The moral and intellectual collapse of Australian conservatism | Richard Cooke | Opinion
The St Kilda rally isn’t an aberration. It is the natural conclusion of the moral and intellectual collapse of Australian conservatism.
Scott Morrison deserves some praise. It’s not often a half-hearted condemnation of neo-Nazis deserves plaudits, but achievement is relative – among Australian conservatives, unequivocal criticism of the far right now puts you well ahead of the pack. That’s about the lowest bar that you can set, but rather than stepping over it, much of the commentariat takes it as an invitation to a limbo contest. The same people always claiming that “everything is racist now” seem to have decided that nothing is, not even Roman salutes.
Miranda Devine thought the anger over a sitting Australian senator appearing alongside neo-Nazis was all a beat-up, and that the real outrage should be reserved for Chloe and Bill Shorten attending Mardi Gras, “a similarly boutique event”, on the tax-payer coin. “Maybe everyone at that rally in St Kilda was a Nazi,” she wrote in the Daily Telegraph, “but chances are that many were just Australians who feel powerless to protect themselves from Melbourne’s violent car-jacking and home invasions, and who are sick of soft, politically correct policing.”
The former IPA man Sinclair Davidson was also on hypocrisy watch, noting that Tony Abbott himself spoke at protests where “participants got over-excited”.
Many of the “over-excited” at St Kilda beach seemed to be sporting prison facial tattoos, or outlaw bikie club insignia, so it was already hard to paint them as a rag-tag Neighbourhood Watch. The real give-away, though, was the speakers. If it was all about home invasions, why choose a convicted, jailed home invader as the key note? (Unless, of course, “our” criminals are different from Them).
Nevertheless, underneath these repugnant excuses is something important: Devine and Davidson are right. The dividing line between the right and far-right in Australia isn’t one of substance, it is one of style. They are not the exception, but the rule.
We are long past the point of asking “how did this happen?”, when an Australian politician pals around with neo-Nazis. The pertinent question instead is “which one?” Senator Fraser Anning’s appearance on the weekend was egregious, but it is hardly isolated, unique, or unexpected.
It is not even the the first time he had addressed a neo-Nazi rally: that was in October 2018 in Brisbane, at an event that billed itself as part of “LibertyFest” conference. Blair Cottrell attended the conference at which Senators James Paterson, Amanda Stoker and the MPs George Christensen and Craig Kelly all spoke. The MPs said they were not aware of the rally.
It’s true that any station built around the charisma of Paul Murray doesn’t have a great talent pool to draw from, but even for them, Cottrell was a bridge too far. But it wasn’t many bridges too far, was it. Because along with the Liberal Party, the Murdoch press, and almost every other major right-wing institution in Australia, Sky helped pour the concrete, set the girders, lay the tarmac and hammer the rivets. It can hardly pretend shock when someone finally cuts the ribbon, as if this was the first manufactured racial panic to get out of control.
Like many things that make the news, the only truly exceptional element from the St Kilda rally was the footage. Otherwise, it was almost routine. George Christensen appeared at a Reclaim Australia rally, and guested on the kind of alt-right podcast which advertises itself with imagery of gas chamber ovens.
The Canadian “identitarian” Lauren Southern got a red carpet treatment from the Murdoch media, but her chosen security detail was drawn from Cottrell’s neo-Nazis gang as well.
Pauline Hanson invited Southern to a rain-checked dinner at Parliament House, then followed up with a motion endorsing an alt-right slogan, which nearly passed the Senate on Coalition votes. I wrote last year about Quadrant magazine’s approving noises for the Holocaust denier Tomislav Sunić, and any time you think these people have reached rock bottom, they drill for the molten core: Dr Sunić was lately a special guest of the NSW Parliament, and addressed members of the Young Liberals at a soiree afterwards.
At what point does guilt by association just become … association? This isn’t some series of repeat lapsed judgements. It is a real ideological affiliation, the end-stage of the racist disease course that has afflicted Australian conservatism for decades.
This is why Scott Morrison can attack the gestures on display on the weekend, but he can’t attack the sentiments: because they’re shared by people on his front bench. “I have repeatedly asked of the crime-plagued Sudanese in particular: who let them in?” asked Andrew Bolt, and that’s the loudest voice on the Australian right.
It’s true that not every local conservative is like this. But the exceptions are marginal, or powerless, or paralysed, or can’t seem to wrest the megaphone away from the bigoted.
The left-wing caricature of the right-wing is that their ideas are just a series of shoddy disguises for sexism, racism and homophobia, that conservatism is the natural home of “homophobic, anti-women, climate-change deniers”, to quote the federal minister for women, Kelly O’Dwyer.
Who can say, here, that this wrong, when so many are determined to prove it? Where else, in the English-speaking world, is still having controversies over Sambo drawings in the 21st century? If recent years are anything to go by, the difference between the right and the far-right in Australia isn’t some ideological gulf. Too often, it’s what people are willing to say after they’ve had two beers.
Richard Cooke is The Monthly’s contributing editor and US correspondent.
This piece was amended on 11 January, 2019 to clarify the circumstances of the LibertyFest conference. Amanda Stoker and James Paterson said they did not know Cottrell was in attendance and would not take part in an event organised by him or which involved him.