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Mark Latham: The New Political Correctness

Mark Latham has given a speech in the House of Representatives decrying “the new political correctness” of the “conservative establishment”.

Speaking in the Grievance Debate, Latham, the Labor member for Werriwa, argued that conservatives only want civility on one side of the political fence.

Hansard transcript of Mark Latham’s speech in the Grievance Debate, August 26, 2002.

LathamMr LATHAM (Werriwa) (5.03 p.m.)—I grieve for the rise of the new political correctness—the hypocritical demand of the conservative establishment in this country for civility in political debate. Imagine the hide of these people—the old money interests, the conservative think tanks, the Tory MPs and their fellow travellers in the commercial media. They have spent the last 20 years hopping into the unemployed, Aboriginal communities, newly arrived migrants and anyone else at the bottom of the social ladder, and now they want civility. This is the height of hypocrisy. They want civility on just one side of the political fence: the sort of civility by which George Pell is automatically declared innocent, while Justice Michael Kirby and other social reformers are slandered in the Senate; the sort of civility whereby big business is allowed to regulate itself, while the rest of society receives a truckload of mutual obligation; the sort of civility where the work ethic of the royal family is beyond question, while the member for Warringah can call young unemployed Australians ‘job snobs’. For the establishment, civility is a way of preserving the social pecking order. It helps the ruling class to avoid public scrutiny and accountability. It tells working people to accept their lot in life, without challenging the power and privilege of the Tory elite.This is a new political correctness, where sameness is embraced and rebellion is written off as rude. The old political correctness, with its unspoken truths and protection of special interests, was bad enough; the new one is twice as bad. It threatens to turn us into a nation of robots, without the irreverence and daring that have always defined our national character. Bit by bit, it is chipping away at our cultural identity, eroding the great Australian traditions of larrikinism and mateship.

For the Tories, civility is important for another reason: it is code for the re-election of the Howard government. The conservative establishment is trying to turn this government into a protected species, beyond criticism and beyond condemnation. No matter how many times the Prime Minister hugs the Americans or tugs his forelock to the royal family, the establishment will defend him and then have the hide to claim that the Howard government is protecting Australia’s national sovereignty. This is the defining characteristic of Tory politics: double standards—led by the member for Warringah. He says that he supports community based politics, yet he has an obsessive hatred of Australia’s largest community based organisation, the trade union movement. He claims that the ALP is no longer a working-class party, yet he had kittens when I used a great working-class term to describe the Prime Minister’s sycophancy toward the United States.

Indeed, the establishment was out in force on that issue. In the Daily Telegraph, Michael Duffy said:

No matter how they try to justify the language they use, Crean and Latham are basically just letting the public see how blokes in the Labor Party and the unions talk all the time.

In the Sydney Morning Herald, Paddy McGuinness called it, ‘a vulgar attack on the Prime Minister’. Piers Akerman called it a, ‘linguistic shortcoming’. Michael Duffy, Paddy McGuinness and Paddington Piers are the same people who have been claiming for a decade that Labor no longer represents the values and language of working-class Australians. They are the same people who complain about the chattering classes and other elites, yet they cannot stand the sound of Australian slang. This simply exposes their cant and hypocrisy.

Civility is the new establishment catchcry. Writing in the Australian newspaper, Janet Albrechtsen said that she found parents barracking for their children at Saturday morning sport, ‘having a go at the ref, yelling abuse’ to be morally offensive. The Minister for Education, Science and Training piously repeated this view in parliament last week. This is typical of the Tories, trying to take the passion and commitment out of life, reducing us to a culture of conformity where we no longer challenge authority figures. They want to take the irreverence and spark out of the Australian character and turn us into a nation of conservative clones. According to their world view, people should be one dimensional, passively accepting their place in society.

On the Labor side of politics, we believe in the richness of human nature—that social stability need not be incompatible with the values of compassion and creativity. Albrechtsen and Dr Nelson fail to understand that the parents who take their children to sport and passionately support them are the good parents, the ones who care, the ones who are most likely to look out for and assist the kids in need. The minister for education may be a bland and passionless character himself — in most respects, un-Australian — but he should not expect other people to lead their lives this way. What sort of society would we be if parents did not feel emotional about their children? People are not one dimensional. Social cohesion, compassion and creativity can coexist.

Albrechtsen is another filthy hypocrite. Who is she to lecture people on civility? She is someone who hates feminism, describing other women as ‘totalitarian’ and ‘self-obsessed’ just because they support paid maternity leave. She is someone who uses terms such as ‘F…wittage’ in her columns. So much for civility.

This is the great fraud of Australian politics. When Pauline Hanson gave her maiden speech in this place, heaping abuse on Asians, Aborigines and anyone else different to her, the Prime Minister said that the era of political censorship had ended. Now the Tories are trying to impose their own form of censorship — a new political correctness that defends the political interests of the Howard government. There is, of course, nothing civil about the government’s electoral strategy. It aims to turn Australians against each other through the politics of division. This is a replica of the culture war in the United States, the type of strategy that inspired Pat Buchanan to write the following memo to Richard Nixon in the late 1960s: ‘We should tear the country in two and then pick up the bigger piece politically.’ A similar piece of thinking is now on the public record in this country. Last month Paul Kelly interviewed the Prime Minister on his 63rd birthday and subsequently wrote:

Howard is going to focus on social policy this term and set out to smash the post-Whitlam political alliance between the working class and the tertiary-educated Left that defines modern Labor. The refugee issue severed this alliance at the 2001 poll and Howard will follow up with new campaigns

In fact, the progressive consensus in Australian politics is holding up remarkably well. Whether people live in the inner city or the outer suburbs, they want greater social investment in education and health. So, too, they want a more sustainable urban environment, with less congestion and pollution. On social policy, even the member for Warringah has conceded there is little public support for winding back Australia’s abortion and divorce laws or reversing the many progressive gains achieved by women in recent decades.

If the Prime Minister is to smash the progressive consensus in this country, he will target questions of race and responsibility. Twelve months ago today, when they came together on the Tampa, they divided the nation. As the Prime Minister demonstrated in the 1980s, racism is always lurking just below the surface of conservative politics. It is a feature of the Tory newspaper columnists: examples include Akerman’s current campaign against Australian Muslims and attempts by the little bigot, Mike Gibson, to slag Asian and negro athletes. I have no doubt that the establishment is gearing up for further campaigns based on race and responsibility. Indeed, the Tory dogs of war are mobilising against multiculturalism. They see this as a spin-off from Tampa and September 11.

When Australia’s leading neoconservative think tank, the Centre for Independent Studies, focuses on an issue, it is a sign that the Howard government will soon follow. Last year the CIS sponsored lectures by Vaclav Klaus in which he attacked the European ideal. Such was the intensity of his ultranationalism, it was like an echo from 1914 or 1939. In the November issue of Quadrant, the CIS Senior Fellow, Wolfgang Kasper, advocated a return to racially based immigration policies under the banner of ‘cultural transaction costs’. Earlier this year the CIS hosted a speaking tour by Daniel Pipes, the American anti-Islamic campaigner who equates Islamic law with Stalinism. The policy direction is clear, but so too is the hypocrisy. Ironically enough, the CIS has joined the civility campaign. It is a terrible shame, however, that this civility does not extend to European internationalists, Muslims or people who are culturally different to Wolfgang Kasper.

The government is also engaged in a double standard. At the last election it said, ‘We decide who comes into this country and under what conditions.’ Yet in other areas of public policy it allows foreigners to call the shots. It allows Australia’s foreign policy to be determined in Washington. When the Americans say jump, the Prime Minister asks: ‘How high?’ On constitutional reform, its stance is determined in London. The member for Warringah was born in Britain and always puts British interests first. Recently he also spoke of the Catholicisation of the Liberal Party. Some people thought this was a reference to the way in which Piers Akerman, Nancy Boy Bolt and Christopher Pearson act as press secretaries for both the Howard government and George Pell. In fact, the member for Warringah outlined a new and more significant trend in Liberal policy making. Catholicisation means that the Liberal Party’s social policies are being determined in Rome. This is the ultimate hypocrisy. The government may decide who comes into the country but, increasingly, its other policies are being decided in Washington, London and Rome.

By contrast, Labor is anti-establishment. We aim to help the outsiders, those disenfranchised by the Tory network of businessmen, think tanks, media lackeys and coalition MPs. As far as I am concerned, if you want civility in Canberra, buy a parrot.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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