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It's hip to be a bigot in radical Abbott's Australia

  • 28 March 2014

A commonly heard narrative about the Abbott Government is that it still behaves like an opposition. This accusation accurately characterises the pugnacity of the Tony Abbott-led Coalition — its instinctive tendency to exploit the weaknesses of its Labor opponents and to continue manipulating the voter anxieties that propelled it into office. But it would be quite wrong to see the Government as having no agenda beyond clinging to power while rewarding its friends and discomfiting its enemies.

Six months into its first term, it is apparent that this is not a conservative government in the same sense that the Howard Government was when it won office in 1996. The radical-right tendencies in that government emerged gradually, and only became dominant after it had gained a fourth term — and unexpected control of the Senate — in 2004. The result was WorkChoices. The Abbott Government, in contrast, has already sent multiple signals that it is intent upon a radical remaking of the political fabric.

Some of these signals are distinctly wacky emanations of the prime ministerial psyche, such as the restoration of knighthoods to the national honours system. Others, such as the repudiation of support for manufacturing and foreshadowed cuts to Medicare, the dole and disability pensions, indicate that the Government's economic agenda is being driven by the doctrinaire free marketeers in cabinet. Still others, such as the blurring of military and civilian roles in Operation Sovereign Borders, are corroding basic principles of constitutional democracy.

In this last category must be placed the proposed amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act announced this week by the Attorney General, George Brandis.

They are not being touted as threats to democracy, of course. On the contrary, the government and its ideological cheer squad in sections of the media and the Institute of Public Affairs, a libertarian think tank, insist that the amendments will reinvigorate democratic debate by removing shackles the act has placed on free speech. They have dismissed protests by leaders of Indigenous and ethnic communities that the changes will undermine the civility and mutual respect on which the free exchange of political opinion ultimately depends.

At present section 18C of part IIA of the act prohibits conduct that is likely to 'offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate' a person or group of people on the basis of race. Section 18D, which the Government also wishes to repeal, exempts from this prohibition conduct carried out 'reasonably and in good