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The burka ban blunder laid bare

This article was first published by The Drum Online on 20 October 2014.

It turns out the conservative proponents of the burka ban were not the evil geniuses of wedge politics that both the left and the right had assumed they were, writes Michael Cooney.

How badly did political conservatives bugger up the politics of the so-called “burka ban”?

Two days ago The Australian’s Rebecca Weisser published an interview in which she quoted Ayaan Hirsi Ali as saying a ban “is not going to get us anywhere” under the headline “beyond burka wars”.

Today Immigration Minister Scott Morrison told Ray Hadley on 2GB radio, “I think this issue has had too much attention.” And when Senate President Stephen Parry appeared before a Parliamentary Committee today, there was a request that press photographers leave the hearing.

What looked two weeks ago like attention-seeking today looked like hiding from the media.

That’s how badly they buggered the politics up.

This is a big deal. A populist distraction from the Government’s budget woes has ended in embarrassing backdown amid hidden faces and farcical non-answers to quite straightforward “who advised you what and when” questions from Labor senators today. In turn, we confront a very interesting challenge to a lot of assumptions about Australian politics.

Because it’s now impossible to avoid the conclusion that the “burka ban” decision wasn’t just wrong, it was unpopular.

That the ban was bad security policy was already clear. It’s now obvious that the decision by the Speaker and the Senate President was based on no specific advice. We kind of already knew this – if there was a brief from a security agency supporting this measure, someone like Chris Kenny would have given it to someone like Andrew Bolt by now – but today’s Senate hearing confirmed this directly and specifically. Neither the Australian Federal Police nor the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation were even part of the discussions, much less the origin of the advice, and the Usher of the Black Rod wasn’t even free to describe her advice in the hearing today.

Australia has real security challenges, at home and overseas, including from extremists, terrorists and Islamists, and the plan to segregate some female visitors to the people’s house and the Senate had nothing to do with them.

But the ban also turns out to be bad politics. Both the ban’s supporters, and many of the ban’s critics, will be surprised to discover this. The right-wing proponents of the ban turn out not to be evil geniuses of wedge politics, but rather the beleaguered inhabitants of that well-known conservative redoubt Fort Fumble.

Remember that the debate took off in September with reports that the Prime Minister’s chief of staff had advised the Liberal backbencher George Christensen to propose a burka ban to the presiding officers but to do so under the pretext of security. These reports made it clear that the political analysis on the conservative side of politics is that flicking at the scab of unease about Islam is smart politics for the Right – not just as a distraction from the Budget, but as a populist measure in itself. What followed, culminating in the announcement by the Speaker and the President on the final day of sitting last fortnight, is now stripped absolutely bare as a political campaign stunt.

It’s also stripped absolutely bare as a political failure. And this is a challenge to so many on the far Left, including the Greens party, who assume that race-baiting works in middle Australia and in turn assume that it’s impossible for progressives effectively to respond to race-baiting from the Right. Both extremes are out of touch with what median voters think – but only one extreme has got the reins of a major party’s political decision-making today.

Remember that on the day this ban was announced the leadership and caucus of the Labor Party in Parliament were unanimous and loud. Every opportunity was taken to rebut the arguments. Bill Shorten led the attack and every Labor voice followed.

And remember that we now know that Australians agreed.

It’s already clear the conservatives are essentially unable to make a case for their Budget. The Treasurer’s disastrous intervention linking budget cuts to support for our troops in Iraq, and the acting Assistant Treasurer’s ludicrous “girlie-man” comments over the weekend, show a party unable to make a serious case on the future of growth and jobs and reduced to the most exaggerated faux-macho politics imaginable. So no wonder the attempt to turn the argument to security has been obvious for the past three months.

Which is why the Government’s increasing difficulty carrying an argument about national security is big news in politics. While the Prime Minister’s support for President Obama’s strategy in Iraq has been well received by the public, the failure of the efforts of he and his ministers to politicise international affairs and national security are increasingly transparent. The public reaction to exaggerated politicking on security – from Islamic headdress to the Putin shirtfront – is increasingly to roll our eyes and change the channel.

About Michael Cooney

Michael Cooney

Michael is a former Executive Director of the Chifley Research Centre. He was previously Speechwriter to Prime Minister the Hon Julia Gillard MP, Senior Adviser at the HR Coombs Policy Forum, Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University, and was Principal Policy Advisor to Federal Labor Leaders Kim Beazley and Mark Latham.

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