Australian politics in 2012: A Tale of Progressive Paradoxes

Australian politics over the past year has provided us with a number of emotive spectacles, ranging from passionate debates to awkward silences. While no review could do justice to any parliamentary dialogue (that’s what Hansard is for), I will say that 2012 engendered an orgasmic embrace of contradictory acts all in the name of ‘progressive politics.’ 

For those of us inclined to lean towards the Left, narratives of fairness and equality can be particularly seductive. When invoked passionately, it can captivate our imaginations and emotions, and, while social justice should be encouraged, 2012 has served as a potent reminder that we need to avoid producing paradoxical policy guised as progressive politics. Here are four important parlimentary converstaions that serve as evidence of this.

(1) Feminism is back - sort of.  

If we look to the interwebs, Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s speech calling out Tony Abbott’s sexism and misogyny was heralded as a watershed moment. Many of us were quick to celebrate the political revival of feminism, given the pervasive reluctance in politics to speak out about gender discrimination or harassment. 

Yet, on the very same day, the major parties were unified in passing legislation to cut single parent welfare payments. Given the disproportionate effect this has on women (over 90 percent of sole parent payment recipients are female), we have to wonder how this recently reclaimed political sensitivity to sexism materially assists these women?  

(2) We save refugees by persecuting them. 

We need to look no further than the demand to ‘stop the boats’ to see how emotion wraps itself around political rhetoric, becoming a way to obscure the paradoxical. While the tears flowed in parliament, MPs mourned the lives that were being lost at sea. So how did we respond to this humanitarian call? With some old-fashioned, punitive offshore processing, of course. Since, you know, you stop asylum seekers arriving on boats by detaining them indefinitely in far less resourced countries (costing us enormously) - not by providing safe alternatives for those seeking protection.

More importantly, it did not take long for the cross-partisan depression to morph into demonisation, as irregular maritime arrivals become cast as ‘illegals’ undermining our ‘border security.’ 

Forget the reasons why people flee persecution. Forget the persisting physical and mental harm on Nauru. Forget the billions of dollars expended on offshore detention facilities. Forget that most asylum seekers who arrive by boat are refugees. Instead, just remember that offshore processing saves lives and/or saves our borders. Punishment is the new protection. 

(3) Indigenous recognition matters, so long as the government dictates how. 

Much has changed in recent years when it comes to recognising Indigenous sovereignty – the Acknowledgement of Country being one such example. This year began with the promising release of a report Recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Peoples in the Constitution. 

Despite the symbolic or performative gestures, we find a different policy reality. We have yet to set a date for a referendum campaign. In July, the Australian Government extended the ‘Northern Territory Emergency Response.’ 

Momentarily putting aside the somewhat odd fact that an ‘emergency response’ needs to last for 15 years, the ‘Stronger Futures’ laws do not enforce consultation with communities nor does it respect the capacity of individuals to make their own decisions. Instead, it works to secure paternalist politics. Governments now dictate personal activities ranging from income management to alcohol consumption.  

Perhaps I missed the progressives’ memo, but while greater investment in Aboriginal communities is important, could someone please explain how legislatively undermining individual dignity assist with supporting Indigenous sovereignty? 

(4) Marriage fosters fidelity and family, which is why we must exclude the promiscuous gays.  

Marriage is about children. Marriage is about monogamy. Marriage is a commitment for life. Whether it is the escalating rates of divorce or the embrace of varied de facto relationships, marriage no longer claims the legal or social prescriptions it once did. 

When it comes to marriage equality, most of us are familiar with the liberal arguments for ending discrimination and homophobia, but there is an enormously domesticating reason to push for it too.

For example, if we assume the heterosexist logic that gay men are sexually voracious and despise monogamy, then surely an institution deemed to foster fidelity should be encouraged, not disavowed?

If you believe that marriage secures monogamy, family and longevity, then allowing same-sex couples (and their children) to participate would strengthen, not threaten, such an ‘ideal’ institution of intimacy. Perhaps in their anxious haste to make claim to some universal natural order, conservative opponents to marriage equality are trying to conceal the fact that the institution of marriage probably needs same-sex couples more than they need it. Really, the demand to recognise same-sex couples already in such marriage-like relationships is hardly radical at all...

That said, we should not feel entirely disillusioned with our current legislative environment. Many promising reforms have been achieved in 2012: the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme; continued funding for Aboriginal Homelands; private health insurance changes; and the carbon tax. Just to name a few. 

My point, rather, is that we need to be cautious and reflective when it comes to navigating the webs of ‘progressive politics.’ If we are to make sense of these complex entanglements, we need to look past the sticky and seductive rhetoric. If we do so, we can better understand what exactly our politics and policy does. 

Senthorun Raj is a Churchill Fellow.

Follow him on Twitter: @senthorun 

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