What is supposed to happen in a culture war is that conservatives use a controversial issue to drive a ‘wedge’ through the left, forcing a split between factions. In Australia, this usually means pitting Catholic unionists against their socially liberal colleagues in the Labor party. Favourite topics include abortion, gay marriage and refugees.
But the Abbott government’s latest attempt at wedge politics has backfired, instead causing disquiet within Coalition ranks.
The clearest example of this is the debate about racism started by Attorney General George Brandis’ quest to repeal section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act. Senator Brandis’ poorly considered remark that ‘people do have a right to be bigots’ not only induced the expected flurry of outrage from the left, but appears to have gotten some Liberals offside, too.
The most visible Liberal condemnation came from NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell, who told the media that ‘bigotry should never be sanctioned, whether intentionally or unintentionally. […]There’s no place for inciting hatred within our Australia society.’
It’s not unusual for a state premier to contradict an unpopular federal government on its own team to make sure voters know the difference between the premier and the PM, but it’s still a bad look – especially so early in the life of the Abbott government.
Victorian Liberal Multicultural Affairs Minister Matthew Guy also rebuked the repeal draft – though in less forthright terms – stating he was ‘concerned there may be some harmful and unintended impacts upon our community should the exposure draft as it stands be enacted.’
But perhaps most concerning for Senator Brandis is the fact that three members of Federal cabinet saw fit to feed Fairfax anonymous comments lampooning his original draft. One minister commented, with a sprinkling of metaphorical flair, that ‘George has really drunk the right-wing Kool-Aid.’ Others said the original draft had been ‘terrible’ and ‘much worse’ than the version eventually released – hardly a resounding reflection on even the final, cabinet-approved product.
Then there was Abbott’s bizarre decision to revive the ‘knights and dames’ honours system, apparently without consulting cabinet. Some speculated that this was aimed at wedging Bill Shorten by conferring the honour upon his mother-in-law, Quentin Bryce, but this was ignored as the Opposition responded with straight-up mockery of the government.
Abbott has done well over the past couple of years at shaking off his stuffy, 1950s ‘Anglosphere’ reputation, so it seems strange that he would choose to embrace such a relic of the imperial past. Many will see this as evidence the ‘old’ Abbott never really went away, but was merely locked in the attic for the election campaign.
Renowned republican and alternative Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull couldn’t help but employ a touch of gentle mockery in his attempts to support his leader’s policy, joking that there were many ‘distinguished republics’, including Peru and Guatemala, which maintain honours systems.
Even former PM John Howard thought the move was ‘somewhat anachronistic.’ If a monarchist and Liberal hero like John Winston reckons you’re out of date, chances are a fair chunk of Australia will agree.
Instead of wedging the Opposition, Abbott and Brandis’ recent efforts have led to ridicule in the media and discomfort among their colleagues. They’d better come up with a better strategy if they want to be taken seriously as twenty-first century conservatives rather than out-of-touch bumblers clinging to the past.
David Donaldson is a Master of International Relations graduate who lives in Melbourne. He tweets @davidadonaldson.