The depths of hypocrisy

The defining characteristics of Australia’s right wing cultural warriors – whether in the Liberal Party, the Murdoch media or the usual think tank suspects – are their breathtaking hypocrisy and the very real threat they pose to the liberal values so many have fought to inculcate in society.

Freedom of speech is supposedly banned from universities by snowflake students and radical academics; religious folk aren’t allowed to speak up about their beliefs; the ABC promotes left wing ideology while banning contrary voices; cartoonists can’t draw images about race; and, ‘ordinary’ Australians are drowned out by inner urban Green voters.

And the embattled warriors are driven to becoming so angry and vitriolic about their constant victimisation as their views are thoroughly censored that they are left quarantined in the ghettos of national and mass circulation tabloid newspapers, think tank seminars, radio talkback, TV shows, the Cabinet and backbenches of Liberal-National party governments and op eds in the Australian Financial Review.

Their peaceful patriotic intent is constantly misunderstood as when Channel 7 Sunrise commentator Prue McSween reasonably suggested that “if she saw the commentator Yassmin Abdel-Magied on the street she would be inclined to run her over.”

How this whole culture war is prosecuted, who’s involved, how has it developed and what it means are described vividly, concisely and intelligently in Greg Barns’ book Rise of the Right The War on Australia’s Liberal Values.

In under 150 well-written pages Barns looks at the extent in which the decline of liberal values in Australia is different from other countries; the extent to which it borrows themes and memes from elsewhere; the impact of Pauline Hanson, John Howard, Tampa and 9/11; and, how the tools of populism are used to frame ideas of ‘ordinary’ Australians as opposed to elites and ‘Others’ who threaten our way of life.

There is a chapter length case study of Peter Dutton and his departmental head, Mike Pezzullo, and how they personify the rise of the right and a concluding chapter on the real dangers of the populist right.

Barns’ conclusion is damning: “Perhaps the most important reason to oppose vigorously the rise of the populist right is that it represents a grab for power and an exercise in paternalism. The populist-right tactics of division, conflict and manufactured outrage are designed to cower the political class or at least those it has not captured or who are not its representatives already. Far from wanting an accommodation of views, the populist right wants to order (around those) who do not meet its criteria or its loyalty and adherence to conservative views.”

“The populist right is not interested in dialogue about human rights, discrimination laws and what it calls identity politics. All of these are impediments to the carte blanche it wants to use to exercise freedom of its speech and ideas,” he says.

As befits a lawyer Barns gives some attention to the rule of law with succinct and apposite references to Tom Bingham’s important book, The Rule of Law. In particular he uses it to give context to the attacks on the Victorian Supreme Court (about an ongoing case no less) by three Cabinet Ministers – Alan Tudge, Michael Sukkar and Greg Hunt – whose accusations that the judges were soft on terrorism and practising ‘ideological experiments’ was published in The Australian.

Now even a cadet journalist is wise to the dangers of contempt of court but for Cabinet Ministers to launch such an attack would once have been beyond belief. The Daily Mail Enemies of the People headline about the UK High Court’s decision on Brexit and Article 50 was at least after a decision had been handed down although that attracted widespread condemnation unlike the supportive murmurs the trio heard.

The Cabinet trio must also be monumentally dumb because initially they were only prepared to offer a half-hearted apology claiming they were just fulfilling their Ministerial responsibilities. This understandably infuriated the Court. The Australian, no doubt prompted by their lawyers, immediately distanced themselves from the mess as best as they could.

Finally, after a week and presumably a stern talking to by lawyers pointing out that the Ministers could end up in pokey – thereby demolishing the government’s majority and ending their careers – they finally unreservedly apologised.

Robert Menzies would have been rotating rapidly in his grave at it all.

Barns, discussing the Children Overboard situation and how it was used by the Howard Government, sums up the end product of this cultural war by quoting Hannah Arendt’s 1961 Between Past and Future: “The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth and truth will be defamed as a lie, but the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world – and the category of truth versus falsehood is among the mental means to this end – is being destroyed.”

But then that it is probably the culture warriors’ objective.