Whatever we might think of the Quarterly Essay as a publishing/political enterprise (Not very much in my case ) we should welcome the appearance of David Marr’s The White Queen: One Nation and the Politics of Race (QE 65), a powerful examination of the racism underlying mainstream Australian politics. Yet, there are real problems with Marr’s analysis, with his treatment of Howard’s role in the recent politics of race and with some of the language he uses.
Before I get to these issues, let me comment briefly on the QE enterprise. QE claims to present, in the words of the back cover, ‘significant contributions to the general debate’ in the form of single essays of about 25,000 words. ‘it aims to present the widest range of political, intellectual and cultural opinion’. (QE’s website is hardly more informative.) ‘Widest range’ in just four essays a year is a huge, not to say pretentious ambition, leaving us to wonder who gets to choose which issues just have to be covered this year and which can be left to another day – and, of course, who gets to write at length about them?
There are two major villains in Marr’s story. One is Ms (a title she would likely reject) Hanson, the White Queen of his Essay’s title. Marr quotes her definition of a racist as “A person who believes their race to be superior to another’s”. In this sense, she’s not a racist, although it should not be difficult to persuade a detached observer that much of her conduct rests on an implicit racism – except for the fact that the careful textual analysis required to do so has no place in Australian political discourse. Marr treats Hanson’s anti-Muslim tirades and the more general Australian targeting of Muslims as clearly racist. Many of us would agree and many others would not. Since she makes no reference to Muslim and non-Muslim races, her conduct is not racist in her own terms. I would take Marr’s point a little further here and say that the political enterprise of preventing or containing radicalisation is racist through and through. It simply ramps a conventional anti-muslim prejudice up to another level. When ‘radicalised’ and related terms are used without qualification today, they invariably target Muslims, although, to be fair, the language of radicalisation was also used in America to target the radical Black Panthers and the left-wing student movement, the weather underground in the late 1960s and ’70s. Still, ‘radicalisation’ is talked about in Australia today as something that happens exclusively to Muslims, not to once-moderate reactionaries like Malcolm Turnbull or to neo-Nazis and other white supremacists. It is telling that Australia has a bipartisan consensus on radicalisation and the need to combat it. This, too, is an important aspect of the Australian politics of race. Towards the end of his essay, Marr cites Anne Aly – herself a Muslim and a rare voice of moderation in the counter-radicalisation business – as an authority but, as he complains often enough about Howard, without calling this deplorable business out on its racism.
The other, more substantial, villain, call him the Black Prince, is John Howard. Marr accuses Howard of several things. One is simply refusing to call out Hanson’s racism when she first appeared on the national stage in the 1990s. Howard’s own reflections on this refusal in his 2010 book Lazarus Rising are worth quoting:
“Could the impact of Hanson have been less if I had attacked her… immediately after her maiden speech….[It] would have…gratuitously alienated [her supporters] from me – and for what purpose, other than the political benefit of the Labor party” (quoted by Marr, pp.38-9)
Worse, Howard chose to defend Hanson’s supporters from the charge of racism. Rather, he said, they were “a group of Australians who did not have a racist bone in their bodies, who believed that in different ways they had been passed over.” Howard, in effect, aimed to appease Hanson’s supporters in the hope of winning their votes or, at least, their preferences. “Something grubby”, Marr observes (p.39), “entered national life at this point.” Howard, we are told, ”shattered the twenty year truce [between the Coalition and Labor] on multiracial immigration.” (p.25) In practice, Labor also chose to appease or, at least, not to offend Hanson’s supporters. Marr maintains that the bipartisan appeasement of a racist minority “tainted Australian politics” (p2)
“Tainted”, “grubby”. These are terms of moral condemnation, not dispassionate analysis. Its not difficult to see what Marr is passionate about here and many, perhaps most, of his readers would agree with him. Even so, it is worth pausing to consider what this condemnation adds to our understanding of the Australian politics of race. Let me begin with the twenty year truce that Howard is alleged to have repudiated. Experienced diplomats know that, even when an agreed text is written and duly signed, the parties to an agreement are likely to take away different understandings of what has been agreed between them. In the case of unwritten agreements, the parties are even less likely to take the same view of what they have agreed. Marr understands the ‘truce’ as an agreement between Labor and the Coalition not to pursue racist votes, This understanding clearly points to Howard as the villain. Yet, a slightly different understanding yields another view. Suppose we understand the truce as an agreement to keep race out of politics. On this view, the truce was decisively broken in 1995 by Labor’s Racial Hatred Act, which amends another Labor (Whitlam) Government’s Racial Discrimination Act by adding the controversial Section 18C and by Keating’s Redfern Speech a few years earlier. Labor, on this view, repudiated the truce by not leaving racist dogs in peace.
This minor variation on Marr’s story hardly lets Howard off the hook but it does knock him off the Black Prince’s perch, leaving him simply as one of the more successful Dark Knights of Australian politics. As for Marr’s ‘tainted’ and ‘something grubby’, the particular contamination he addresses came in once the dogs had been aroused. Yet we should recognise that, far from being squeaky-clean, Australian politics was already tainted by an underlying racism and grubby enough before Howard arrived on the Dark Side. Nor does the ALP come out of this revised story very well. True, it remained largely on the decent non-racist side – but Labor never found the courage to do much about it.
One final observation: if ‘tainted’ and ‘something grubby’ are terms of moral condemnation, the same is true of ‘dog-whistle’. All suggest that the writer is morally superior to the people under discussion, in the dog-whistle case, Hanson’s & Howard’s white working class supporters. Marr notes that Australian right-wing talk of elites and their attitudes towards bulk of the population has been imported directly from the discourse of the American Right, along with the curious idea that Islam is not a religion. I agree, but, once we examine the conduct of the Australian Left, it becomes clear that the Right’s complaints about left-wing elites are not entirely without foundation. We might also note that the application of the pejorative term ‘dog-whistle’ to political analysis may also have been imported from America – at least, according to some commentators.
Marr describes John Howard (p.5) as “the great dog-whistler, the politician who could send a signal to the bush that went almost unheard in town.” The term draws on the image of the dog-whistle, once commonly used in sheep herding and also known as the ‘silent’ whistle. It was designed, to sound at a frequency, 20,000Hz or more, that would be inaudible to human ears but would be noticed by most dogs whose hearing is generally more sensitive to high frequency sounds than that of humans. Where humans would be unaffected by the whistle, except for the odd headache, suitably trained or habituated dogs would receive both a sound and the instruction that came with it – telling them, for example, to stop where they were or to round up sheep that had broken away from the main flock – and could be trusted to respond accordingly. Skilled dog-whistlers like Howard knew what they were doing while the dogs – Hanson/Howard’s working class supporters – could be expected to react without thinking.
In fact, the difference between bush and town does not fit the Australian Left’s usage of the term, which is more concerned with distinguishing between the political conduct of Hanson’s, and Howard’s, racist supporters who, Marr tells us, were as likely to be found in the cities as in the bush, and one’s own, more sophisticated conduct. While it appears to be an analytic concept, I have argued elsewhere that ‘dog-whistle’ functions as little more than a means of asserting the speaker’s ethical superiority over the ‘dogs’ who hear the whistle and act accordingly. [“whistling the dog” in John Uhr & Ryan Walter (eds) 2014 Studies in Australian Political Rhetoric, Canberra: ANU Press, free download at the ANU Press website] To his credit, Marr makes little use of this concept in the body of his discussion.