Religion, nationality, sex, and race cover a fair amount of the “identity” ground and Prime Minister Scott Morrison has trampled over a fair amount of it recently.
Identity is a distorting prism. It both splits the light and reflects it. Hence, during the 2019 election Labor supporters and a lot of the commentariat got it totally wrong when they thought that the outward expression by Morrison of some of the weird beliefs of his Pentecostal faith would turn voters off.
To the contrary. Many voters of faith (any faith) thought here is a man of faith, I can vote for him, even identify with him. And thus, Labor was denied the seats in the suburbs of western Sydney and Melbourne that it needed to win in 2019. The people of faith (Hindu, Confucian, Muslim, Christian) voted for a man of faith, just as those suburban voters voted against same sex marriage in a way that many National-held bush electorates did not.
Those Labor supporters who thought the outing of Morrison’s Pentecostal beliefs would be held against him made the mistake of believing everyone thought like they did.
So, what are we to make of the decision to provide for fines and jail for any Australian citizen or permanent resident (read non-white Hindu) trying to get from India to Australia?
The Caribbean-Indian author V. S. Naipaul sees himself as utterly Indian, but never visited India until he was 30. He argued that the Indian diaspora identify (there we go again) themselves as Indian more so than Indians in India. Being Indian is the diaspora’s identification in a way that being Indian in India is not.
My guess is that Indian Australians – an election-deciding nearly 3 per cent of the population – have been rightly and deeply offended.
And in typical Morrison dissembling, feet-shuffling style when he has blundered, he did not admit error and apologise. Rather he said, never mind, the chances of anyone going to jail or being fined is zero.
So why enlist the draconian criminal provisions of the quarantine law in the first place? Was it because the little exclusive sub-committee of Cabinet that decided on this course of action had some deep-seated thought that we have to make it clear to these Indian chappies that we mean business and they had better toe the line.
Whereas, the nice white people from the US, Britain and New Zealand could be relied up to obey any travel ban without the threat of fines or jail.
It is yellow and brown hordes stuff all over again. If V. S. Naipaul’s understanding of the Indian diaspora is right, after centuries of colonial humiliation, the Coalition Government’s draconian edict against them will be a bitter blow not to be soon forgotten.
Further, if you drag out the faith example in which all people of faith looked approvingly on another person of faith, it may well be that all many Australians who have an alter-identity like Indians will feel that, if the Government could go for Indian-Australians in this way, it could go for any number of other non-white immigrant groups. They, too, could be offended in a vote-changing way.
The Australian citizens and residents caught in India’s hellish Covid firestorm should have had every reason to expect their government go all out to rescue them from that hell not to condemn them to remain in it.
Put brutally, the Government’s identification of the trapped people was not, “You are Australians and we will get you out of the hell.” Rather it was, “You are just expendable brown Indians and our base will applaud us”.
Morrison might well have thought that this was his Tampa moment when the Government could play to its base with inhumane and racist action against outsiders and pick up votes. If so, he was wrong, because those trapped in India are Australians, not outsiders.
Morrison and the Cabinet sub-committee got this decision and their later defence of it comprehensively wrong, both morally and politically. By all means impose a ban, as other bans have been imposed. But the addition of the utterly unnecessary possibility of fines and jail will rightly come at great political cost.
It has tellingly revealed the base beliefs of the inner circle of this government.
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Speaking of those inner beliefs, don’t you get the feeling that in response to the Covid crisis the Government has had to be dragged very reluctantly from its core beliefs – balanced Budgets; welfare crackdowns; tax cuts for people on high incomes; subsidies for business – before doing sensible, decent things, and only then in a half-hearted way?
It increased the dole significantly, but only for a while before returning to parsimony. It intends to increase the childcare subsidy a little but not go the whole way with early childhood education. It has said it will delay budget-balancing in favour of reducing unemployment.
But this is not a change of heart. It is a just a temporary fix.
Labor should not reduce itself to being a small target in the hope that enough people dislike the Government for Labor to get over the line. It is a mistake to think a bold vision frightens voters. This is because the question as to whether Governments lose elections or Oppositions win them has a different answer according which party is in Government or in Opposition.
Labor wins from Opposition when it has a bold plan (Whitlam, Hawke and Rudd) because people want government action to improve their lives. But when conservative parties tell voters of their bold plans of what they really want to do, voters shy away because they do not want smaller government and trickle-down economics.
One of the lessons from Covid is that voters want the role of government in helping people inclusively increased and they certainly do not want government to bully and threaten them.
This article was first published in The Canberra Times and other Australian media. On 8 May 2021.