One of the many great things about social media is that your friends can provide a buffer between yourself and a news item that might make you despair if you had read it cold. In my case, I learned of Liberal senator Cory Bernardi’s most recent attacks on just about everyone apart from white, straight, wealthy married people on Facebook, from feminist Karen Pickering.
Responding to the launch of Bernardi’s new book and his condemnations of single parenthood, step-families, IVF, sexual diversity and the legal right to an abortion, Karen reacted to Bernardi with something I can only describe as “negative nostalgia”. Bernardi was the radical outlier to Tony Abbott, she opined, that Abbott once was to John Howard; his extremist behaviour making his leader’s look less extreme, if only by comparison.
It was within Karen’s paradigm that I followed the unfolding publicity and thence public excoriation of Bernardi, as Labor identities weighed in to defend their own families (Bill Shorten’s is blended, Penny Wong’s a same-sex partnership, Anthony Albanese the child of a single mother) and watched the Twitterarti enter the fray with outrage at full-froth. Memes flew, the old gags making puns on Bernardi’s equation of being gay with bestiality resurfaced, an Amazon review of his book “as written by a daschund” appeared.
Within this context of a political anger and activist mockery that only an attack on people’s families can unleash, a chorus of contrarian naysayers pooh-poohed the furore as disproportional to Bernardi’s offence. Summarized, this discourse identified that as both a backbencher and political extremist, Bernardi’s were marginal views from a marginal place, unlikely to wield any genuine effect over government policy. Bernardi’s bestiality comments last year had prompted even Abbott to stand him down as his parliamentary secretary when he made them, and Bernardi has not been redeemed or rewarded for a cabinet position in the government that Abbott leads. Indeed, Abbott’s office released only a brief dismissal in response to the senator’s comments that ”Senator Bernardi is a backbencher and his views do not represent the position of the government.”
As Bernardi holds no position himself in Abbott’s government, there was no position for Abbott to meaningfully remove him from. But Karen Pickering’s negative nostalgia about Howard and Abbott led me into my own about Howard and another radical outlier — Pauline Hanson. There are historical lessons on offer about radicals in the Liberal Party and their effect on government policy that some may have forgotten but others — within the Liberal Party — remember all too well. Hanson was a paid up, preselected member of the Liberal Party running for the thought-safe Labor seat of Oxley in Queensland when her airing of racist views made her an overnight political celebrity. The Liberal Party disendorsed her immediately but, as an independent, Hanson went on to win the seat.
As haphazard and undeliberate her political ascension may have been, it revealed the existence of a racist vote within the electorate that the political machinist Howard shrewdly exploited. While Hanson blathered racist policy nonsense increasingly from the margins of a far-right extreme, Howard moved his government policy positions closer to her own to capitalise on the electoral force she’d unleashed. Howard did not return Hanson to the Liberal fold in order to not alienate his centrist voters — but he never publicly condemned Hanson, either: rather than alienate her racist voters by doing so, he let her do enough talking to vacuum up her votes while she alienated herself.
There is actually a name for the role of a Hanson to a Howard in politics, and it’s one that springs to mind watching the antics of Bernardi in this period of Abbott government. It’s called “a stalking horse”, and it originates from the hunting terminology of the 16th century; hunters discovered that fowl that would flee when stalked by a hunter on horseback would not necessarily take flight in the presence of what appeared to be merely a horse – horses are, on their own, of course, no danger to fowl. Hunters thence walked beside their horses to keep themselves hidden from view; the poor birds that did not heed the horse’s presence were those up close as the hunter prepared a better, tighter, more effective shot.
A stalking horse in politics is considered to be an outlier whose expressions of belief or declarations of support are used to flush out sympathisers or dissidents without a leader having to expose their own position. Hanson may have been a fluke, but it is not so easy to dismiss Bernardi as a random when one considers that he is not an inexperienced regional candidate thrown up in what’s supposed to be a marginal seat. As much as his out-of-step 1950s style declarations may make him look distant from the policy centre of Abbott’s government, he was the South Australian Liberal Party’s first choice for inevitable election as top of their Senate ticket – a pre-selection that does not go to those who do not exact a considerable factional heft. Instrumental in the rolling of Malcolm Turnbull by leading the revolt against the ETS, he is partially responsible for Abbott’s elevation to the leadership and as Abbott’s former parliamentary secretary it is not unimaginable that the two share bonds of policy sympathy if not actual loyalty.
In this light, it’s worth reviewing not only Bernardi’s recent statements alongside the past couple of years of Abbott’s own glib political pronouncements, but also to consider what the election of Australia’s first female prime minister exposed so sharply about the Australian electorate. Where Bernardi rails against homosexuality, Abbott refused his caucus a conscience vote on equal marriage. Where Bernardi campaigns for the heteronormative family unit, Abbott has said a bad husband is better than no husband. Now, reread the statement from Abbott’s office about Bernardi’s book: there is a vast difference between a statement that condemns the behaviour of a senator and one that offers the gentle recognition that a backbencher’s statements are not government policy.
Not yet. The trouble is whether Bernardi is in fact a stalking horse, or is a merely a far-right representative spewing noise from a pulpit that he’s stumbled up to by event of a factional freak, he has nothing to lose and only profile and supporters to gain from his present activities. To be allowed the party laxity to say the things he has said without being stripped of his membership raises some uncomfortable questions that Australians, and women in particular, must steel themselves to pursue the answers to.
The treatment of Julia Gillard in office, excused by so many in her own government, Abbott’s opposition and broader sections of Australian society, revealed a streak of sexism in the electorate as potentially wide as that of the racism exposed by Hanson. Where this sexism can be exploited politically is, of course, in the cause of those who, for whatever reason, oppose the right of women to access abortion. The vast majority of Australians may support a woman’s right to choose, but Abbott historically doesn’t. And, popular opinion hasn’t prevented the Liberal government in New South Wales proceeding with the signing the anti-choice “Zoe’s Law” into legislation or the South Australian and Victorian parliaments with fomenting anti-choice movements of their own.
Bear this in mind when considering that Abbott’s most recent position on abortion is that it is a state issue — what Bernardi’s book may indeed be flushing out in the electorate is precisely how far women and their allies are willing to engage in a fight to retain the rights and protections too many of us may have believed would be safe even in the event of an Abbott government.
Maybe, of course, it’s not abortion but another policy wedge that Abbott — now Prime Minister, perhaps needing to appear more moderate and reasonable than his old conservative activist self lest his own centre panic and throw their fortunes back in with Turnbull — is sifting through Bernardi’s fallout to discover.
No one who believes in an inclusive and progressive Australia can take the risk of a minimizing dismissal. Considering the impact that Hanson has had on policies against asylum-seekers and Australia’s human rights obligations, now is no time for those concerned about abortion rights – or sexual rights, or Australian diversity — to listen to naysayers. If Abbott is watching to see what Bernardi reveals of the electorate, overwhelming rejection and activist outrage must be expressed loudly enough to scare both the horses and hunters away.