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Morrison changes tack on 'toxic tribalism' but stays on message

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

In the wake of the Christchurch massacre, Morrison has called for an end to “toxic tribalism” but this doesn’t mean he won’t exploit it in the federal election, writes Dr Martin Hirst.

TWO THINGS are likely in the wake of the Christchurch massacre and the NSW State Election: Scott Morrison will not let go of his commitment to toxic white nationalism and the Coalition will preference One Nation and other racist factions above Labor and the Greens in the Federal Election.

The third predictable leg of this tripod of tribalism is that most of the news media and commentariat will go along with Morrison’s decisions and ideology because they treat politics as a game of appearances rather than a matter of real consequences for real people.

Perhaps we all thought that the shock of a self-confessed “eco-fascist” who was groomed into murderous violence by his connections to Australia’s home-grown white supremacists would shift the political debate decisively.

It hasn’t. Maybe it did for a few too short days and hours but by the end of last week, it was back to the same old, same old. As we predicted last week that “normal transmissions” would be resumed quickly and that Morrison would lead the way by returning to the rhetoric of border security. Unfortunately, that is precisely what has happened.

Border security rhetoric continues

It has taken less than two weeks after the worst terrorist attack in our region since 88 Australians died in the Bali bombings of October 2002, for the COALition to work out how to adjust its rhetoric and get its re-election strategy back on track.

The key shift has only been in the messaging, not in the policy direction and not in Morrison’s intent.

For all his bluster in the interview with Waleed Aly, in which he sought to re-frame the now infamous 2010 cabinet discussion, Morrison is a leopard who cannot and will not change his spots.

The Prime Minister stands accused of seeking to inflame divisions by using Australia’s Muslim community as a political punching bag in order to connect to voters still stuck in the racist dialectic of Australia being a white, European country.

In the interview, he attempted to deflect criticism by claiming that he had merely been “addressing” the issue. This mealy-mouthed response dodged the central question about whether Morrison was seeking to inflame the issue or calm it down and it was delivered with all the shouty arrogance that we’ve come to expect from this hollow tin barrel of a man.

That Morrison is his own aggressive and endless echo chamber on legs is not the issue.

As Katharine Murphy wrote in The Guardian, we already know this about the Prime Minister — he will be judged on his record:

'... not because there is something special about Morrison that invites a special nasty kind of scrutiny, but because prime ministers are always judged on their records.'

Like most things with Morrison, his empathy is as fake as his glad-handing and his smiling jocular public persona. He is indeed a shallow pond, full of scum and toxic algae blooms. In this vein, we can confidently say that Morrison’s new-found concerns with “tribalism” is just as fake and transactional. He is not interested in healing wounds in our national psyche, he is still intent on stoking division for political gain. Invoking “tribalism” is just a slight modification of his earlier very explicit anti-Muslim dog-whistling.

That is why it's disappointing that some in the Press Gallery have fallen for it.

Let’s return for a moment to Katharine Murphy’s Saturday column. Most of it was pretty good. She rightly saw through Morrison’s attempt to bluster and bully Waleed Aly and his pathetic plea to be given a second chance.

“Don’t pre-judge me", pleaded Morrison and Murphy skewered him with precision:

'You cannot outrun your record as a public figure, because you are still that public figure, and your identity is the sum of your record.'

But there is also a problem in Murphy’s analysis. When Morrison talks about trying to end “tribalism” as he did early last week, Murphy agrees with him:

'Now, Morrison, Prime Minister of Australia, believes there is too much tribalism, and the current excess of tribalism is corrosive to social cohesion…

 

He’s absolutely correct; I applaud this sentiment.'

By conceding this point to Morrison, Murphy reveals, again, that there is far too much ideological agreement between supposedly independent journalists and government figures. Instead of critical distance and critique, the political agenda of the Government is endorsed.

Importantly, it also allows Morrison to continue setting the agenda:

Tribalism is junk science

The idea that Australia is riven by tribal division has now become the media narrative, even though in terms of sociology and political science it is, at best, a nebulous concept that displaces other important categories of analysis, such as class, economic division, ethnicity and gender.

 “Tribalism” is an appealing trope of pop psychology and by invoking it Morrison is only after one result – to signal to One Nation voters and supporters of the conservative fringe that he is still on their side.

This is what he is reported to have said in a speech to the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce, just days after Christchurch:

 "I see every Australian as an individual, not part of some tribal group to be traded off against another.”

 

While denouncing racism and “tribalism”, Morrison also said the community needed to be free to hold “legitimate policy debates” on issues such as migrant intake and border security without the conversations being “hijacked” by accusations of intolerance or racial hatred.

This betrays Morrison’s true intentions. He is signalling to the hardcore racist rump that they are free to continue their slander of Muslims because both “tribes” are as bad as each other.

This was confirmed by further remarks in the same speech reported in the Nine newspapers:

'This is true of the left and the right, and even more so from those shouting from the fringes to a mainstream of quiet Australians that just want to get on with their lives.'

This is the same “both sides” language that Donald Trump deployed after white supremacists marched through Charlottesville and Heather Heyer was murdered by a maniac Nazi in August 2017. Christopher Chantrill correctly describes nationalism of figures like Trump and Morrison as 'fake tribalism'.

Morrison is using “tribalism” to the same effect. The use of "both sides are bad" rhetoric is an attempt by the PM to place himself in the middle ground and the mainstream media amplify it because they are in sync with the ideology behind it.

After Gladys: To boldly go where racists have gone before

The re-election of the Berejiklian Government in NSW on 23 March will only embolden Morrison to continue down this path. In the Waleed Aly interview, he refused to commit to putting the racist fringe elements last on the Liberals’ preference allocation. This was a “wait and see” decision and, now that it’s clear that One Nation has a sizeable base in NSW, the wait is over.

Liberal Party strategists know that the Coalition needs to harvest the seven to ten per cent of voters who are willing to cast a ballot for out-and-out racism if it is to have any chance at all of winning the upcoming federal election.

When asked about preference deals with One Nation on Insiders, Liberal Senator Arthur Sinodinos also refused to commit to putting them last. He managed to get around the question by saying that he personally would “repudiate” the racists but didn’t go so far as saying he wouldn’t accept their preferences.

Morrison knows his only option is to continue to play the race card, he is carefully recrafting the message post-Christchurch, but the message has not changed.

You can follow Dr Martin Hirst on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

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