MUNGO MacCALLUM. Will Malcolm Turnbull seize the opportunity?

Mar 14, 2017

One Nation also copped a hiding, largely as a result of the Faustian bargain on preferences struck between Barnett and Pauline Hanson and her sinister adviser, James Ashby.  

Malcolm Turnbull has always been a glass-half-full kind of guy, so he probably woke up on Sunday morning thinking that the result in Western Australia was not all bad.

True, the longest serving and most reliable of the conservative dominoes has fallen – not merely fallen., but plummeted almost to the bottom of the abyss. But no one could say that it was all his fault. His rare and desultory visits to the west may not have helped. But they hardly mattered against the parlous state of the local economy – which the incoming Labor Premier, Mark McGowan, will now have to deal with – and more importantly the massive it’s time factor.

It was obvious that Colin Barnett and his Liberal government were well and truly past their use-by date, a view confirmed by Barnett’s major election promise: if re-elected, he would not serve his full term. Understandably, the electorate thought it might as well cut to the chase and dispatch him on the spot.

But the good news is that although the Libs were clobbered beyond the worst fears of even the most zealous pessimists, One Nation also copped a hiding, largely as a result of the Faustian bargain on preferences struck between Barnett and Pauline Hanson and her sinister adviser, James Ashby. Hanson explained that her supporters were just too ignorant to understand the system, and immediately demanded that the goal posts should be moved to make it simpler for them.

But there was no excuse for Barnett: his desperate deal to secure a few extra seats spectacularly backfired, driving his own moderate waverers away in masses. The strategy turned out to be not only morally indefensible but electorally disastrous. Which is why Turnbull will be relieved: it must be clear to even the thickest right wingers in the party room (and they are pretty darn thick) that playing footsie with One Nation is not really a good idea.

Turnbull has to face the reality that a handful of dysfunctional nutters in a dysfunctional senate will have to be accommodated from time to time, but that does not mean a formal alliance. He can, with good conscience and admirable pragmatism, now demand that Pauline Hanson’s party should be put last on the Liberal Party ticket.

Life will be much harder for the Nationals, in the regions where One Nation can still be an existential threat; Barnaby Joyce will have to decide whether to decide whether to follow the example of his predecessors and fight, or else drift further towards the extreme fringes of Hansonism.

Queensland will be a tougher test than Western Australia and will presumably set the scene for the next federal election. But at least it has been shown that the bubble can be pricked; that appeasement and surrender do not work.

And perhaps last weekend will inspire Turnbull with new-found courage to take on another of the right’s follies: the battle over section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act. But he will have to confront the Murdoch press, which will need another level of courage altogether.

For months – years, decades it might seem – The Australian has been bleating over 18c, an endless tirade by its elite commentators to persuade the reluctant masses that it actually matters. And last week the national daily finally went over the edge – from being merely obsessive, the paper became frankly hysterical, even deranged.

Its latest crazy crusade apparently sprung from the limited imagination of Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, Malcolm Turnbull’s undistinguished Minister for International Development and the Pacific. She produced a thought bubble suggesting that the whole debate could be solved if the act was subjected to a “reasonable person” test – insult and offence would be decided by “the man on the Bondi tram.”

The zealots of The Australian fell on this idea with shrill cries of delight: this would unite the factions in the coalition party rooms, secure free speech, wedge the Labor party and no doubt regain the Ashes and establish world peace. But within 24 hours they were backing away, and inside a week the whole wizard wheeze as history. The factions were not united, the argument about free speech went on unabated, Labor ignored the report and Australia lost the second test in India. The problem was, of course, that Fierravanti-Wells’s proposition was never going to be taken seriously.

The giveaway was her example – the man on the Bondi tram. The last tram clattered its way to Bondi in 1960, some 57 years ago. It was another world. These were the days of White Australia – European immigrants, dagoes and wops, were generally accepted, but Asians (wogs and slopes) were still seen as aliens and of course Aboriginal Australians (coons and boongs} were virtually ignored – it would be seven years before they were included in the national census.

Multiculturalism was not even a word. Racial vilification was commonplace. But since then, we have matured. Minority voices are heard, and sometimes loudly, and they do not take kindly to the casual bigotry the Attorney General, George Brandis, once asserted as a national right.

And this is where the man on the Bondi tram is out of his time and place, and why even the ideal of the reasonable man is not easily defined. Assume an entirely hypothetical case in which an Aboriginal footballer is abused by a fan as “an ape.”

A white, middleclass observer might well insist – entirely reasonably in his view — that it was the footballer’s fault – he was carrying on like a mug lair and had it coming. But an equally reasonable opinion could be argued that the man was simply celebrating his culture and that the offence and insult were both intended and racially based. Deadlock: lawyer’s picnic, endless disputation, nothing resolved.

Unsurprisingly The Australian has now reverted to its default position: smash !8c, smash the RDA, smash the Human Rights Commission, and most particularly smash Gillian Trigg. And what’s more the paper is doing so for the best of all possible motives, as a lasting memorial to its late cartoonist Bill Leak. Unfortunately it would also be seen as a monument to Pauline Hanson, who espouses much the same views. But Malcolm Turnbull it is to be hoped, has finally been freed of them. The weekend has not been entirely wasted.

Mungo MacCallum is a veteran journalist and was a senior member of the Canberra Press Gallery for many years.

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