If anyone was in any doubt about whether Australian politicians speak the same language, or swim in the same ocean, it would be worth thinking about labels of "identity politics." Or "political correctness''.
According to Scott Morrison, it is the very devil. The concept of identity politics involves people being defined only "by what pack you are in, or what group you are in". Such thinking, he said, could cause people to lose their humanity. It was corrosive.
"We must never surrender the truth that experience and the value of every human being is unique and personal," he recently told a fundraiser for Israel in Sydney. "You are more than your gender, your sexuality, your race, your ethnicity, your religion, your language group, your age. All of these contribute to who we are, and the incredible diversity of our society, and our place in the world, but of themselves they are not the essence of our humanity. When we reduce ourselves to a collective of attributes, or divide ourselves on this basis, we can lose sight of who we are as individuals -- in all our complexity and wholeness. We then define each other by the boxes we tick or don't tick, rather than our quality, skills or character.
"Throughout history, we've seen what happens when people are defined solely by the group they belong to, or an attribute they have, or an identity they possess. The Jewish community understands that better than any."
For some, identity politics might be defined as tribalism - where base loyalty to a tribe, a religion or some district overwhelms any other form of adherence, whether to charismatic figures, or parties based on ideas (for example of individualism or collectivism) or views about the future. When such an identity is all, one usually finds that beliefs about the right course of action are more or less pre-determined by the base loyalty. Political contests are not really about contesting ideas or principles but about appeals to loyalty and the articulation of what dreadful things may happen if the other tribe wins.
A nightmare from decolonising Africa? No, it could be the United States at the last election, where Donald Trump, in particular set out to create constituencies based rather more on nativistic fears, bombastic nationalism and a good deal of conspiracy theorising about the motives and intentions of the other side. As Reuben Brigety put it in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, the election campaign looked less a contest of ideas or rival visions of America than a battle between tribes, with voters racing to their partisan corners based on identity, not concerns about policy.
"These divisions, moreover, are coupled with a growing belief that US political and social institutions are no longer functioning as needed," he says. "Hardened ethnic and ideological identities affixed to political parties. Political leaders exacerbating sectarian divisions. Public institutions that are distrusted by more and more citizens for their failure to deliver policy solutions. The capital stormed by rioters for the first time in over 200 years. A heavily armed society in which a defeated head of government claims that the election was illegitimate but continues to enjoy the loyalty of nearly half the electorate".
Trump's campaign was based on naked racism - catering to white anxiety that "their" country - implicitly of white settlers - was being taken over by immigrants, blacks and Latinos.
But he was also playing on other fears - the idea that American prosperity had been ruined by the export of jobs and by free trade, that politics had become corrupted by insider lobbyists and people playing the system for personal advantage. Trump's isolationism, economic nationalism and dog whistles on matters such as law and order were also combined by skilful, if unlikely, coalition building with fundamental Christian religions - who came to believe that Trump - however imperfect - was an instrument of God's will. To such toxic mixtures were added the continual spectre of communal violence - from white folk who had had enough - and the adoption of a host of absurd conspiracy theories, inevitably based on notions of threats from Jews, big money and agendas for one-world-government.
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.
Is this what faces Australia? Are Australians dividing by race, ethnic groups, religious groups, or gender ideas? Hardly. The politics of race and skin colour plays differently in Australia, and the nation is not still attempting to cope, as the US is, with the legacy of slavery and continuing resistance to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Our nation is far less violent, and we have no revolutionary tradition of maintaining popular capacity to mount an insurrection if government is not to our liking. Scott Morrison's idea that many obligations now foisted on the state were once family rights and responsibilities is right, up to a point, of the United States (from where he borrowed the lament) but not particularly of Australia which has long outpaced the US on collective social insurance to deal with problems of health, education, unemployment, invalidity and getting old. Likewise with his complaint - quoting an American rabbi, Jonathon Stacks that once "our rights used to be how we are protected from the state. And now it is what we expect from it. What we once expected from family and community, now we contract this out to the state and the market."
Like almost everything in Morrison's religion, the commentary about the nature of society is American, of America, right up to racial grievance and a claim of a blessing selection by and blessing of God.
To say, however, that Australian government and society is not as fractured as in the United States is not to say much. Our happier condition, moreover, is in spite of efforts by politicians, consciously mimicking US trends - including Trumpism - in efforts to polarise Australian society. A good deal of it comes from Morrison himself, as well as from senior members of his party, including Peter Dutton. According to a colleague in the shadow cabinet, Morrison is said to have once suggested that the Liberal Party exploit fear of Muslim refugees. Morrison denies this, but applied special zest to his administration of policies against boat people, including of conscious cruelty to those placed in remote concentration camps. Dutton was playing a race card - if to a spectacular backlash - when he tried to incite fear of crime by young Sudanese refugees in Melbourne.
Critics of the ban on flights from India, even by (Indian) Australian citizens point out that no such sanction was placed on the United States when for more than a year its coronavirus infection and death rates were significantly higher than in India even now. Morrison is not being consciously discriminatory against Indians, but, as with measures involving women, he will readily make decisions he would not dream of making if they mostly affected white males - Australian or otherwise.
Perhaps because of political correctness, or so he will claim (it will almost invariably be he) any politician who makes generalised statements about racial, religious or ethnic groups, or decisions having a differential effect upon them, will find everything closely parsed and analysed for racial or discriminatory motives. With such a question, a politician who proclaims he has examined his conscience and has found himself entirely innocent of any discriminatory thought, has not finally resolved the matter. It can be a bit like saying that "some of my best friends are Aboriginal". Or where it is primarily for women, not the prime minister himself, to decide whether he "gets it" in relation to some silly statement about the views, the needs or the reactions of 52 per cent of the electorate.
No room for the poor at the Pentecostal table
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 handling 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. 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 pocketed government grants.
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 think 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.
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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, 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.
- Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times and a regular columnist. firstname.lastname@example.org