When Covid-19 hit, I’d been wondering for a long time what glued together the disparate positions of the religious right in Australia: for deregulation yet also massive taxpayer subsidy; for free enterprise yet also against the free movement of labour; for the equality of all freedoms as long as one, religion, is more equal than others; for “our children’s future” yet also against climate science.
During the coronavirus crisis, the patterns began to repeat: divergent positions coalescing under an intellectually amorphous but readily identifiable tribal banner. What unified that tribe was, for want of a better word, a contrarianism, what impolite adherents might call an “up yours” to political correctness.
A good person to watch as a bellwether of this tribalism is Mark Latham. No one in Australian public life better embodies the principle of up yours.
Latham took up Labor politics as an up yours to privileged people. He then quit Labor as an up yours to Labor. He moved into media commentary and adopted a pose of up yours to his personal enemies, before broadening his stance to a general up yours to political correctness. He said up yours to his own backers and lost his job, more than once. Then he went in search of a political party that represented the spirit of up yours, and now, representing Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, sits on the New South Wales legislative council, from which he can say up yours to pretty much everyone.
On 24 January 2020, the day the first person tested positive for Covid-19 in Australia, Latham tweeted: “Let me guess. Coronavirus is caused by climate change.” He was retweeted 345 times and received 468 replies. Two weeks later, he harnessed it to another culture-war hobbyhorse: Asian immigration. On 7 February, he tweeted: “So WHO declares a global health emergency over Coronavirus and Australian universities plan to bring 10s of thousands of Chinese students here to be quarantined in ‘regional ‘facilities’, having passed through our airports/transport system. Pure nuts Unis = money churning centres.”
Three days later, he was making Latham jokes again: “Things we hate in the suburbs, in ascending order: Traffic jams, Cancelled trains, Asbestos, Safe Schools program, Coronavirus, Cancer, Hollywood moralising, The Greens.”
As the Covid-19 outbreak escalated, @RealMarkLatham focused his energies on promoting nuclear energy, knowing more than anyone else about domestic violence, attacking the ABC, the Greens and the NSW Department of Education (in particular, for allowing “our” students to fall behind “children of migrants”), and – another of his menagerie of pet topics – the Israel Folau case.
Replying to a Daily Telegraph story about Christian rugby players feeling “muzzled” by the banning of Folau, Latham wrote on 26 February: “Similarly, how must the NRL Islander players in their prayer circles after every game feel about the NRL banning of Folau? This is what multiculturalism looks like, in Minto and beyond.” And, commensurately, on 28 February, he found time to belittle Ian Thorpe: “Ian Thorpe: we need human rights for all, including gay rights. Ian Thorpe: human rights must not include religious rights.”
When the tally of world coronavirus cases passed 80,000, Latham was echoing Donald Trump and dog-whistling the “Wuhan illness” (as part of a tweet rubbishing the National Rugby League for promoting Indigenous footballer Latrell Mitchell as the face of its advertising campaign).
Would that Tacitus was our overriding spirit today
Coronavirus had become a facemask over Latham’s culture war, which he decided must not be allowed to lapse while the world was dealing with a deadly pandemic. On 20 March, he responded to an article on a clean-energy site which reminded the world that the “curve” of carbon emissions also needed to be “flattened”. Latham retorted: “It had to come: How CoronaVirus response is really all about climate change policy!!!”
Soon we were to be swamped again by Twitter wars over George Pell, allegedly offensive TV shows and political cartoons, statues, historical names, Guy Sebastian … The coronavirus hadn’t killed the culture wars, it had only sent them into a momentary recess, and when they resumed, their tang had been sharpened by the crisis.
“It is the rare fortune of these days that one may think what one likes and say what one thinks.” So wrote the Roman historian Tacitus, a century after Christ. His response to that “rare fortune” was to keep his prose tight and to the point: he was known for his economy of expression, fathering the description “taciturn”. Would that Tacitus was our overriding spirit today.
Instead, our verbal diarrhoea promotes weird lines of conformity. All that up yours and yet so much herd behaviour. The free-speech right, no less than the PC-left, resemble no ancient tribe so closely as the Monty Python gag: “Repeat after me: we’re ALL INDIVIDUALS!”
When it came to adapting their cultural hobbyhorses to Covid-19, the rebel right was complaining about the erosion of liberties and the overkill of restrictions. The Institute of Public Affairs’ director, John Roskam, was calling Australia a “police state”, writing: “25 million Australians have been placed under indefinite house arrest, children’s playgrounds are locked and patrolled by security guards, and the police fly drones over beaches and parks.” He likened Victoria to “the worst socialist regimes”, even National Socialist. He praised Donald Trump for promising to stop donating US funds to the World Health Organisation, while criticising the Australian government for the “debilitating debt” its health measures were lumping on taxpayers.
The right’s focus on personal liberties was unsurprising, and indeed faithful to principles of libertarian politics. What was really arresting, though, was the confirmation of a pattern seen during the Israel Folau saga: it was not the left but the right that now channelled the energy of radical, unfocused, up-yours political protest in Australia. Who was calling on people to eschew face mask and “big brother” contact tracing apps, to ignore fines? Not union leaders or Green politicians. Civil disobedience was owned by the right.
Perhaps most revealing was the appearance, on 10 May 2020, of Australia’s first political protest against the coronavirus lockdown: it was Melbourne rightwingers who were out on the streets, on the steps of Melbourne Town Hall, bearing placards about fighting for their rights, blaming China and the 5G network for the virus, opposing vaccinations and, for reasons best known to themselves, breaking into a chant of “Lock up Bill Gates”. Progressives were at home following the rules while conservatives out getting arrested by police.
Later, those same coronasceptics performed a U-turn to criticise premier Daniel Andrews for not supervising hotel quarantine closely enough, allowing a new outbreak of the disease. The only way to reconcile these 180-degree reverses is to acknowledge that incoherence is itself a form of up yours.
Australian political radicalism now wore the Southern Cross and the Union Jack, formerly the national symbol of anti-radicalism. Even the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 were an exception that proved the new rule. These protests were directed against a specific racism, spurred by the death of George Floyd in the US, and their targets had names: police brutality, deaths in custody, institutional racism.
The protests of the right, on the other hand, were protests against everything. They brought to mind Marlon Brando’s character Johnny in the film The Wild One. Asked “What are you rebelling against?”, Johnny replies: “Whattaya got?” In 1953, Johnny was a forerunner of a generation of progressive protest. Today, his character would belong to the alt-right. Lacking a specific enemy, this form of rage never spends its energy. The job of fighting everything can never be completed.
This is an edited extract from Truth is Trouble by Malcolm Knox (Scribner, $32.99)