August 17, 2016

Privilege and its discontents

By Dominic Kelly
Tony Abbott’s speech to the Samuel Griffith Society reveals the contradictory mess of entitlement and resentment in the Australian right

“These are vexing times for conservatives,” declared Tony Abbott in his dinner address to the Samuel Griffith Society in Adelaide on Friday night. Regurgitating a number of standard right-wing gripes about “preoccupations with multiculturalism, reconciliation and global warming”, the former prime minister paid particular attention to the number one bugbear of privileged white Australian conservatives: Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. On this issue he could hardly have asked for a more receptive audience than the judges, lawyers, politicians and academics that make up the bulk of the Society’s ageing membership.

The Samuel Griffith Society was founded in 1992 by former treasury secretary and National Party senator John Stone, Western Mining executives Hugh Morgan and Ray Evans, legal academic Greg Craven, and former chief justice of the High Court Sir Harry Gibbs. It aimed to “defend the Australian Constitution against all who would attempt to undermine it”, with particular focus on restoring federalism and opposing the ever-expanding powers of the Commonwealth at the expense of the states.

This emphasis on federalist principles probably explained why last week’s address was Abbott’s first to the Samuel Griffith Society in its 24 year history. His support for federalism is questionable, to say the least, thanks to his time as a minister in the Howard government. From early 2002 until its defeat in 2007, the Coalition was confronted with Labor governments in all states and territories, and Abbott was plainly still smarting from this experience when he sat down to write his book Battlelines (2009).

Abbott’s book includes a draft bill to amend the constitution so that states could surrender powers “to enable a more effective exercise of Commonwealth power in areas of responsibility shared with the states”. He also belittled the “exaggerated respect for the states” of some conservatives, and argued that the drafters of the constitution were only half-hearted federalists. “When they praised federal systems they were making a virtue of necessity, not stating a philosophical principle,” he wrote, demonstrating his remarkably shallow historical knowledge. Little wonder that John Stone described the book as “dripping with centralist nonsense”.

But when a revised edition of Battlelines was published in 2013 – with conservatives now in power in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia, and himself likely to win the imminent federal election – Abbott had changed his tune.

The past five years have been a good antidote to the view that political wisdom mostly resides in Canberra. As well, Coalition rule in the big states means that an incoming Coalition government in Canberra should have more willing partners with whom to work.

Far from being an upholder of the constitution, Abbott revealed that in times of political difficulty he was prepared to junk parts of Australia’s founding document in order to achieve his partisan goals. When the political landscape changed and became more favourable, he no longer thought constitutional reform was necessary. This profound lack of regard for constitutional principles is anathema to the conservatives of the Samuel Griffith Society.

It was unsurprising, then, to find that references to federation reform in Abbott’s speech on Friday were rather light on detail. He was on much firmer ground with his audience, however, when it came to 18C, which, he said, “limits free speech merely to prevent hurt feelings”.

The Samuel Griffith Society was established as a temperamentally conservative body concerned with dry constitutional matters. But its members immediately became passionate and at times inflammatory critics of the High Court’s historic Mabo judgment, which was handed down in June 1992, just weeks before the Society’s inaugural conference.

In one of countless examples of racially loaded rhetoric in the proceedings of the Society, barrister SEK Hulme likened the Mabo judgment’s reference to “a national legacy of unutterable shame” to the way the mediaeval Catholic Church held Jews responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus a millennium earlier. Hugh Morgan was also a constant provocateur, with his regular critiques of Aboriginal culture (penned by his speechwriter Ray Evans). Morgan eventually drew a reprimand from the prime minister. “What we have here is just bigotry,” said Paul Keating. “It is the voice of ignorance, the voice of hysteria and the voice of the nineteenth century.”

The cultural chauvinism paraded in the Mabo debates revealed a defining characteristic of the Samuel Griffith Society: the resentment of old white conservative men horrified by social change and historical revisionism. As historian Bain Attwood wrote in 1996, “Mabo forms part of a new historical narrative which portends for conservatives the end of (Australian) history as they have conceived it and, therefore, the end of their Australia.”

This resentment brought on by fear of change now infects contemporary debates about free speech. When privileged white conservatives are told that their bigoted views are not acceptable, they rush to play the victim. They see oppressors everywhere: in politics (Labor and the Greens), in the media (Fairfax and the ABC), in the law (the Human Rights Commission), and in the wider public (ethnic communities and social media users).

The resentful right’s martyr and whiner-in-chief is Andrew Bolt, who was found to have breached 18C in 2011. This led Abbott to promise to repeal the section, before overwhelming opposition forced him to renege. He now regrets this backdown, and the right has a new cause célèbre in Bill Leak, whose blatantly racist cartoons in the Australian are lauded by conservatives as enlightened truth-telling.

“Western civilisation, especially its English-speaking version, is mankind’s greatest achievement,” said Abbott on Friday night. “Yet what’s readily extended to other cultures is only grudgingly extended to our own: credit where it’s due.” Thus did Abbott sum up the “present discontents” of Australian conservatives. Such a contradictory mess of entitlement and resentment is an ideal representation of the state of the Australian right in 2016.

Dominic Kelly

Dominic Kelly is a PhD candidate and tutor in politics at La Trobe University. He tweets from @illywhacker_.

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