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Deal to secure votes backfires

Mungo Mac Callum. Photo Doug Eaton / The Northern Star
Mungo Mac Callum. Photo Doug Eaton / The Northern Star Doug Eaton

MALCOLM Turnbull has always been a glass-half-full kind of guy, so he probably woke up on Sunday morning thinking the result in Western Australia was not all bad.

True, the longest-serving and most reliable of the conservative dominoes has fallen - not merely fallen but plummeted almost to the bottom of the abyss.

But no one could say it was all his fault. His rare and desultory visits to the west may not have helped. But they hardly mattered against the parlous state of the local economy - which incoming Labor Premier Mark McGowan will now have to deal with - and, more importantly, the massive "it's time” factor.

It was obvious that Colin Barnett and his Liberal government were well and truly past their use-by date, a view confirmed by Barnett's major election promise - if re-elected he would not serve his full term. Understandably the electorate thought it might as well cut to the chase and dispatch him on the spot.

But the good news is that although the Libs were clobbered beyond the worst fears of even the most zealous pessimists, One Nation also copped a hiding, largely as a result of the Faustian bargain on preferences struck between Barnett and Pauline Hanson and her sinister adviser, James Ashby.

Hanson explained that her supporters were too ignorant to understand the system and demanded the goal posts be moved to make it simpler for them.

But there was no excuse for Barnett - his desperate deal to secure a few extra seats spectacularly backfired, driving his own moderate waverers away in masses. The strategy turned out to be not only morally indefensible but electorally disastrous.

Which is why Turnbull will be relieved - it must be clear to even the thickest right wingers in the party room (and they are pretty darn thick) that playing footsie with One Nation is not a good idea.

Turnbull has to face the reality that a handful of dysfunctional nutters in a dysfunctional senate will have to be accommodated from time to time but that does not mean a formal alliance. He can, with good conscience and admirable pragmatism, demand that Pauline Hanson's party should be put last on the Liberal Party ticket.

Life will be much harder for the Nationals, in the regions where One Nation can still be an existential threat; Barnaby Joyce will have to decide whether to follow the example of his predecessors and fight or else drift further towards the extreme fringes of Hansonism.

Queensland will be a tougher test than Western Australia and will presumably set the scene for the next federal election.

But at least it has been shown the bubble can be pricked, that appeasement and surrender do not work.

And perhaps last weekend will inspire Turnbull with new-found courage to take on another of the right's follies - the battle over section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act.

But he will have to confront the Murdoch press, which will need another level of courage altogether.

For months - years, decades it might seem - The Australian has been bleating over 18c, an endless tirade by its elite commentators to persuade the reluctant masses that it actually matters. Last week the national daily finally went over the edge - from being merely obsessive, the paper became hysterical, even deranged.

Its latest crazy crusade apparently sprung from Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, Malcolm Turnbull's Minister for International Development and the Pacific. She produced a thought bubble suggesting the whole debate could be solved if the act was subjected to a "reasonable person” test - insult and offence would be decided by "the man on the Bondi tram”.

The Australian fell on this idea, saying it would unite the factions in the Coalition party rooms, secure free speech, wedge the Labor Party and no doubt regain the Ashes and establish world peace.

But within 24 hours they were backing away and inside a week the whole wizard wheeze was history.

The factions were not united, the argument about free speech went on unabated, Labor ignored the report and Australia lost the second Test in India.

The problem was, of course, that Fierravanti-Wells's proposition was never going to be taken seriously.

The giveaway was her example - the man on the Bondi tram. The last tram clattered its way to Bondi in 1960, some 57 years ago. It was another world. Those were the days of white Australia - European immigrants, dagoes and wops were generally accepted but Asians (wogs and slopes) were still seen as aliens and, of course, Aboriginal Australians (coons and boongs) were virtually ignored - it would be seven years before they were included in the national census.

Multiculturalism was not even a word. Racial vilification was commonplace. But since then we have matured. Minority voices are heard and sometimes loudly.

This is where the man on the Bondi tram is out of his time and place and why even the ideal of the reasonable man is not easily defined.

Assume an entirely hypothetical case in which an Aboriginal footballer is abused by a fan as "an ape”.

A white, middle-class observer might insist - entirely reasonably in his view - that it was the footballer's fault, he was carrying on like a mug lair and had it coming.

But an equally reasonable opinion could be argued the man was simply celebrating his culture and the offence and insult were intended and racially based.

Deadlock: lawyer's picnic, endless disputation, nothing resolved.

But Malcolm Turnbull, it is to be hoped, has finally been freed of the views of Pauline Hanson. The weekend has not been entirely wasted.

Topics:  colin barnett pauline hansen


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