Norman Arbjorensen asks if Liberals have employed US Republican-style ‘strategic racism’ to win elections?
Norman writes: “The hardline stance by the Abbott government on asylum seekers – and let’s call it for what it is: a blatant appeal to racial prejudice thinly disguised as “border protection” – has served the Liberal Party well. But rather than racism driving the policy, as has been suggested, there might well be other agendas at play.
Consider the political advantages that the Liberals have won from the propagation and exploitation of fear. The 2013 election campaign is still fresh in memory with Tony Abbott’s repeated mantra of “stop the boats”, and the explicit linking of asylum seekers and their flimsy vessels with border protection and national security. We have now seen the deployment of the armed forces to turn them back.
To take his military analogy to the point of absurdity, in an interview in January Abbott likened the situation to a war – that is, a heavily armed, First-World nation mobilised against a sporadic and unorganised invasion of leaky boats. He declined to give details about the government’s strategies because that would be “giving out information that is of use to the enemy”.
That is highly charged rhetoric and a look at recent political history suggests a pattern that is more than just crass political opportunism.
The “stop the boats” mantra was trumpeted loudly in the 2013 campaign, but what did we hear about savage cuts to welfare, steep rises in student fees, the abolition of the discrimination commissioner’s job, the handing over of the Human Rights Commission to an avowed opponent of its existence, the free rein given to the Business Council of Australia via the Commission of Audit, or to the far-right Institute of Public Affairs in writing policy and setting the agenda? Such outcomes have little discernible benefit to anyone but the big corporates and the very rich, and contain distinct downsides for most who responded to the “stop the boats” siren song.
Thirty years ago, Ronald Reagan pitched a shameless appeal to the “moral majority” with his folksy talk about the sanctity of the family and traditional values, not for their own sake but simply because supply-side economics, which we now know as neoliberalism, was as little understood as it was unpalatable to the average voter. Strategic racism is simply a reprise of that monumentally successful exercise.
After the 2004 election, the Liberal Party sought to play down the issue as a deliberate focus of its campaign, despite a poll showing 10 per cent of respondents nominated it as their reason to vote Liberal. I attended an industry briefing in the election’s aftermath in which a top Liberal Party campaign strategist was asked why the Labor Party kept losing elections (by then, four in a row). “It’s simple,” he said. “A message of fear beats a message of hope every time.”
The intake of breath in that auditorium was palpable.”
For many close watchers of conservative politics in Australia I have to admit there’s not much new to learn here. Many journalists have written similar words over recent years. Here’s a good example in the Guardian by David Marr: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/oct/22/iillegals-refugees-immigration-australia