The view from Billinudgel

The lose–lose battle
Turnbull is being dragged into an 18C crusade he cannot win


Malcolm Turnbull celebrated International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination by seeking to remove sanctions against Australians who want to insult, offend and humiliate their fellow Australians on the grounds of race.

Unfortunate timing, certainly, but it is one of the great traditions of the Liberal Party. John Howard – Turnbull’s guide, mentor and friend – twice suspended the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA), once to get around the High Court’s 1996 Wik decision and then once again in a desperate dash to the 2007 election with the intervention in the Northern Territory.

Both moves were arguably against the interests of Aboriginal people – so just in case the RDA could become an embarrassment, it had to go. After all, Howard maintained that he had a covenant with Australian farmers, so bugger the Aboriginals.

Turnbull, of course, does not put it that way; he would never be so tactless as to suggest that he had a covenant with the extreme right of his party and bugger the ethnics. Instead, he offers a barefaced lie. Turnbull maintains that, far from weakening the RDA, replacing the original wording with the single word “harass” and imposing what he optimistically calls a “reasonable person” (George Christensen? Cory Bernardi? Janet Albrechtsen?) test will actually strengthen the legislation.

This is too silly even for his cheer squad: they know damn well that the fringe dwellers in the party room and at the Australian only settled for the formula to whittle down section 18C because they could not persuade Turnbull to abolish it altogether.

They will settle for the thin edge of the wedge – for now. But not for long, and especially not if they can’t even get this crumb through the parliament. And of course the zealots of the Australian are indefatigable.

Having reluctantly accepted that their demigod Bill Leak has failed to rise again on the third day, they have decided instead to embalm the corpse forever, in the manner of such heroes of the revolution as Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong. The cartoonist’s recycled works live on in the editorial pages while endless epitaphs to Leak’s sanctified status are paraded as a tribute and a legacy to the war against political correctness.

They will not be satisfied until what they now describe reverently as “Leak’s Law” (the destruction of the RDA, the Human Rights Commission and Gillian Triggs) can be enacted in full. Actually, they won’t be satisfied even then, but it might just shut them up a bit. Which is, of course, all that Turnbull can hope for.

The Australian’s line was clear. The headline was that of an ongoing war, ‘PM’s crusade for free speech’. It was, and is, nothing of the kind: Turnbull was in fact reluctantly dragged to the position against his personal inclination and his political instincts, and if (when) it is rejected in the Senate (saving the risk of real embarrassment in the House of Representatives) he will be confronted with more demands.

He will no doubt say that he has tried. And the Australian and its political allies will say that it isn’t good enough. He has been anointed as a crusader – victory or death, and, if the latter, he will at least meet Bill Leak in the martyr’s heaven now being prepared for both. 

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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