THE POLITICS OF THE EXTREME, AT HOME AND ABROAD - OPINION PIECE
The shift to the right in America is being mirrored in Australia by a desperately out of touch Coalition government, writes Labor Senator Lisa Singh.
If a week is a long time in politics then for the US President Donald Trump’s administration, stars are born and die before the day is out. It is easy to forget that his term is not even a month old when every day a new scandal emerges: the Muslim travel ban, the Global Gag order, the unravelling of Prime Minister “Trumble’s” refugee deal, and revelations of contact between Russia and his campaign team.
While the 24-hour news cycle pushes each story aside, as all eyes turn to the new outrage, it is worth stepping back and looking at the larger picture. How did we end up on this rollercoaster, and how does it mirror our own experiences in Australia?
Trump’s rise mirrors the growth of Australia’s own right-wing extremists. Both tap into a distrust of the political system, and twist people’s personal struggle as being the fault of others.
The target is usually foreigners, but anyone who is different is a problem for these people. These groups appeal to the nostalgia of a simpler time, but ignore how far we’ve come since then, and the impossibility of returning to a mythical halcyon past that never really existed.
Under Labor, Australia had a strong welfare system that protected people who were truly in need, with good access to education and healthcare services, and entrenched fundamental rights. We had a society that gave Australians the chance to find their feet and achieve their potential.
But the Coalition Government has overseen radical cuts to welfare services and staff since 2013. It’s raised the cost of health and education, sacked so many public servants that Medicare and Centrelink are now dysfunctional, implemented a faulty and cruel Centrelink debt debacle, and failed to force multinational companies to pay even a fraction of the tax that the rest of us must pay.
The gradual dismantling of Australia’s safety net is a national tragedy, and it’s no surprise that these mean-spirited cutbacks are helping to push some people to the political edges, especially those on low or fixed incomes.
And instead of addressing its many failures, the Turnbull Government is now openly pandering to the extremists that it helped to create. The decisions to undermine Australia’s protections against racism, to attack renewable energy, and to keep innocent people locked away indefinitely in offshore hellholes do not reflect leadership. They reflect a government without a plan for Australia, being directed by an extremist fringe that it has effectively ceded power to.
The election of Donald Trump has also led to some much-needed focus on so-called ‘fake news’, the creation of false reports that seek to deceive by distorting reality to manipulate people’s voting intentions.
Countries around the world, and also Facebook itself, are now scrambling to address the fake news phenomenon, after realising the damage that it can do.
Here in Australia we’re no strangers to fake news, which has been plaguing our political debates for years now.
Australia has locked away thousands of asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru. The Turnbull government says they are being processed, but in reality they are indefinitely incarcerated.
We have a refugee deal with the US that the Turnbull government says will clear the offshore detention camps, but only 1,250 asylum seekers will be considered for resettlement, leaving hundreds in limbo.
Now Donald Trump says the Manus and Nauru asylum seekers will be subject to extreme vetting, while in reality the interviews of asylum seekers by US authorities abruptly ceased after Trump signed his illogical and xenophobic Muslim travel ban.
Then there are the extremist Australian groups with deliberately deceptive names, including misnomers such as the Australian Liberty Alliance, and Love Australia or Leave.
These groups say all Australians should “assimilate,” but in the lead-up to Australia Day this year we saw them mount a foul protest against a billboard that included two little girls of the Muslim faith waving Australian flags while celebrating last year’s Australia Day celebrations.
In all these cases, and many, many more, the reality is completely different to the fake news and labelling that we’re being bombarded with by the Turnbull government, right-wing extremists, and certain media outlets with a political agenda.
Australia is a great place. A successful multicultural country. A true melting pot of cultures and immigrants. But we are under threat from a government that doesn’t understand the damage it is doing, and from the fake news phenomenon that has contributed so much to the rise of the extreme right in Australia, and around the globe.
We must never stop fighting against extremists, and I will continue to call out the Turnbull government, the groups it is helping to create, and compliant media outlets that believe pandering to extremism is an acceptable path to power.
This opinion piece was first published in New Matilda on Wednesday, 1 March 2017