The Watermelon Poll yesterday was difficult to devise because of need for shorthand questions. It seems to me that the most toxic legacy of all, from which many of the others flow, was a scarcely noticed (only in the sense of a sort of political curiosity) very early remark by Howard that he wanted to see the end of “political correctness” by which he meant of course the end of any political discourse which didn’t arise from the far Right, and from the most toxic depths of some of the nutters who have been swimming below the surface for most of Australian history.
From that one simple remark, which he then set about implementing with a lot of help from his friends, rather in the way that a single pebble gathering speed down a mountain can start an avalanche, came much of the subsequent change of Australia from a fairly liberal social democracy to one in which shock jocks, the Murdoch press, and splinter groups like One Nation can run riot.
Do you know about blowfly strike in sheep? Horrible business. Wouldn’t be so bad if it involved, say, a single attack by a fly laying some eggs on a sheep which then hatched, had a munch, went about their way. Other parasites work like this, doing their thing, taking a bit, live and let live. Blowfly maggots don’t work like this. Instead the action of the first hatching helps to change the sheep wool to make it more palatable and more attractive to a new lot of maggots, so more adult females are attracted to the smell and lay eggs on same spot, which then in turn greatly increases the smell of rotting wool and skin and eventually blood, and more and more are laid in a seething mass growing almost exponentially until the sheep is killed and the carcase is consumed.
So my first metaphor was wrong, and we should think of John Howard’s “anti pc speech” as being the first blowfly egg laid on to the sheep’s back carrying Australia. That first maggot began creating the conditions for more maggots. Each new speech from a neoconservative politician, each new column or radio rant from a shock jock, against refugees, greenies, unions, women, gays, teachers, progressives, public servants, artists, workers, teenagers, foreigners, Aborigines, scientists, the poor (against anything, in fact, that Howard was not) lowered the bar, so that the next attack, to make an impression, had to be even more vicious. And all of it creating a climate of opinion in which the Howard government could introduce legislation disadvantaging those groups and have it accepted by the public.
What Howard had done, in fact, was to introduce the “freedom of speech” component of America’s First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”) into Australia by stealth. This constitutional provision, perhaps the most damaging and stupid of any constitution of any country purporting to be civilised, has been seized upon by the Right in America in the same way as they have now done in Australia. To turn political discourse into a toxic stew where hatred against many groups in society has been used as a weapon to gain and retain power, and in turn has been used by the giant corporations supporting such groups for their own purposes.
To introduce this process into Australia went against all of Howard’s professed beliefs in Australian values like “mateship” and a “fair go”, although, to be fair, he never seemed to actually understand what they meant. Before 1996, while Australian political discourse was famously rough and ready and boots and all, it still retained those ideals. Two opposing politicians (or ordinary members of the public) could abuse each other extensively during a debate on some topic, but, afterwards, the two “old bastards” could go off and have a beer together. The ideas and emotions were real, but people could respect difference, respect each other’s point of view, respect each other as human beings. No longer.
The only advantage we retained over America (as news items today about the slow recovery of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords reminds us), and this is enormously to John Howard’s credit, is that he decoupled the toxicity of the American First Amendment from the madness of its Second. Hard to imagine anything less democratic than a country in which the man with the gun gets to make the rules; where a supposedly serious mainstream candidate can produce a map with gun sights marking the offices of Democrats who had merely agreed to try to give Americans slightly better health care (impossible to write such a sentence without a shudder) and then act surprised when someone with a gun tried to kill one of those Democrats and nearly succeeded, killing others in process. Screaming hate at, and demonising your opponents as subhuman (notably, for example, the depiction of Obama as chimpanzee, or “The Joker”), is bad enough, but doing so to people armed with guns is the end of any democracy. Fortunately Howard’s own genuine anti-gun views held the day over those of many of his conservative colleagues, but I suspect that, in NSW at least, the gun nuts are going to try to massively increase gun ownership and this added to the toxic shock jock discourse is going to take us closer to the NRA pseudo democracy of America.
May in fact kill the Australian body politic, as blowflies kill the sheep.
*["A maggot" is a Victorian, probably earlier, slang for "A fanciful notion; a whim"]