By Michael Bird
PHOTO: Cory Bernardi is reportedly set to attend a dinner to raise funds for an anti-Islam group. (ABC News: Nick Haggarty)
We are at risk in Australia of creating a political climate where extremists like Holland’s anti-immigration activist Geert Wilders or Greece’s communist leader Dimitris Koutsoumpas are electable, writes Mike Bird. We must rise to defend our pluralism.
Burning anger has, lamentably, become the dominating feature of the Australian political climate.
Walking through Melbourne’s Brunswick recently, I noticed Sex Party signs that say “Tax the Church” — trying to create the impression that all churches are contemptible multi-million dollar mega-complexes built on the moral bankruptcy of a televangelist.
Meanwhile, Liberal MPs Cory Bernardi and George Christensen are reportedly set to attend a dinner to raise funds for an anti-Islam and anti-immigration group called the Q-Society, whose views can be easily characterised as xenophobic.
How did this happen? How did we come to the point where disdain for others was the new normal in Australian politics?
The rancorous debates over same-sex marriage, immigration, refugees, and climate change, combined with people’s fatigue with the two-party system, has created the perfect storm for some political monster to emerge from the abyss of communal fragmentation and political opportunism.
Or if not a monster, someone from the extreme left or right, far from the mainstream.
Who’s laughing now?
I recoil at the idea of an anti-immigration party in the Senate just as much as I fear the possibility of the Sex Party ever having the balance of power in the Senate.
I shudder when I think of the prospect of the Greens’ Lee Rhiannon or Pauline Hanson as president of the Senate, holding ministerial office, or even — heaven forbid — the office of prime minister.
Don’t laugh. We all laughed when Trump announced his entrance into the presidential race, we all laughed when he won the GOP nomination, we all laughed at him in the debates against Hillary Clinton. But who’s laughing now? I’m not.
The danger is that political parties, whether mainstream or minor, can modulate extremist views, cultivate ethno-nationalism, and move to silence dissent.
From the radical left, there is the danger of civic totalitarianism, where the state invests itself with plenipotentiary powers and seeks a convergence of beliefs between the state and its citizenry by coercing people to adopt the values of the ruling class.
That could include forcing people to change their religious and social beliefs if they do not conform to the status quo.
From the extreme right, there is the danger of conservative populism, with policies rooted in the infallibility of corporate capitalism combined with a boganesque xenophobia.
This most likely means less regulation of commerce and punitive measures against immigrants.
Extremism must not gain a foothold
If we are to avoid manufacturing the type of political atmosphere where people like Holland’s anti-immigration activist Geert Wilders and Greece’s communist leader Dimitris Koutsoumpas are electable in Australia, then things have to change.
I’m not talking about telling politicians to “calm the farm” or telling journalists to try using some manners on social media. We need to change the political culture in Australia so that extremism of any variety does not have an opportunity to gain a foothold.
Whatever our differences, progressive or conservative, whether urban or rural, gay or God-fearing, immigrant or fifth generation ocker, we are stronger together than we are apart.
The Aussie public should not throw away their status as the best multi-cultural nation in the world just to land a few cheap shots on people and parties that occasionally cheese them off. We are so much better than that.
This is why I think we need a commissioner for political pluralism.
This commissioner would have as their remit the task of bringing Australians together to address issues that politically, socially and religiously divide us, and to promote understanding, tolerance, and unity. I imagine such a commissioner would have several assignments.
First, to speak at schools, to the media, political parties, and community groups about “confident pluralism”.
This is a socio-political philosophy developed by American legal philosopher John Inazu which seeks to promote peace in the face of social fissures and political fault lines. According to Inazu:
Confident pluralism argues that we can and must live together peaceably in spite of deep and sometimes irresolvable differences over politics, religion, sexuality, and other important matters. We can do so in two important ways — by insisting on constitutional commitments that honour and protect difference and by embodying tolerance, humility, and patience in our speech, our collective action, and our relationships across difference.
Second, the commissioner would continue the work of Tim Wilson (former human rights commissioner and now Liberal Member for Goldstein) in pursuing a settlement between religious communities and LGBTI advocacy groups that respects both religious liberty and equality for sexual minorities.
Wilson’s Religious Freedom Roundtable was a work of absolute brilliance; this was a wise and timely project that needs more attention.
Third, I would like to propose what I call the “Purple Ideas Prize”, an essay competition that pairs conservative (blue) and progressive (red) thinkers to work together and come up with a bi-partisan proposal (purple) on a topic like “how to make Medicare free for the public and affordable for government”.
Such a competition would hopefully show that people on the left and right can exchange ideas, work together, and reach a middle ground.
Fourth, the commissioner could take on a figurative referee role by issuing yellow, orange, and red cards to politicians, journalists and activists, who use needless and harmful rhetoric in their political discourse.
The cards would draw attention to distasteful and inappropriate remarks and direct attention to repeat offenders.
‘Mateship is better than hateship’
Generally speaking, we Aussies do pluralism well and we must rise to defend it.
We need a confident pluralism, even though it’s messy, conflictual, and means living with people whose views we often find frustrating or appalling, because mateship is better than hateship.
It would be nice to have a politically neutral commissioner committed to bringing out the best in Australians, reminding us that floods and cancer kill progressives and conservatives alike, and that the things that divide us are not as powerful as the things that unite us.
We need each other to survive in this gorgeously deadly sunburnt country.
After all, in the words of St Paul, we do our best when, “we pursue the things that make for peace and mutual encouragement” (Romans 14:19).
Reverend Dr Michael Bird is an Anglican priest and a lecturer in theology at Ridley College.
Courtesy ABC News