Culture War as Policy Strategy in Australia

In this latest Australian election cycle, history repeats itself with increasing intensity as policy debate is relegated to a relic of history in favour of strategies of dissembling, distraction and scapegoating. This is not a new phenomenon, but one that has been emerging over the last two to three decades as parties scramble to resolve the deepening conflicts between the vested interests of their donors and the needs of a world falling further into socio-ecological crisis.

At the beginning of the 1993 federal election, then-federal Liberal Party leader John Hewson introduced the Fightback! policy package. The shift Fightback! represented from the party’s traditional Keynesianism towards neoliberalism was infamously unpopular with the electorate, and the tories were soundly trounced.

Since then, the Liberal Party has tended to avoid worrying the electorate with actual policies, focusing instead on proving the truth of the observation from H.L. Mencken to the effect that ‘the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.’

This was the hallmark of the Prime Ministership of John Howard during the 1990s. Howard’s hobgoblins ranged from tyrannical organised labour oppressing logistics conglomerates with their demands for rights, to mendacious refugees attempting to bleed the country by holding us to our claim of ‘boundless plains to share.’

In this, Howard had infamously appropriated the policy platform of Pauline Hanson. Stealing her racist and xenophobic thunder, he demonstrated in the process the power of fear and suspicion as a weaponised tool of ideology. Howard’s use of the Tampa Affair to galvanise xenophobia, declaring at the time ‘we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come,‘ is widely credited with winning him the 2001 election.

It also demonstrated the power of panic-driven scapegoating to influence election outcomes—a fact that became even more obvious after the terrorist attacks in the US in September that same year. In the decade that followed, the oppressive climate of war fever ensured that election cycles reflected the observation from documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis that politicians, having run out of dreams to inspire the electorate with, were instead scaring us with nightmares.

This approach could only work for so long. By 2008, the style of government prevailing in the West was becoming impossible to miss as the Global Financial Crisis unceremoniously dumped the anarchy of unregulated finance capitalism on world centre stage. The tories were voted out in the US and in Australia.

After that point, islamic terrorists, who had for so long dominated public discourse, were so indecorious as to have receded. Quite inconveniently, they were replaced by white supremacists, whose atrocities were politically unusable in being too close ideologically to what historian Frank Van Nuys characterises as the ‘national safety valve’ of racism as a scapegoating tool. None could castigate white supremacist terror without giving up the national safety valve themselves.

For those desirous of avoiding having to formulate policy, or announce clearly what their policy intentions are, it remains to find new ways to keep the populace clamorous to be led to safety. As Jeff Sparrow has documented in some detail in Trigger Warnings: Political Correctness and the Rise of the Right (Scribe), far-right culture wars fill this void by innovating in the construction of new, but no less imaginary, hobgoblins.

Australian politicians have not had to look far for inspiration. If the role Pizzagate played in the 2008 US Presidential elections wasn’t enough, the ongoing culture wars over Critical Race Theory are a perfect example of the kind of panic-driven scapegoating that has characterised every conspiracy theory throughout history.

Deviant outsiders are coming to get us, says the ‘national safety valve,’ anyone who undermines our rule gives power to the forces of doom. If thinking for yourself was formerly said to give comfort to the terrorists, now it aids the critical race theorists.

The constructed panic of the culture war over CRT also demonstrates the utility of paranoid conjecture in constructing hobgoblins and folk demons where none are considerate enough to present themselves of their own accord. As Stanley Cohen, the godfather of moral panic studies, demonstrated, deviance is a matter of who controls the meaning of the word in popular discourse, not characteristics of anyone so labelled.

The presence of Katherine Deves as Scott Morrison’s handpicked candidate for the seat of Warringah clearly demonstrates this fact, as well as the latter’s interest in culture war discourse and the ideological construction of deviance as an electoral strategy. Issues like transgender women in sport come under the microscope despite support from Cricket Australia and Netball Australia, who support inclusive policies for the transgender and gender diverse.

In recent years, Australia has been through bushfires, pandemic and floods, but the biggest issue facing the country today, according to this logic, the Liberal candidate for Warringah, and the Prime Minister, is a demographic that constitutes less than 1% of sportspeople. This less than 1% are required to have been receiving hormone therapy for at least a year to offset any potential unfair advantage, and many transgender women who play sport have been receiving therapy for much longer.

Facts such as these, which are not hard to find if one is interested in understanding all sides of the debate, are not often allowed to interfere with a good story. For a Prime Minister whose performance has been such that he needs to force people to shake his hand, the value of a good imaginary hobgoblin is clear. His willingness to stand behind a transphobic bigot over the criticisms of his own party goes only serves to demonstrate the value of culture war and the ‘national safety valve’ to those whose time is up on any other count.

Ben Debney is the author of The Oldest Trick in the Book: Panic-Driven Scapegoating in History and Recurring Patterns of Persecution (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).