November 19, 2021

At the end of our rope

By Martin McKenzie-Murray

Craig Kelly addresses protestors outside Victoria’s Parliament, November 12, 2021

The prime minister’s belated response to death threats against political leaders is a sign of our dangerously hollowed-out politics

A short list of things Scott Morrison has not hesitated to criticise:

•  flying an orphaned boy to the burial of his parents;

•  Greta Thunberg, and the “needless anxiety” provoked by her activism;

•  Cricket Australia’s removal of the words “Australia Day” from its Big Bash promotions;

•  the panic buying of toilet paper;

•  Christine Holgate; and

•  electric cars and the illusory “war on the weekend”.

A much shorter list of things the prime minister did hesitate to criticise until it was absolutely necessary:

•  The nooses, prop gallows, abuse of police, intimidation of journalists and explicit death threats against the Victorian premier that have characterised Melbourne’s rolling protests against the government’s pandemic powers bill. 

These protests have been profoundly ugly. Surely, even in this age of advanced political cynicism, there should be red lines that all politicians immediately and unequivocally enforce – like, say, death threats against our elected leaders.

But no. It took our prime minister almost a week and the involvement of Victoria’s counter-terror force to prompt comment – and he still equivocated and shoehorned campaign talking points into his statement. 

First, some context. Certain politicians, far-right figures and commentators have stoked – and exploited – this swelter of paranoia and revolutionary cosplay. For some, the recent history of the United States – climaxing in the murderous siege of the Capitol in January – has not been cautionary, but inspiring.

Here’s Sky News presenter and columnist Peta Credlin in The Herald Sun: “These laws … will make Daniel Andrews the nearest thing to a dictator that Australia has ever seen.”

And in a separate column: “Even decent Labor voters now understand that they cannot keep making excuses for a government that feels more like a South American-style dictatorship.”

Credlin is not alone at The Herald Sun. Its columnists, cartoonists and headline writers have been calling the Victorian premier a dictator for well over a year.

Sniffing opportunity, federal MP Craig Kelly – whose place in parliament is directly owed to Scott Morrison’s personal intervention in 2018, when Kelly faced defeat in his Liberal preselection, and who, since this salvation, defected to the United Australia Party and recently spammed millions of Australians with misleading health advice – rushed to Victoria to speak before the nooses and “COVID = HOAX” placards.

Joined by a bodyguard that the White Rose Society identified as a far-right figure associated with the neo-Nazi movement, Kelly told the crowd: “We are being governed by medical bureaucrats that are part of a mad, insane cult … We are in the face of tyranny and corruption.” Never mind that the bill being protested was one that would strip “medical bureaucrats” of power, or that his audience included adherents of a “mad, insane cult” (QAnon), or that he was denouncing tyranny while being minded by a Hitler fan.

Never mind all that – this is about passion, right? However violent and inchoate. Plumb the well. There are some votes down there, if you’re willing. Isn’t that what we’ve learnt in recent years? This week, Kelly “liked” a tweet that said: “The gallows have arrived!”

We have had at least four state Liberals appear before these crowds, flattering and inflaming their passions. MP Bernie Finn, who is serially hyperbolic in his denunciations of Daniel Andrews, posted a photo of the premier as Hitler, while telling protestors that the bill was “evil”. Upper house MP Craig Ondarchie has regularly mingled with such crowds, uniformly describing them as “wonderful”. None of these men have condemned the nooses and death threats. “I look forward to the day that I get to see you dance on the end of a rope,” one woman, referring to the premier, yelled into a microphone. She was applauded.

Nor have any of these men acknowledged the unmistakable influence of the QAnon cult amongst the protestors, as when singer Claire Woodley asked the crowd’s indulgence to dedicate a song to the international victims of ritualised Satanic abuse.

Instead, we’ve seen a dangerously unrestrained pantomime: the presentation of the premier as a literal dictator and the protestors who desire his murder as heroic patriots. Here is the marriage of the public’s diverse forms of extremism with dangerously craven political opportunists.

This week, Seven News reporter Nick McCallum was abused by an angry mob after attempting to interview them. Ironically, this was the same journalist who had tweeted about the bill: “The Andrews’ government’s pandemic legislation MUST be amended. The possibility of indefinite detention and a lack of judicial and parliamentary oversight are abhorrent.” 

During the pandemic, threats against MPs – and attacks on electorate offices – have substantially increased. Protestors have publicly posted the home addresses of MPs. On Wednesday, the premier said his wife and children had been threatened.

And then, yesterday, came this news: “Counter-terrorism officials have charged a Victorian man who encouraged anti-lockdown protesters to bring firearms to State Parliament and execute Premier Daniel Andrews, and are continuing to investigate other alleged extremists involved in the Melbourne pandemic bill protests.”

It was only after this news – almost a week since the first noose was sighted – that the prime minister broke his silence. 

One striking feature of these protests – besides the blood lust and floridly mad conspiracies – is how little the ostensible subject of them is debated. Amongst this crowd, and from the mouths of those who’ve sought to profitably inflame it, the bill has become nothing but shorthand for the Victorian government’s tyranny. Almost nothing of substance or specificity is debated about the proposed legislation – that’s happened elsewhere. 

And yes, there’s plenty to criticise – the bill in its initial form was a dog – but it can be protested without demanding lynchings or promoting the idea that nothing separates the Victorian premier from Hitler or Hugo Chavez. One can vehemently criticise the bill, while also vehemently denouncing the fevered horseshit that’s clouding it.  

Little remarked upon is that our democracy has functioned as it should: the initial bill was protested in the streets, editorialised against in newspapers, pulled apart on radio, publicly criticised by legal and human rights associations, critically examined by the state’s ombudsman, subject to crossbench scrutiny and negotiation, and substantially amended (though still not sufficiently). And still, if you’re a Victorian who dislikes the premier, then in 12 months you can vote against his government. 

Scott Morrison leads a country experiencing a dramatically, and dangerously, coarsened political culture. For those of us still committed to a politics that is muscular, imaginative and decent, what are we meant to think when our prime minister offers hundreds of words about his favourite curries but none for a week about the brandishing of nooses? Well, we might think that we live within a political culture where everything is subordinate to winning elections – including conspiracy extremism and the whiffs of neo-Nazism.

In a recent episode of Succession – HBO’s dark comedy of a family-run media empire – the brutal, effortlessly amoral patriarch Logan Roy angrily redresses his daughter, who’s reminded him of a previous, and contradictory position he’s held. “Nothing is a line,” he growls. “Everything, everywhere, is always moving, forever.”

Everything, everywhere. That’s us. It’s all political calculus – an infinitely fluid set of contingencies to be cravenly gamed. There are few boundaries, fewer red lines. Nothing solid. Just words, unfixed to a past or future. Unfixed to memory or principle. Malleable and deconsecrated. The Game, baby. 

You might argue that it’s always been thus, but federally the Game has quickly metastasised, growing unconstrained and subsuming things once protected from it – if not by instinct, then at least by custom. It’s not the existence of the Game that’s new or remarkable, but how sickeningly large the territory is upon which it’s played.

We’re left with a profoundly hollow politics – one without policy, accountability or shame. One which ignores public threats of political assassination. One which weaponises paranoia and strategically worships our complacency. And one which I fear will condemn our future to mediocrity and entrenched rancour. 

Everything, everywhere. Go Sharks.   

Martin McKenzie-Murray

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of The Speechwriter and A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle.

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