THERE comes a time in any society when political discourse reaches the edge of a cliff called Danger.
Experienced participants know, deep in their hearts, when that point is reached. Even if the abyss beyond is shrouded in the fog of ideological warfare, they know that to take that extra step would be to plunge the contest into a world from which there can be no retreat.
In some societies the cliff is ubiquitous and vertiginous. One false word and you’re history. In Australia, we have a little more leeway, but we should remember that between the Lambing Flat riots of 1861 and the Cronulla riots of 2005 we had almost a century of enforced homogeneity via the White Australia Policy.
However, now we have a dilemma, particularly among those of us who abhor racism but at the same time find themselves disgusted by religious strictures that turn women into veiled servitors from another century.
We tell ourselves that a couple of generations of Australian secular egalitarianism will solve that problem, but in the meantime as a community we must all tread a careful path.
The Opposition spokesman on immigration, Scott Morrison, is an experienced participant in our political discourse. And he knows just how explosive the “boat people” issue is. But he also knows that it’s a surefire vote winner among the less well educated folk in the key western Sydney seats.
So, over the last two years – in lockstep with his leader Tony Abbott – he has exploited the issue by stepping ever closer to the edge of that political cliff. And then, with knowledge aforethought, he blithely jumped over with a call for “behaviour protocols” for asylum seekers (for which read “Moslem terrorists”) released into the community.
And it worked. Tony Abbott supported him. The polls supported him. And the Prime Minister responded by elevating a phony issue about 457 visas for temporary migrant workers into an earnest of her determination to put “Australians first”.
Moreover, the media has followed the downward plunge. I am on the list that receives transcripts of the Prime Minister’s daily speeches and interviews.
The speeches – which are invariably of a remarkably high standard – are simply ignored. But the tone of the questioning has descended from merely impolite to downright insulting… and that’s not from the egregious “shock jocks” but from the more civilised members of the pack.
But here’s the rub. Once over the cliff the Morrison tactic becomes one of ever diminishing returns. To keep his converts, he and Abbott will have to keep raising their voices in ever more hysterical cries of hate and fear.
One of two things will then happen – either the PM will follow them over the cliff; or she will, at last, find the courage to turn away from the edge, to come out from behind the Houston Committee shield, and direct her appeal to the better angels of our nature.
Will it win her the election? Maybe, but the odds are against her. However, if she loses she will at least have kept faith with the principles of “Labor decency” that she says she holds so dear.