Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly

Method in the madness?
Perhaps the government’s attack on “socialist” Shorten isn’t as crazy as it seems


What a week!

Last Wednesday, Mathias Cormann all but called Bill Shorten a socialist. Oh boy, I thought, Cormann’s finally been pushed to madness. The finance minister told us that Shorten had made a “deliberate and cynical political judgement that enough Australians have forgotten the historical failure of socialism”. As a result, Shorten was overreaching to the left.

And then, a couple of days ago, the veterans’ affairs minister, Dan Tehan, said [$] that we shouldn’t just be calling Shorten a would-be-East-German. He’d be perfectly happy as a Castro-era Cuban, too. Let’s hear it for Dan “The Man” Tehan, doubling down on the crazy!

If anyone was overreaching on anything, surely it was Cormann. In a typically considered piece, Greg Jericho looked at the many conservative figures who had advocated aspects of Labor’s economic policies. He was right. All of this is, taken at face value, a bit nutty. The idea that a) Labor has suddenly morphed into a socialist party and b) anyone in Australia is so emotionally invested in European political history that it might influence their vote is obviously ridiculous.

But, as more days have gone by, I’ve started to see patterns in the Coalition attack. Perhaps this makes me the paranoid one. Humour me. 

What prompted my rethink was Peter Dutton’s attacks on the lawyers who apply to courts to prevent asylum seekers being sent back to Nauru and Manus Island. Dutton agreed with Alan Jones’ description of these lawyers as unAustralian, which was what got all the headlines, but on his own he went further:

“It goes back to your earlier remarks, Alan, about all the political correctness out there ... and it extends into some of our major law firms, where part of their social justice agenda is for pro bono work to be provided ... and it costs the taxpayer tens of millions each year.”

Reading this, it felt a little muddled to me – lawyers doing pro bono work were now practising political correctness? This was way beyond the usual meaning of “politically correct”, i.e. “don’t tell racist jokes”. And remember that we are talking about top-tier law firms here, some of the most conservative institutions in the country. Why was Dutton working so hard to paint this picture?

But Dutton wasn’t the only senior government minister to roll out the phrase this week. Shorten responded to this week’s statues controversy by saying he believed that rather than the statues being torn down, or plaques removed, new plaques should be added to clarify the situation. Hardly the most radical solution, you’d think. But in the eyes of Scott Morrison? “Bill Shorten now thinks our public statues need to pass some sort of political correctness test [$].”

Hmmm, I thought. Is something going on here? Did Turnbull also trot out “political correctness” this week?

As it turns out, no, he didn’t. But he did call Shorten’s attitude to statues “Stalinist”, thereby completing the circle. And it all started to come together for me.

When a political party starts using a new attack in a concerted fashion, it’s usually a mistake to think it came from nowhere. Now, I have no firsthand knowledge of what Liberal focus groups are saying, but what everyone in politics agrees on is the fact that there has been a generalised backlash against “elites”, against politicians telling them that they know best. This sentiment played a role in Trump’s success, and in Brexit, and it played a role here in the fall in votes going to the major parties.

We know, too, that the parties have been scrambling to tap into that discontent, or at least to neutralise it. Hence, the Coalition playing footsies with Pauline Hanson. Hence, Shorten’s campaign on inequality and his misguided ad full of white people.

We also know that this type of discontent has always been behind the “politically correct” tag. Those two words are a quick way of saying: stop telling us what to think. Stop pretending you know better.

Now look more closely at Tehan’s Cuban attack: “what we are seeing from Labor and from Shorten is a desire to go back to that type of governing where government knows best, government will impose its will”.

And here is the end of Cormann’s speech, just after he called Shorten “cocky”: “If you make it harder for aspirational Australians to get ahead, there will be less prosperity which would be bad for everyone. I am very confident that Australians are better, fairer people than Bill Shorten makes out.”

At first glance, Cormann’s “socialist” attack seemed to me like it was about economics. And some of it was. But it was also about the same thing that all of these attacks are: the idea that cocky Shorten thinks he knows best, that he’s trying to make us all feel guilty, that he’s going to stop you getting ahead.

(These ideas flirt with racism to a very uncomfortable extent. It’s no coincidence that asylum seekers and Indigenous people are the most obvious targets.)

The idea that socialism will make a reappearance, not in Europe but in Australia, is implausible. The Coalition knows that. But what else did the leaders of East Germany, Russia and Cuba do? They told you what to do. They told you what to think. This is how the different threads are tied together.

I’m not completely convinced that this attack will work coming from Turnbull – an inner-city cosmopolitan attacking political correctness, or getting his ministers to do so, doesn’t ring quite true. But I’m no longer certain it’s as mad as it first looked.

In other news


Success dogged him

Judith Brett’s ‘The Enigmatic Mr Deakin’ is a skilful portrait of Australia’s second prime minister

Mark McKenna

“Few biographers could have navigated this rocky terrain without coming to grief. That Brett has managed to write such a compelling and rewarding biography – alive to every fibre in Deakin’s being – is testament to her literary skill. The Enigmatic Mr Deakin stands as the culmination of her work on the history, politics and philosophy of Australian liberals, and it is the one biography of Deakin to which we will repeatedly return.”  READ ON


Writing to remember

Alzheimer’s drives the narrative of Rachel Khong’s ‘Goodbye, Vitamin’ but it isn’t the novel’s focus

Jessica Au

“Khong is, by her own admission, more interested in the problem of memory than she is in the brutal realities of the disease. But what kind of remembering exactly? Is the act of recording a way to combat the vagaries of the human mind? Or is it simply a better way to live in the present? Is it a way to establish coherence, to place a palatable gloss over all that has happened? Goodbye, Vitamin suggests the latter.”  READ ON


Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.



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