Australians once thought politics akin to sport — lose the contest, revise tactics, do better next time. Today it is civil war, with blatant and irresponsible lies prominent in the Opposition leader’s arsenal. His contemptible myths about poisoned waterholes demonstrate just how low he can stoop
One of the most disappointing spectacles in the aftermath of the death of Bill Leak—a lovely bloke of extraordinary genius whose premature passing is one of the tragedies of our time—was the vile invective hurled at him by the proponents of identity politics. As Quadrant Online found in a quick survey of the Twitter postings of gay activists, feminists, Muslim pundits, indigenous identifiers and the left-wing media, many used the opportunity to tell the world how glad they were he was dead. Here’s a sample:
Paul Kidd, gay and HIV activist: “Bill Leak was an enemy of my community; he made a living insulting and attacking queers. Of course I’m glad he’s dead.”
Stephanie McCarthy, transvestite performer: “Just a quick reminder of what a disgusting, vile, racist piece of shit Bill Leak was. This man deserves ZERO praise or respect.”
Shane Bazzi, refugee advocate and LGBTQ activist: “Bill Leak was a horrible person. Homophobic, transphobic, racist, Islamophobic. His death does not change that.”
Michael Lucy, Online Editor at the Monthly: “It’s one thing not to speak ill of the dead but another to praise publicly shitty dead people just because you were mates with them.”
Fatima Measham, consulting editor and columnist, Eureka Street: “Turns out death doesn’t write off the damage you did.”
Nakkia Lui, Aboriginal actress and playwright: “If only the victims of Bill Leak’s racism got as much news and attention as he has.”
K. Thor Jensen, American comic strip illustrator and novelist: “Bill Leak, one of the worst political cartoonists in the world, has died. He was a 61 year old piece of shit and should have died years ago.”
Although identity politics originated in the 1970s among radical feminists, gays and black power advocates, the movement has taken a very ugly turn ever since Julia Gillard and the Greens formed a minority government in 2010. It has changed democratic politics for the worse, and freed its followers from any reticence about the level of abuse they hurl at opponents.
Identity politics today has overturned the principle, once taken for granted in Australia, that politics is more like sport than warfare. We once thought that, although the other team are your rivals, if you lose to them the proper response is to revise your tactics, train harder and try again next time. You could even have drinks with them after the game.
Today, interest group politics is more like a civil war in which the contenders want to destroy their opponents utterly, so they can never compete again. They prefer the other side dead.
Yet if opinion polls keep going the way they are, in two years time Australia will have a prime minister totally committed to identity politics. Capturing the larger identity groups by taking their side and talking their language has emerged as one of Bill Shorten’s major strategies to defeat the Turnbull government. Shorten rarely misses an opportunity to display his credentials to members of these groups.
This essay appears in the April edition of Quadrant.
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In February, in a parliamentary speech about the Closing the Gap Program which measures the outcomes from the $30 billion a year now spent on Aboriginal people, Shorten said, with a straight face, “It’s time for truth-telling.” He then went on to enshrine in Hansard two of the most notorious myths about the treatment of Aboriginal people in early colonial times: “We poisoned the waterholes; we distributed blankets infected with diseases we knew would kill.”
Both tales are historical fictions. Local legend from mid-nineteenth-century Narrandera, New South Wales, offers two different accounts of the origin of the name Poisoned Waterhole Creek. It was originally thought to derive from poisoned pellets spread around the site by pastoralists to kill wild dogs that were molesting sheep. The other account is that a drover once lost cattle there when they ate a local toxic weed. However, poet Mary Gilmore, whose father once worked on a station in Narrandera, later decided the name came from waterholes deliberately poisoned by a local pastoralist to kill Aborigines. She wrote in a newspaper article that her father was commissioned by a magistrate to fill up the holes to well above the old waterline. However, in an examination of the name’s origins in the Narrandera Argus in February 1951 (now checkable on Trove), a local historian, George Gow, said Gilmore’s claims were “utter rubbish”. The waterholes had never been filled in. Her version of events was unknown to either local pastoralists or local Aborigines and had been invented for political purposes. At the time Gilmore was a member of the Communist Party.
Shorten’s claims about disease-infected blankets are even less credible. This story originated not in the early history of Australia but in North America during the Indian Wars of the mid-eighteenth century. In 1763, at Fort Pitt (now Pittsburgh) the Indian chief Pontiac had laid siege to the fort where all the British settlers had congregated. Smallpox had broken out inside the fort. When two Indian emissaries visited the site to urge the British to abandon their stronghold, the Swiss commander Simeon Ecuyer refused to leave but, as an apparent gesture of submission, gave the Indians presents of two blankets and a handkerchief, which he had taken from the fort hospital’s infected patients. A month later in New York, Ecuyer’s commanding officer General Jeffrey Amherst learnt there was a smallpox outbreak among the Indians and, unaware then of Ecuyer’s actions, wrote that it would be a good idea to “Send the Small Pox among those Disaffected Tribes of Indians” as well as “to try Every other method that can serve to Extirpate this Execrable Race”.
Left-wing historians today milk Amherst’s message for all it is worth. In Australia, in an attempt to lend credence to claims that the British deliberately gave smallpox to the Aborigines, the historian Henry Reynolds in An Indelible Stain (2001) uses Fort Pitt as a precursor. He writes: “In an infamous incident, two visiting Indian chiefs on a diplomatic mission were given blankets from the smallpox hospital. The evidence indicates that the action was deliberate and calculated.” In fact, the evidence indicates nothing of the kind. It is most unlikely Ecuyer’s gifts started this epidemic. Reports from settlers who escaped the Indians said it was already prevalent among the tribes months before Pontiac’s siege.
In any case, smallpox is almost always transmitted by close contact with infected persons. It is possible for the disease to be transmitted from the scabs and pustules that might have brushed onto blankets but it is these same scabs that provided the early material for smallpox vaccines. Before the eighteenth century, physicians in China and Turkey developed techniques for immunising people against smallpox. Blowing powdered pustule scabs up the noses of patients was a commonly-used preventive measure. But, in any case, it would have been difficult for the early British settlers in Australia to spread the disease this way to the Aborigines since there was no outbreak of that kind among the colonists, thus no infected blankets to give.
There are several other recent examples of Shorten using the myths of identity politics to cement the loyalty of constituents. Last September, during the debate over a proposed plebiscite on same-sex marriage, he accused the Turnbull government of undermining the legitimacy of the identity of young homosexuals by debating their status on the national stage. “Let me be as blunt as possible,” he said. “A No campaign would be an emotional torment for gay teenagers and if one child commits suicide over the plebiscite, then that is one too many.”
There used to be an unwritten but widely acknowledged convention in the news media not to beat up stories about suicide, since there was plausible evidence from public health authorities that highly publicised stories about the topic produce copycat suicides, especially among young men. Shorten’s speech indicates he knows this but is still prepared to go public on the issue in order to shore up his stocks in the gay constituency.
Identity politics needs to be seen as the antithesis of democratic politics. Each identity group is taught that its members are victims of the wider society’s intolerance, and so separate rights and expensive special treatments are their cures. Identity politics is the most divisive version of relationship a nation can have with its people. Each group pursues its own aims, irrespective of their influence on the national interest. Each group has its own values, its own set of moral principles, its own version of its rights. There are no universal rights. This is a set of views deriving from multiculturalism and cultural relativism. Its logical conclusion is that child brides, pederasty, the subjugation of women, genital mutilation, and the killing of infidels are culturally, and thus morally, sanctioned. Each culture is entitled to its own “narratives” too, and so generates its own set of historical facts that sanction its sense of victimhood.
If Bill Shorten becomes prime minister, he is committed to entrenching this movement and these values even more securely than the previous Labor-Greens coalition. Poor fella my country.