OPINION

This govt has narrow priorities and uses ideological warriors to do its work

Are you feeling, or have you ever felt, the need to ask people of Chinese heritage if they unconditionally condemn the Chinese government? Picture: Dion Georgopoulos
Are you feeling, or have you ever felt, the need to ask people of Chinese heritage if they unconditionally condemn the Chinese government? Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

In the last hot minute, the government has belted Australian citizens, belted universities, belted women, beIted the ABC. It's tried to look like the good guy by wielding tax cuts and flying in a few desperate citizens from outposts varied, but that's because it needs to be pragmatic. The rest of the time it is trying to impose its ideological position on the rest of us. We are the hapless water buffalo and the Prime Minister is the abattoir's leading hand.

Let me present the first public victims.

I've known Osmond Chiu since he was a teenager. Fine, upstanding Australian. Completely committed to improving the lives of working Australians. Married to the excellent Luisa.

I met Wesa Chau when she gave me excellent feedback on a conference paper. She came to Australia as a seven-year-old, and I'd argue she has a broader accent than I do (what with the woggy influence of my darling dearly departed parents). Also, she is now running as candidate for deputy mayor of Melbourne. Greater love hath no woman for her country than volunteering for local council.

There's also Yun Jiang, who was a public servant but left last year because of a combination of casual racism and constraints around freedom of speech. Now she edits the China Story blog for the Australian National University.

What happened to these three Australians at the hands of Senator Eric Abetz was unforgivable. They were witnesses at the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee's inquiry into issues facing diaspora communities in Australia, when Abetz asked each of them to tell him whether they were "willing to unconditionally condemn the Chinese Communist Party dictatorship". As Wanning Sun, who was going to give evidence at the inquiry but changed her mind, wrote: "All three were attending the hearing voluntarily at the invitation of the committee, to clarify and elaborate on their written submissions."

In the ACT alone, over 4 per cent of census respondents cite Chinese heritage. Across the whole of Australia it's just a little under that number, at 3.9 per cent. Are we assuming each of them carries a torch for dictatorships of various kinds? How come no one ever asked Eric Abetz about his great uncle, Otto Abetz, a Nazi (who did some good things apparently, such as protecting Jewish art)? Shame about the actual makers of that art. Should we ask Eric Abetz to disavow Nazism and its attendant racism?

What happened to these three Australians at the hands of Senator Eric Abetz was unforgivable.

Abetz's inquiries are a purposeful disruption of how we normally get along in this country, spreading doubt and division.

Of course, in his government, he is not alone. The constant misinformation spread by the government about its funding of the ABC is an excellent example. Funding gets cut. The government denies it has been cut. Yet those non-cuts lead to fears the ABC's reach into regional Australia will be slashed, massive numbers of staff being made redundant and an inability to plan for the future. That's one way of controlling the message. Another is to get glorious political correspondent Laura Tingle to delete her tweet criticising the government for its funding cuts: "We grieve the loss of so many of our fine colleagues to government ideological bastardry." That sad story featured in Senate estimates on Wednesday night when the ABC's managing director said Tingle recognised the tweet was an error. An error of judgment, maybe, but not, I'd argue, of fact.

And let's not even discuss the devastation wrought upon the university sector, the arts sector, childcare and caring work of all kinds. This is a government which has narrow priorities and uses its ideological warriors to do its work.

When I was a young woman at university, one of the texts we borrowed from the library was The News From South-East Asia. It was a sociological study of the making of news by Rod Tiffen. He went on to become a professor of politics at the University of Sydney, and has studied Australian political practice over 40 years.

He has never seen it so divided nor so divisive.

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"I haven't seen this combination ... the combustible nature of public controversies about China, the cutting of funds to the ABC, the hostility to universities and to climate change science. It is strange it is happening in the shadow of the pandemic," he says.

And he believes there won't be too much pushback from voters, except those whose kids are about to start university. He can't quite believe, even from retirement, the attacks on universities, much more carefully constructed than limp attacks on student unions by Christopher Pyne and failed former prime minister Tony Abbott.

"There was a degree of unity early in the pandemic - March, April - and that moment of bipartisan co-operation has passed with a vengeance. The university stuff is exactly what they don't need at the moment."

And what about the bizarre anti-China behaviour of people like George Christensen? I mean, how useful is it to compare our biggest trading partner with Nazi Germany? Of course, of course, we have to fight human rights abuses in China. But we shouldn't be abusing our own citizens here, or devaluing what equality really means.

The big problem is this: this government is destroying the regular Australia. The one which might do a bit of staring at the new kid at school, but will end up asking her for a sleepover. The one which loves and appreciates the ABC, the extraordinary emergency broadcaster with a national reach and understanding of our nation. The one which seeks a decent education for its children and hopes its hapless second daughter will get into uni (yeah, Mum, I ended up with three degrees). The one which only a few years ago was getting the hang of the old equality thing.

Tiffen says the government's ideological vendetta, the way it conducts these public controversies, demeans debate. And that's a bloke who has been studying politics for 40 years.

  • Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney and a regular columnist.
This story This govt has narrow priorities and uses ideological warriors to do its work first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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