Ideas@TheCentre brings you ammunition for conversations around the table. 3 short articles from CIS researchers emailed every Friday on the issues of the week.
The election of President Trump, the Leave victory at the UK Brexit referendum, the revival of One Nation here in Australia … the political earthquakes of 2016 have exposed the gap between the political class and ordinary voters.
The rejection of the leadership of the political establishment has been driven in large part by resentment of political correctness.
Significant numbers of voters have grown tired of political elites shutting down legitimate public debates by branding as ‘racists’ all who dare to raise subjects such as immigration levels, Muslim integration, and Aboriginal affairs.
This is the context in which to assess the political prospects, and potential implications, of the Turnbull Government’s belated plan to reform the operation of the Racial Discrimination Act.
In response, the usual suspects from the multicultural industry have played the race card and claimed that the proposed softening of Section 18C will unleash ‘hate speech’ against ethnic minorities.
This assessment is based on a dim view of Australia as an inherently racist country. This is an absurd but nevertheless widely held opinion in political, media, and academic circles, despite modern Australia’s remarkable track record as a harmonious multi-racial nation that has successfully welcomed and blended millions of people from around the world.
Opponents of amending the RDA are trying to inflame racial divisions in order to convince the Coalition that it will pay an electoral price for attempting to restore freedom of expression. The same motives also appear to be behind the Labor Party’s rejection of any changes to Section 18C.
But this cynical calculus, and the whole notion that supporting changes to the RDA will cost votes, seems to completely ignore the significance of recent political events.
Surely — given all that has happened in the past 12 months — now is not the right time for politicians to be telling ordinary voters they are too racist to be trusted with free speech?
Or maybe when it comes to some members of the political class, Talleyrand’s famous line about “learning nothing and forgetting nothing” is all too accurate.
The Scottish Nationalist Party, holder of 54 of 59 Scottish seats in the UK House of Commons and 63 seats in the Scottish Parliament, is aggrieved at the Brexit result.
More specifically, they believe that the vote of the Scottish people was strongly in favour of remaining in the European Union and that therefore the democratic will of the Scots was being frustrated by a ‘foreign’ body in Westminster.
Ironically, the British know this exact feeling — the perception that the European parliament had sovereignty over the wishes of UK citizens was one of the key triggers for Brexit in the first place.
However none of this shared sentiment is likely to result in a second vote on Scottish independence before Brexit is complete.
First, whatever the outcome of a vote in the Scottish parliament on a second referendum, the UK parliament must also pass a law to hold the referendum (as they did for the 2014 referendum where Scotland voted to remain in the UK).
There is little prospect of such a vote passing. The Tories have an absolute majority of seats and Prime Minister May is opposed to holding any referendum before Brexit. Indeed, given the instability of Brexit combined with the uncertainty of such a referendum, it would be hard to see any future UK Prime Minister agreeing to the request.
Second, the Scottish budget is massively in deficit as a result of a fall in oil revenues. It is not clear that the EU would accept an independent Scotland as a member without substantial fiscal consolidation, something that would be very difficult at the best of times let alone when Scotland was seeking to leave the UK and the UK was seeking to leave Brexit.
This does not rule out the possibility of Scotland going it alone and simply declaring itself an independent country. However that would be an even more revolutionary step than Brexit.
Those worried that Trumpism could take root in Australia now have another reason for concern: last Saturday, Malcolm Turnbull took to Twitter to protest mainstream media coverage of his government and to insult his opponents. Is Turnbull taking a lesson from the US chief of state?
The American President has earned justified scorn — as well as grudging admiration — for the way he has wielded the social media platform. His familiar cartoonish tics, such as all caps FAKE NEWS and forests of exclamation points colour his boasts and preenings and sulks.
Through Twitter, Trump has decimated the protocols of diplomacy, crudely dismissing the “dumb [refugee] deal” with Australia and chastising North Korea, China, and Germany, just as he has shredded the norms of civility with his “Lyin’ Hillary” and “crazy and very dumb” (TV host) Mika Brzezinski.
But while critics cringe at his antics, Trump has accomplished what he wants: millions of followers — 26 million at last count –and 24/7 social media chatter about his favourite topic: himself. Equally important, he has used Twitter to counter the “disgraceful” mainstream media, and to further advertise the uncensored, boorish personality that so appealed to his supporters.
On Saturday, Turnbull seemed to follow Trump’s lead. Instead of his usual bland tweets announcing government reports and personal appearances, he attacked a media report claiming the government was planning to cut pensioners’ benefits. Moments later, he went after his opposition, tweeting “you can always rely on Bill Shorten to lie.”
Still, Turnbull does not appear to have the manic egotism or shameless bravado that has given the world Trump’s twitter feed. Those qualities are necessary qualities for a populist leader. The deficit doesn’t promise a vigorous twitter life; the PM has ‘only’ 787,000 followers — and the modest number of retweets and likes for his entries suggest most of them are blasé about what he has to say.
No matter. A lack of twitter success would probably be good for Australian politics, not to mention Turnbull’s own soul.
Kay Hymowitz is William E. Simon Fellow at New York’s Manhattan Institute and the 2017 Max Hartwell Scholar-in-Residence at the Centre for Independent Studies.
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