24 January 2010

Tony Abbott's Australia Day Speech

When I first read about Opposition Leader Tony Abbott's speech to an Australia Day dinner, my impression was he must have inherited John Howard's famous dog whistle. But before writing this blog entry, I thought it might be a good idea to read what he actually said.

News reports like one in the SMH quoting the Green Party spokesperson Senator Hanson-Young seemed to imply that Abbott had resurrected the worst of the Howard era "wedge politics" rhetoric by surreptitiously giving comfort and permission to racism and xenophobia. After reading the actual text, I do not agree.

Considering the temptations the occasion must have offered to an opposition leader with nothing to lose (his chances of winning this year's election are pretty dismal), I thought Abbott showed considerable restraint. The statement that "the inescapable minimum that we insist upon is obedience to the law" is hardly dog-whistling, and I think it is unfair to accuse Abbott of targetting specific ethnic groups by mentioning the off-beam comments of Sheikh Hilaly when seen in the context of what he said next: drawing a parallel with the anti-British views of Cardinal Mannix in the early 20th century, Abbott noted, "There has hardly been a time when there were not some reservations about the loyalty of particular ethnic or religious groups. A generation or two on, all of them have eventually become as Australian as everyone else."

Pointing out that "it's no reflection on boat people that they want to come to Australia", Abbott seemed to be cautioning the crypto-racists in the hardline border protection camp rather than giving them comfort. He very rightly observed that the most important reason for trying to discourage boat arrivals is the serious danger that is posed to the lives of the people attempting the crossing.

One thing that I'm sure upset the Greens was Abbott's rejection of the neo-Malthusian paranoia that dominates their anti-immigration policy. Forty years ago, a doubling of the Australian population would have appeared to these people to be unsustainable. Abbott claims that, while we are now twice as many, we are four times richer.  I don't really trust that sort of bald statistics, but I certainly agree that more long-term damage is done by the politics of neglecting infrastructure development in order to discourage migration, as championed by the misanthropic NSW government of Bob Carr, than by planning for growth in a sustainable and environmentally intelligent way.

As an opposition leader whose best hope is that he will at least still have that job after the next election, Abbott is in the enviable position of being able to criticise without having to come up with any real solutions, and that would be my main criticism of his speech. While deploring the inhumanity of mandatory detention, he offers no alternative. At a time when the government of the country has no coherent policy on how to deal with this problem, it would have been refreshing to hear something different from somebody with nothing much to lose.

1 comment:

patricia said...

I guess Tony Abbott is being comprehensively done over in the Australian media.

Happy Australia Day!