It wouldn’t be late January if Australians were not being drawn into pointless “national conversations” about Australia Day, its occurrence on the anniversary of British settlement and the beginning of Aboriginal displacement, and what it means to be Australian.
I used to think the anniversary was all the more embarrassing because it seemed that each year the argument began as a sort of unforced error – some divisive statement by a politician pretending to be seeking national unity while actually seeking to divide.
Increasingly, however, I have come to see the interventions as deliberate, as dog whistles, and as having a distinct relationship with similar messages that were tweeted over the past four years by Donald Trump. And for much the same purpose.
People often talked of the tweets as a quaint stream of consciousness emanating from a sleepless Trump at 4am. All too often they were offensive to particular groups of non-Trump voters, they attacked political enemies in highly personal and somewhat threatening tones, or foreshadowed drastic and possibly unconstitutional action, for example against Muslim or Mexican immigrants.
By mid-morning, the White House would be in full row-back, adding in conditional clauses, redefinitions, disavowals and explanations of the president’s exasperation. The official record would suggest something altogether milder than the earlier provocation.
We now know that many of these statements had been focused-grouped and targeted. Rather than being the occasionally ungrammatical ramblings of an insomniac, they were part of an intense social media message run by a highly professional full-time campaign and communications team at core Trump constituencies.
They served an array of purposes. First, to set the agenda, even, or particularly, among the “fake” mainstream media, many of whose journalists would palpitate about the president’s rudeness, unconstitutional instincts, lies and prevarications. That they were hostile or critical didn’t necessarily matter, as long as everyone was talking about it.
Part of Trump’s talent was that he was so outrageous that most of his advertising was free because it was news. The polarisation of America was such that criticism by the mainstream “liberal” media could be denounced as fake news and propaganda.
Second, the messages were interpreted by many Trump followers as evidence of what he would like to do, were he not constrained by nervous nellies in his team, Congress opposition, governors, foreign presidents, or inconvenient facts that even he could not deny. The electorate understood that Trump could often not do what he wanted, but were encouraged to think he would do it if he could.
Many people gave him credit for saying what he thought or saw his apparently undisciplined statements as a sign of a person who had not gone native in the Washington swamp. The smooth politicians who were forever “on message” had proven unreliable, corrupt, and in it more for the lobbyists than for the people. That Trump was erratic made him seem more authentic as a non-politician, and, at least until January 6, more legitimate among those who had enthusiastically drunk the Trump Kool-Aid.
Scott Morrison is not the first Australian politician to have employed distractions on Australia Day. John Howard was a dedicated player of the cultural wars. He was not only conscientious about where he would draw the lines, and generally firm in his core beliefs, but was adept at finding distractions that would drive his opponents mad, or preoccupy them with a minor outrage just as Howard was taking the opportunity to perpetuate far greater enormities. As a politician who saw almost every event in terms of its political potential, he was as focused on positioning the opposition at some disadvantage as he was in preparing his own ambushes.
Tony Abbott was a total culture warrior, but without Howard’s ear, eye or nose for popular opinion. Abbott delighted in outraging the opposition and distracting it from his real purpose, but his pyromaniacal tendencies sometimes meant he burnt his own house down.
In theory, he was under the eagle eye of Peta Credlin, a tough disciplinarian, but sometimes his mischievousness was such that he would exclude her from his clever plots, believing that it was sometimes better “to ask for forgiveness than permission”.
A grenade burst in his hand when he decided to reinstate knighthoods and give one to Prince Phillip. He did not do either to please any particular constituency. He did it primarily to enrage Labor, and perhaps to twit republicans in the government’s ranks. He imagined that his decision would set off the “chattering classes” to the point that they could talk of nothing else. That would have been a welcome relief from a Christmas holiday that had begun with talk of a ramshackle ship of state in need of a good barnacle scrape. That might stop the talk about erratic decision-making, his leaking against ministers, and his secretive style of administration.
But critics in his own party saw knights as a perfect example of just what was wrong with Abbott as prime minister. He didn’t consult or think things through. He had a tin ear for public opinion and even for the opinion of his party.
Scott Morrison is more conservative, and more regular, in the messages he starts planting about Australia Day. His eye for a slogan might be good, but his ear and feel for public opinion is as cack as Abbott’s. He has made it clear from the start that Australia Day — far more than Anzac Day — is at the centre of his idea of what it is to be a patriotic Australian, proud of its culture, its history and its progress.
Though the anniversary date was only adopted as a public holiday in all states and territories in the 1990s, it has for him become deeply vested in tradition and culture in a way that should never be disturbed, least of all by people undermining his sense of basic unity of society, white or black, of ancient, old or modern arrival, or creed, outlook or prejudice.
Even more recent is the notion that its celebration should involve an orgy of ceremonies, festivals, flag-waving, anthems. And grand pronouncements by politicians claiming to own not only the day but what its meaning should be to the ordinary Australian. Often with nudges about who is Australian and who un-Australian.
Current authorities on such matters come from the son of a policeman, a former policeman, and folk belonging to a foreign religious cult closely associated with Trumpism. None is disqualified from having an opinion, but none could be said to be representative of the nation.