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Bottom drawer

18C was lost to cultural romanticising and self-interest

30 August 2014

9:00 AM

30 August 2014

9:00 AM

The reaction of liberals and conservatives to the Abbott Government dropping its plans to reform Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act was in equal measure angry and dismayed. Culture warriors gearing themselves up to flay any compromise short of a full repeal were caught off guard, and did not hold back.

The reaction in the pages of this periodical was demonstrative. James Allan speculated if Tony Abbott had become the new David Cameron, abandoning foundational beliefs of his supporters to chase opposition voters. Brendan O’Neill rightly pointed out that Attorney-General George Brandis had failed his own free speech test, to “defend the right of people to say things you would devote your political life to opposing.”

Elsewhere, Andrew Bolt pondered how liberal the Liberal Party really was, and John Roskam, needing to rally the IPA’s supporters in the wake of the defeat of the Rudd Government and the repeal of the carbon tax, vowed to continue the fight to repeal 18C.

Blame for the decision to abandon reform of 18C – which forbids insulting, humiliating or intimidating a person or group on the basis of their race or ethnicity – was variously apportioned to a poor sales pitch, internal divisions within the Coalition, or just plain weakness in the face of panicked but vigorous opposition from the legal, academic and media ‘chattering classes.’

None questioned the underlying assumption of the abovementioned reasons – that major reforms are imposed from ‘on high,’ and to hell with popular support.

This line of thinking makes success or failure entirely dependent on the ability of governments to be moderately persuasive while manipulating the news cycle. It’s an insider, culture warrior game about controlling the information voters have to make informed decisions about major reforms.

Evidence of the malign influence of 18C cited by the culture warriors was almost always recounts of, wait for it, culture warrior battles, with the Andrew Bolt case the obvious favourite. Vigorous debates ensued in the pages of this periodical, as well as Quadrant, IPA Review and Policy before spilling over into open warfare in the online battlegrounds of Twitter and various left and right-leaning blogs.

While these publications, as well as newspapers such as the Australian, are mine and many others’ favoured forums for considering, debating and discerning the merits of major policy reforms, it’s not where the major political battles for public opinion are won and lost. As someone who attended Australia’s very first anti carbon tax rally outside former Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s Werribee office, I can almost guarantee I was the only one who’d formed my opinions reading Quadrant, IPA Review and the like.

Stephen Conroy’s media proposals were defeated in the public arena because the broad sweep of voters, not just a praetorian guard of culture warriors, understood what it would mean to what you read in newspapers, listened to on talkback radio or watched on television.

The changes to 18C on the other hand, were only argued for in broad, abstract terms. Yes, everyone understood that it meant court for Bolt, but is it really going to stop someone saying what he really wanted over a beer at the North Ryde RSL, over the noise of music, football and pokies?

The tribalisation of Australian society into hipsters, bogans and a gaggle of other social and ethnic groups means that one is not likely to offend or insult because the people you speak to are likely to hold similar views. Only those willing to venture out and challenge prevailing norms need protection from 18C.

Fairly or unfairly, their charge for repeal looked an exercise in self-interest. If they’d put themselves in the shoes of the punters more often and resisted romanticising the culture wars, they might have offered greater support to a Government that was willing to stick its neck out and consider something that was never even on the Howard agenda.

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Jeremy Ian Barth is a Melbourne-based writer/communications consultant.

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