socialists but also liberal humanists in the ABC, the Fairfax press, universities and now the courts – and his critics wonder if he ever allows for the possibility that these institutions look extreme because his vantage point is way off to the right. But then, we’re all mostly blind to our biases.

Bolt’s analytical method seems to involve identifying the reflexive liberal humanist tendency on [insert issue] and then casting about for reasons to oppose it. He reached his earliest public positions on climate change science and the stolen generations in this way. It’s a method that leaves him open to obvious charges of inconsistency. “What is wrong with this religion?” could equally be asked of Christianity against the evidence pouring out of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse. But the inquiry was Gillard’s initiative and is thoroughly approved by Bolt’s left, so Bolt, agnostic in matters spiritual and otherwise horrified by child sex abuse, rails against “the great anti-Catholic witch-hunt” (November 15, 2012). Abbott’s commissions into “filthy” unions and pink batts, on the other hand, are important.

Bolt’s left is also unified, as he sees it, on multiculturalism. That’s another dangerous groupthink: his left just refuses to accept the possibility that indiscriminately letting in Muslims might threaten not just the nation’s cultural fabric, but also its security from terrorism. In a way he’s right. Humanists do shy away from arguments that might draw them to express what could be interpreted as criticisms of multiculturalism or of particular ethnic or cultural groups. Bolt knows this, and drives through that shyness with all the subtlety of a monster truck.

But to suggest that it’s not possible to have a “frank debate” without the repeal of section 18C, or because he’s somehow being silenced by “the left”, is pure sophistry.

To the contrary, debate about Islam and Muslim immigration had been frothing long before the photo of the Australian child holding a decapitated head and the video showing the beheading of US journalist James Foley – and not just on the pages of The Daily Telegraph and The Australian and on commercial talk radio. The debates taking place within Australia’s Muslim communities are at least as fraught. Two weeks ago a Sydney meeting of Islamic leaders ended in acrimony. In the Fairfax press, lawyer Glenn Mohammed asked last week why community leaders aren’t doing more to stem radicalisation.

Bolt himself has been the most outspoken critic of Islam. In June, he argued unambiguously for cuts to Muslim immigration – a direct challenge to Abbott’s declaration that Australia will always have a non-discriminatory immigration policy. “The conclusion is irresistible,” Bolt wrote on June 23. “The more Muslim immigrants we admit, the more terrorists we risk one day having … Unfortunately, Islamic culture today includes a jihadist ideology so strong that 17 of the 18 terrorist groups banned here are Islamic.”

These are hardly the words of a man shackled by the cultural elite. But Bolt is Australian media’s martyr-in-chief, adept at creating the perception that he is the reluctant leader of the silent majority forever gagged and bullied by “the left”. He may have technically lost in the Federal Court on section 18C, but the Aboriginal plaintiffs’ victory was pyrrhic. The loss has allowed the martyr-in-chief to warn over and over again that his opinions might equally be “banned” at any time. Nearly everything he says and writes about section 18C, however, is untrue. Nothing in it prevents Bolt or anyone else having a debate about Muslim immigration, or anything for that matter, no matter how distasteful it may be for his “left”. All that sections 18C and 18D, which together legislate a minimum standard of engagement in a multicultural society, require is that any debate on matters of race and culture be conducted “in good faith”.

Bolt presents his views on race and culture as those of the anti-racist everyman. “We are Australians together, not to be divided by ‘race’,” he wrote last week, in response to the proposal to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the constitution, which he opposes. There’s a folksy simplicity to his thought, as if racism and radicalism would not be a problem if we all just stopped emphasising difference.

But if he truly wants a debate, one of the rules of engagement is to acknowledge the strength of other arguments. Many argue that one of the surest ways to encourage alienation – a precondition for radicalisation – is to tell particular minority groups they don’t belong. But that’s a “left” argument, and therefore requires naming and shaming rather than an intelligent response.

I tried to speak to Bolt, but he refused. “Your job is to make me look bad,” he wrote via email, as if to confirm his martyred status. “You don’t need my help with that.”

Co-authored by Timothy Wetherell

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 6, 2014 as "Martyr for the clause".

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Russell Marks is an honorary associate at La Trobe University.