For Bill Shorten, the risk is being seen as soft on Islamic terror, which explains his endorsement of Abbott’s willingness to join the campaign against ISIS. For the PM, ground lost by his abrogated promise to repeal 18C is more than compensated by the electorate’s desire for security
The ALP is haunted by the Tampa affair, which saw refugees invade the bridge of a rescue ship and demand they be taken to Australia even though the appropriate destination, as recognised by international law, should have been the nearest Indonesian port. While Prime Minister John Howard took resolute action to prevent the refugees hijacking the immigration rules, ALP leader Kim Beazley initially prevaricated.
Within a day, however, Beazley had adopted a policy little different from that of the government. Too late! On the same day he finally made his position clear, an ALP frontbencher confided to me that, by being seen to be soft on borders, the ALP had just lost the next election. Polling soon confirmed his prescience: Beazley moved almost overnight from an election-winning position to one that eventually saw him go down in defeat.
Today we face a far more serious situation with Islamic extremism. Last Friday, Britain raised its official expectation of terror attacks by returning ISI S fighters to “highly likely”. Tony Abbott has received similar intelligence reports, hence his Team Australia initiative. The crux of this was to encourage the two per cent of Australians who are Muslims to make common cause against a murderously violent minority in their ranks.
In pursuing this goal, Abbott jettisoned his promise to abolish or seriously modify 18C of the Australian Racial Discrimination Act 1975, which absurdly insists speech must not ‘offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people’. As columnist Nick Cater has shown, in introducing the 1994 amendments Keating did so on the basis that racial vilification might also be an incitement to violence. This perhaps explains why 18c lay dormant until the Bolt case was heard before Judge Mordecai Bromberg. Abbott may feel that the furor in the wake of that case means the judgment would not survive a similar test today. Perhaps so, but Abbott has paid a price for abandoning his promise, a betrayal made all the more regrettable because his decision not to defend free speech failed to move Australa’s Islamic leadership.
The ISIS atrocities have brought into sharp relief a change of circumstances that now confronts the prospects for relative world peace. Shared concerns aside, the ALP leadership knows the electoral dangers it faces if seen to be soft on Islamic terror and those warnings from security services prove to be prescient. But Bill Shorten’s determination to ensure negligible differences with the government is being undermined by some of his less intelligent colleagues, who claim that it is all a trumped-up issue designed to cast a veil over an unpopular budget.
Such cynical interpretations are ill-founded. Abbott is not playing this issue for political gain. Although his opponents refuse to acknowledge the PM’s basic decency, this is evident in the way he has lived his life – few politicians would allocate a week a year to personally assist the poorest members of the community, as he does with Aboriginals; further, he would be unique in doing so discreetly and without banks of publicity. Reaching out to the Muslim community, even at the cost of abandoning is pledge to de-fang Section 18c, was a genuine attempt to avoid their marginalization — or worse.
People accept strong government when they feel threatened — a truth already being reflected in the polls and which may well, like Howard’s Tampa-inspired resurgence, become an enduring trend.