Wedge politics here to stay

Speech extract

1997 May, 27

Racism and social division have been fuelled by Coalition efforts to retain Howard's battlers.


Since Pauline Hanson gave her maiden speech, there has been a lot of public analysis of the politics of blame that was, for me, the true undercurrent of the 1996 election. 


Most of this kind of discussion is focused on Pauline Hanson. There has been almost no analytical focus on the other beneficiaries of the politics of blame: John Howard's Coalition. Only when the Primie Minister gave that incredible speech which implied that Pauline Hanson was an issue of free speech, was there any focus on the Government's roles in the subtle and often not so subtle cultivation and exploitation of the politics of blame. 


Andrew Robb's '96 campaign was very clear. He made the pet scapegoat groups - most obviously Abrigines, Asians and unions - Paul Keating's running mates in much the same way as the US Republic had made the black prisoner, Willie Horton, Michael Dukakis' running mate in his failed presidential bid. Mabo and Asia had so coloured Keating's leadership over the previous term, it turned out to be a more than subconscious albatross around Labor's political throat. 


It was a watershed election because it seems to me to have been the first time we have employed wedge politics in Australia. I cannot think of an election in which Aboriginal affairs and particularly questions of Aboriginal privilege and comparative white disadvantage have featured at all in a national election campaign. 


US-style wedge politics is now with us to stay. The conservatives have struck upon how they can drive the wedge between the broad coalition of interest groups that had otherwise not voted for them.


When I realised what the convervatives were doing and how successful and deceptive their strategy was, I resigned myself to accepting that this kind of ruthlessness is to be expected in elections. However, I also hoped and, in fact, believed that, having been so ruthless in seizing power, that upon gaining government they would change tack. Conscious of the damage their ruthless button-pushing may have inflicted on society, I actually expected the new Government to pause and seek to heal some of the wounds they had so vigorously agitated in the community. 


But even this script for benign hypocrisy was beyond them. Andrew Robb was onto too good a thing. Indeed the emergence of the Pauline Hanson and the bandwagon that followed in her wake was too good to miss. So from the earliest days we saw a sustained orgy of divisiveness and meanness about immigration, Aborigines, dole bludgers - courtesy of the new Government. 


Robb wanted the phenomenon that he had observed well before the election, and which he had successfully capitalised on during it, to become a fundamental cultural shift in the Australian community. He wanted the Government to be seen to be tough against the scapegoat and to follow public opinion to the letter, whilst at the same time talking about government "for all of us" and promoting concern for the disadvantaged as a matter of charity - not equality or right.


The cultural shift which Robb set out to achieve, so that Howard's battlers could remain Howard's battlers, is what, in my view, had fuelled the racism and social division that so worries Australians  today, There is criticism of the Prime Minister's failure of judgement last year and through the course of this year in not repudiating Hanson's views. The truth is that John Howard made very careful and deliberate judgements about how to deal with Hanson based on the advice of his courtiers. The tack was to ensure that those who supported Hanson's views were not affronted by prime ministerial repudiation, to make clear to them that they were entitled to feel the way they did and to give the impression that the Prime Minister shared their views, and to assure them that the Prime Minister did not think Hanson (and therefore they) were entirely wrong. 


The objective was to appropriate to the Prime Minister the resonance that Hanson had roused in the community and to consolidate te basic battler shift that had occured during the election. Witness the tug-of-war between the two aitches over whose idea it was to blame immigrants for unemployment. These judgements were taken on the assumption that the Hanson phenomenon would eventually fizzle and John Howard would become the heir to the constituency that was most compelled by her sentiments. 


Of course, Hanson has not faded as expected. She may well do so in time. But her resilience and indeed growth in notoriety had begun to worry the Coalition's leadership team, if not the Prime Minister. The Howard/Robb plan for Hanson did not work out entirely as planned. Howard and Robb have played dangerous politics with the community. They have done no small damage to important progress made in recent decades. 


Wedge politics here to stay