The Politics    Wednesday, April 20, 2022

The ‘culture war’ election

By Rachel Withers

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a press conference after visiting Sage Automation in Adelaide today. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a press conference after visiting Sage Automation in Adelaide today. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

The PM paints controversial candidate Katherine Deves as a victim of “cancel culture”

The controversy surrounding Warringah “captain’s pick” Katherine Deves is not going away. And it’s increasingly apparent that this is exactly how Scott Morrison wants it. The story is everywhere. Overnight, text messages were leaked to the media showing NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet supporting the PM’s position on Deves and transgender women in sport. (Perrottet quickly confirmed he did not leak them, and no one really believes the PMO’s belated denial. “The moral of the story,” Perrottet said today, “is don’t send text messages”.) Meanwhile, 2GB host Ben Fordham ripped into NSW Treasurer Matt Kean live on air, demanding that he apologise to Deves for calling for her resignation. Even international groups are getting on board, with anti-trans leaders leaping to Deves’ defence. The coverage has also prompted several Coalition MPs to publicly back Liberal senator Claire Chandler’s controversial private member’s bill, elevating the marginal issue even further. Speaking to reporters today, Morrison continued to dig in behind Deves. “Others might want to cancel her, others might want to cancel other Australians for standing up for things they believe in,” he said, when asked about the harm this revolting strategy was doing to children, adding that Aussies were “fed up with having to walk on eggshells”.

It’s clear now that “cancel culture” – that old chestnut – is where Morrison wants to take this, having used the words “cancel” and “silencing” several times this morning and yesterday. The irony is that Deves currently appears to be cancelling herself, hiding from the media and even skipping last night’s Warringah candidates forum. Many have spent the past week wondering what on earth Morrison is up to with this strategy. It’s fairly obvious that this anti-trans zealot is never going to win the seat of Warringah back from Zali Steggall, with some suggesting that this is a ploy to sacrifice more moderate seats if it means winning over some marginal Labor seats with an appeal to religious voters. (This is pretty much exactly what Liberal Party vice-president Teena McQueen posited a few weeks ago, interestingly.) Others have questioned whether this 5D chess move even makes sense, or if this issue is big enough to sway votes considering that four in five Australians support trans rights and the majority of female athletes support the inclusion of transgender women. (Crikey’s Cam Wilson has generally been excellent on this topic.) But so-called cancel culture, which Morrison regularly rails against, is no doubt much more fertile ground.

The idea that asking questions about someone’s extreme positions – Deves has compared trans issues to the Holocaust and the Stolen Generations – is akin to cancel culture is ludicrous. (It’s worth flagging that Morrison simply ignored the other part of today’s question about the harm caused to young people, which focused on the Liberal candidate for Cooper Jadon Atkinson and his support for the far-right.) Cancel culture isn’t really a thing, as the last few years have proven. Deves was able to get away with expressing her deeply offensive views at length prior to her candidacy, having tweeted thousands of times (the Wayback Machine just keeps delivering, as Wilson notes). Now that she is a candidate for a federal seat, however, legitimate questions are being asked about her anti-trans positions, which quite clearly extend far beyond women’s sport.

None of this matters to Morrison, who appears ready to use this moment to reignite the broader culture wars – as he did while speaking to religious groups in April last year, and as he tried to do while launching his failed religious discrimination bill later in the year. (The impacts of the latter are still being felt, with the Australian Christian Lobby launching a laughable campaign to punish the moderate Libs who crossed the floor by… helping out their more progressive opponents.) Morrison obviously believes there is a sizeable proportion of “quiet Australians” who think things have gone “too far”, that “you can’t say anything these days!” He may be right. Of course, the attempt to rail against cancel culture is deeply hypocritical – Morrison, after all, is from the thin-skinned side of politics that often sues civilians over tweets, that is pursuing legislation that will make it easier for them to sue for defamation, that hounded Yassmin Abdel-Magied out of the country over Anzac Day comments, and that seems to want to erase anyone who doesn't fit its mould. But when has that ever stopped them?

Attempts to have a khaki election have fallen flat in recent weeks, with the government now the ones being accused of dropping the ball on national security and China, and Labor beefing up its position of defence spending and policy. But there’s nothing to stop the Coalition from running a culture war election instead.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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