It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas. Not in the joy and tinsel and presents kind of way. More in the manufactured-panic-about-a-war-on-Christmas kind of way. Are you familiar with this annual ritual? Some kindergarten or other decides not to hold a nativity play, or to replace its Christmas party with some generic “end-of-year” fare and then it’s on: political correctness has gone mad, and non-Christian minorities – namely Muslims – are holding good, decent, Christmas-loving Australians to ransom. Our culture is being sacrificed as an offering to a minority that doesn’t know its place.
All this came rushing back to me this week as the Abbott government announced it was dropping its proposed amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act. The announcement wasn’t altogether surprising, but the context for it was. Suddenly section 18C would be left alone as a figleaf for Muslims; a kind of transfer fee for their recruitment to “Team Australia”. Consider how that looks if you believe – as presumably the government still does – this section is an egregious attack on free speech. Apparently we must continue to live under its yoke to appease Muslims in the hope that they’ll help us fight terrorism. We’re being held to ransom again. Muslims are the Grinch who stole freedom.
The truth, of course, is that Muslims are largely peripheral to both issues. I don’t think I’ve met a single Muslim – or indeed a member of any other religious minority – who could care less about public Christmassy-ness. And whilst I have met Muslims who were unimpressed by the government’s plans for the Racial Discrimination Act, it seems an unusual red line for them to draw given that Muslims aren’t even protected by it. The law doesn’t regard Muslims as a racial group. So, whatever it is section 18C prevents you from saying about Aborigines or Asians or Jews, you can go right ahead and say it about Muslims. That’s exactly why Victoria introduced laws specifically targeting religious vilification: because the Racial Discrimination Act has nothing to say about it.
So, it’s already started on talkback radio. But with any luck it won’t stick because the Abbott government’s political calculations here are so transparent. The fight against 18C was widely unpopular and politically costly. Thus did the government become horribly entangled, desperately needing a way to extricate itself. For a time it sought to do this by politely ignoring the issue, burying it beneath a process of reviewing public submissions and considering revisions.
But this wasn’t really a solution. Public impressions had been well set, and the government was now associated with the proposal, whether or not it was actively pursuing it. It needed somehow to dissociate itself without being seen simply to have dumped its policy. So now it is dumped as a counter-terrorism strategy. It’s an audacious move that relies on the idea that once any proposal is presented as a security measure, it is considerably more difficult to oppose. In truth, it’s a bit too audacious, even if it looked neat enough on paper.
The real trouble is that it takes the Abbott government to all sorts of places I very much doubt it wants to go. If 18C has been preserved in the interests of “national unity”, is the government admitting that its promise to amend it was divisive? If so, what does it think of the kind of rhetoric that violates 18C? Does that compromise national unity, too? Surely it is worse to engage in racial discrimination yourself than merely to propose legalising it out of a commitment to liberal freedoms. Surely it is more divisive to be a bigot than to stand for someone’s right to bigoted expression. Does that mean that those who breach the Racial Discrimination Act are undermining Team Australia?
To draw a specific connection between 18C and counter-terrorism requires a long bow. But the mere attempt to do so has intriguing philosophical consequences. By presenting divisive politics as a security concern, the government is implicitly accepting the social dimensions of terrorism. It suggests that terrorism gathers around feelings of alienation and social exclusion; that intelligence flows best from communities that feel valued and included rather than surveilled, suspected and interrogated. This, as it happens, accords with the best research we have on the psychology of radicalisation and effective counter-terrorism policing. It accords far less well, however, with the way that governments tend to talk about terrorism.
Is the Abbott government a devotee of this approach? If so, does it intend to reinstate the Countering Violent Extremism program – and in particular its grants for community programs aimed at “Building Community Resilience” – that it let lapse in June? Is it reconsidering the regime of preventative detention and control orders? You know, the ones that were so abused in the Mohammed Haneef case, and which clearly spook many Muslims who fear their arbitrary use? The ones that the government’s own legislative monitor recommended be abolished because they are “not effective, not appropriate and not necessary”?
Or do the social dimensions of terrorism somehow begin and end with the Racial Discrimination Act? Certainly seems an odd place to end. But then, unless you focus on the political manoeuvring, it’s an odder place to start.
Waleed Aly is a Fairfax Media columnist. He hosts Drive on ABC Radio National and is a lecturer in politics at Monash University.