To the core coalition supporters, any call for higher taxes for richer people is invariably “exciting the politics of envy.” Any undue stress on the sufferings or disadvantage of the poor involves identity politics. Any sustained attack on established ideas — including racist, sexist or ageist ones — often involves “political correctness gone mad”. Radical right provocateurs, especially those who claim for themselves victimhood status after being attacked for their ideas, say they are being “deplatformed”. None of these labels has much meaning as such, other than as abuse. Those who scream about it most are themselves most likely to be doling out similar abuse, often, because of their power and influence, to great effect.
This doesn’t mean that the tactics or ideas of those who advocate for causes unpopular with the radical right — the environment, or violence against women — for example — ought to be immune from criticism. They should be, but by honest debate.
Scott Morrison’s claim that Australian politics have become corrosive because of identity politics and tribalism misses the point. All too often the divisive and polarising events in Australian politics are not efforts of outsiders to get themselves power or a voice, but efforts of the establishment in trying to deny them just such a seat inside the councils of state. Morrison is not complaining of the identity politics of fundamentalist protestant churches, or rent-seeking farmers, football clubs, television stations or pharmacists. They are parts of a settled status quo with which he is so comfortable that he is unsettled whenever anyone wants to put their place, their rights or their presumptions under any sort of scrutiny.
Morrison leads a government with no great respect for established institutions of society, and no reputation for respect for the conventions. Look, for example, at its corruption of quasi-judicial appointments, the independence of police and the public service, the demonisation of asylum seekers, and the way public money is being doled out to cronies by whim and discretion, without regard for the law. But those who are trying to speak up for people who have always been outsiders in Morrison’s comfortable little status quo are, apparently, the demons. The contrast might be seen best from Morrison’s personal zeal to harass and coerce people on welfare, and to ensure that no one gets a penny more than that to which they are entitled, while at the same time being relaxed and dismissive of concern at multimillionaires who have put personalised government grants straight into their trouser pockets.
Playing identity politics is made to sound awful — even “un-Australian” and, implicitly, something that we do not want. Yet politicians of the modern generation — led by Morrison himself — are continually seeking to divide Australians — to sort them into in-groups and out-groups, goodies and baddies, people to be included when we thing of decent people like ourselves, and people right-thinking people should avoid. Morrison’s in-crowd, for example, involves “quiet Australians” who are churchgoers and who belong to “traditional” families, which by his way of thinking involves formal heterosexual marriage, with the male partner determined by God to be the head of the family.
He does not rain anathemas on Jews, or Muslims, or Buddhists, openly denounce same-sex relationships or single parenthood, but you can be sure by his very phraseology that they are not among the people he has in mind when he thinks of, or refers to “normal”, ordinary, or “quiet” Australians. His people are provident, hard-working, law-abiding, and intensely patriotic, somewhat anti-intellectual and non-cosmopolitan, decent citizens who participate in community organisations. They are farmers and tradesmen, teachers perhaps, nurses, even cops, but not otherwise public servants — for many of the insiders a term of abuse. Morrison’s quiet Australians have traditional values, are fairly conservative in general attitudes, and have assimilated a sense of “Australianness” that involves concepts such as egalitarianism, mateship, self-reliance and a distaste for bullshit.
Morrison may not mean to exclude Lebanese, Chinese, Indians or Afghans, or even Aborigines, from his mental concept of nationality. But anyone listening to him talk knows that he sometimes has to remind himself that many Australians are not of Anglo-Saxon stock. Nor, for that matter, male. Those he is patronising can always tell.
The sorts of concerns Morrison expresses were not invented by him. If one reads The Australian, or reports from the Institute of Public Affairs, Australian culture, history, society and politics are suffused with the worst type of identity politics, stifling political correctness, and, these days, attempts by latte-sippers in wine bars attempting to deny platforms to, or freedom of expression, to those with ideas — particularly right-of-centre-ones — with whom they do not agree. We are moving, they all agree, in a new dark ages of tribalism, in which once agreed conventions and institutions are under attack, with some folk openly seeking to undermine the very foundations of civil society.
To these, among those engaged in identity politics are groups seeking to define themselves by some secondary characteristics — such as their sexuality – then claiming victim status for themselves based on the idea that society has long been discriminating against them. What some — not Morrison — describe as the “victimhood industry” involves more and more salami-slicing of potential types, or sets, of self-described disadvantage, groups claiming government and societal neglect, discrimination, or outsiderness needing to be brought into the fold, often making claims for compensation for past disadvantage, or a need for positive programs to allow them to compete fairly with the sort of quiet Australians that Morrison says he represents.
Another way of describing many of those said, by this sort of definition of identity politics, is that most of the players are those who operate at a marked disadvantage, because of the characteristics they claim, in ordinary Australian society. Lesbians, gays and transgender people, and single mothers are no less Australians than the most decent son of an Australian policeman, but are generally, if not universally, materially worse off, and face all sorts of active and passive discrimination within the community and even from the state, whether in the housing market or the employment market. They often have worse health profiles, with less capacity to afford to access assistance. In many cases, people with their characteristics — for example homosexuality — have faced the criminal law, blackmail, harassment (particularly by police) and physical and sexual abuse. Legal discrimination may have ended, but the scars of past oppression are often compounded by the hatreds and petty discriminations of some people within the ranks of quiet Australian as well as among the gangs of young males who have inherited but exaggerated the prejudice and violence of their quiet ancestors.
Among some groups, such as indigenous Australians, evidence of obvious disadvantage in areas such as health, education, employment, and housing is obvious. Only somewhat less obvious is the toll of mental illness, alcohol and drug abuse, disability, family and community dysfunction (often much aggravated by bureaucratic mismanagement and self-defeating welfare systems), and continuing patterns of child removal, as well as incarceration rates. Less noticeable are the lasting scars of actively genocidal policies, dispersal, concentration, “stolen children” policies and mass incarceration. A good deal of the crime this generates — including crime against their own — can be thought of as a form of post-traumatic stress.
There was a time when the poor, the halt and the lame, and all of the others on whose plight Jesus Christ put all of his emphasis, could feel they had some representation, and that their interests were given high priority. How strange that a government dominated by members of a small religious sector cannot be seen as the champions of the least of Christ’s brethren.