One Nation Revisited?

Through their racist and homophobic remarks, candidates from Bob Katter’s Australia Party have certainly let the cat (or the Katter in this case) out of the bag in terms of their party’s agenda. It’s now up to both sides of politics to distance themselves from this dangerous brand of conservative populism.

Bob Katter is the latest in a raft of Australian politicians to denounce ‘political correctness.’ Indeed, Prime Minister Howard spoke of a “pall of censorship being lifted” after his election in 1996 and Australians being able to “speak a little more freely and openly” about a range of controversial issues.

Among them was Pauline Hanson, who ignited a divisive debate about race and immigration. Positioning herself as a champion of the ‘forgotten majority,’ Hanson condemned the raft of ‘special interest’ groups whom she argued were dominating political discourse through their ‘elite’ advocates in the media and academia.

By linking traditionally oppressed groups with ‘elites,’ Hanson heightened the sense of grievance of those uneasy with the pace of social and economic change in Australia. The result was a dangerous scapegoating and stigmatisation of minority groups.

Fast forward to 2013 – an enthusiastic defender of free speech, Bob Katter appears to have picked up where Hanson left off. While some in his party hierarchy have moved quickly against candidates who have made offensive comments, ultimately, a fish rots from its head. Extreme and offensive statements like those of the last fortnight are a logical consequence of the absolute freedom of speech advocated by the party leader.

Freedom of speech is always a limited concept in a functioning democracy. Not all views are equally valid and the right to free speech should never trump the right of another individual to be free from vilification or persecution. These limits are the hallmark of a civilised democracy.

While conservative populists denounce these limits as ‘political correctness,’ without them the harmony and stability of our democracy is threatened.

Equating homosexuality with paedophilia as Australia Party candidate Tess Corbet did is not only plain wrong, it represents one of the most dangerous forms of hate speech – inciting fear of and revulsion against the target group. It should be condemned without qualification, yet while the candidate in question has since resigned, Bob Katter has refused to repudiate the comments.

A series of other candidates have been embroiled in controversies. We can expect more of these outbursts as the election campaign gathers pace, as while the Australia Party may be aiming to present itself as a benign voice for regional interests, it is clearly harbouring some of the more extreme elements of our politics. Without a leader with the will to rein in these forces, it will surely join One Nation on the hardline fringe of our politics.

The decision of Katter’s outfit to contest candidates at the next federal election represents a challenge for all sides of politics and with the right preference arrangements, it could prove competitive in a range of senate contests.

Labor’s preferences may prove particularly decisive in Queensland, where the Australia Party performed strongly at the last state election. Here Labor should think long and hard about any potential association with Katter.

After all, the decision of the Labor Party to preference Family First at the 2004 federal election delivered Steve Fielding to the senate off a primary vote of less than 2 per cent (at the expense of the Greens). The move backfired spectacularly on the ALP, bolstering the Coalition’s control of the senate and Fielding continued to create a headache for Labor in its first term of government.

Further, as the Australian Democrats also discovered through their association with Family First at that election, voters are becoming much more savvy about preference arrangements and are inclined to punish those that align themselves with micro-parties that offend their own values.

For the Coalition, preference arrangements with Katter could further bolster his efforts to present himself as a champion of the bush, further undermining the fading appeal of the Nationals. In addition, the extreme forces of the Australia Party would almost certainly unsettle those already uneasy with Abbott’s attitudes on a range of social issues.

Both the Labor and Liberal parties should reflect on their approach to Bob Katter, for if the last week is anything to go by, both risk being burnt by any deal with the devil.

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