A lamentable by-product of the media in the digital age is its frequent lack of good manners. Ridiculing opponents rather than answering their arguments increasingly characterises what passes for public debate. A few years ago I appeared on ABC’s rigorously impartial Q&A with Malcolm Turnbull. What shocked me afterwards were not the many text messages from Liberal MPs, thanking me for representing the Coalition’s interests on the panel that evening. It was a series of emails — many of them in ALL CAPS — that were filled with venomous hatred. The same show now presents a barrage of Twitter messages that are more distracting than informative and more offensive than enlightening. In the Gillard era, many press gallery colleagues told me that my lot had a monopoly on bigotry and sanctimony. In the Abbott era, I find it interesting how readily some of those who espouse the cause of human rights will resort to ad hominem attacks when faced with views they find uncongenial.
Paul Comrie-Thomson, whom I published in both the Australian and The Spectator Australia, rose above such invective in his writings and on his radio show, which is why so many who knew him have been mourning his death at the age of 66. As a culture warrior, Paul was principled but never nasty (at least when he wasn’t drunk.) As a long-time contributor to Rolling Stone, he knew there was much more to life than who won the daily news cycle, and as a presenter of Radio National’s Counterpoint from 2006 to 2012 he combined goodwill with disdain for political correctness. That made him suspect in the eyes of some of his ABC colleagues (as he once noted in a Spectator diary), but helped broaden the appeal of RN. Above all else, he took ideas seriously, publishing thought-provoking articles on the folly of the compassion industry. Farewell old mate.
Not many political issues stir the emotions in the way that boat people do. But on one thing most right-thinking people agree: migrants from the four corners of the world tell a great national success story. Yet strong public support for high levels of legal immigration is conditional on tough border protection. My friend John Hirst has been making that point eloquently since the Tampa standoff in 2001, and he has had a profound influence on me. On 6 May Philip Ruddock and I are part of Sydney’s IQ2 Oxford Union-style debate to defend the motion that history will vindicate our treatment of the boat people. If you’ve never attended one of these events, presented by St James Ethics Centre and broadcast by the BBC to an estimated 70 million people, drop everything and go. It’s a lively and entertaining evening when protagonists debate, not demonise, those with whom they differ.
In a few weeks Nick Minchin becomes Australia’s consul general in New York. To celebrate his appointment, I invited him to join Michael Baume, one of his predecessors in the Big Apple, and me for lunch at Sydney’s CBD. Baume is a long-time Howard loyalist whereas Minchin fell out with the former PM towards the end of their long tenure in government. What unites us is a passionate belief that Liberals remain the custodians of the centre-right tradition in Australian politics. Conservatives owe a debt of gratitude to Minchin, who has appropriately ended his 36-year party membership before he pursues a diplomatic career. At a time when the party is on the highest mountain, we all too often forget that the Libs were in the deepest valley in late 2007 when the Australian people retired Howard. For the next two years the party under the hapless Nelson and hopeless Turnbull suffered the kind of disastrous polls that dogged Labor under Gillard. This prompted commentators to pen a spate of triumphalist obituaries for conservatism. Even Liberals such as Christopher Pyne predicted that the road to salvation was paved with ‘progressive’ intentions (read: support for unilateral carbon pricing and lax border controls). Thanks to Minchin’s opposition to the Turnbull-Labor emissions trading scheme in late 2009, the party turned to Abbott and the rest is history.
Laurie Oakes denounced Minchin as an ‘alien’ for questioning Rudd’s ‘great moral challenge’. But one cannot help feeling we are losing something all too rare in public life: a bloke who consistently puts loyalty before ambition, principle before expediency and the nation before party. In these qualities, we could use a few more like Nick Minchin.
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