Cast your mind back to late 2019. Six months after Scott Morrison’s “miracle” federal election win over Bill Shorten, bushfires are raging through a drought-stricken eastern Australia, and there’s chatter on the airwaves about climate change.
One morning, deputy PM Michael McCormack (remember him?) responded indignantly when asked the climate question: “We’ve had fires in Australia since time began, and what people need now is a little bit of sympathy, understanding and real assistance… They don’t need the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital-city greenies.”
Hearing McCormack trot out those well-worn lines, I remember being struck by his use of the word “woke”, with its vague connotations of black American culture. Coming from a conservative politician from Wagga, what was that all about?
In black soul music, to be woke is (or used to be) a good thing – to be alert, enlightened, at one with things around us – but McCormack meant nothing of the sort. His source was right-wing politics in the US, where it has become the standard put-down of people speaking out against ignorance, bigotry and racism – especially when the debate involves black people.
“We will never ever surrender to the ‘woke’ mob. Florida is where ‘woke’ goes to die.” Those are the words of Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida. In his sights are the history of black slavery, abortion, gay marriage, non-binary gender issues, and anything else that offends his limited notion of the American ideal.
DeSantis wants to sanitise America by controlling what children are taught. He is preventing school libraries from holding books dealing with topics he deems off-limits. He’s nurturing right-wing school board candidates and a parents’ movement, Moms for Liberty. He publicly shames and isolates people outside his narrow cultural stereotype – anyone foreign, black, gay, trans, liberal-democratic… or just different.
Against a background of war, Covid, climate change and rising living costs, mental health and social dislocation are afflicting communities everywhere – fertile ground for the politics of resentment here as well as the US.
The simple message from actual or would-be autocrats – my way or the highway – is based on ignorance and lies. Liberal democracy is vastly more complex and difficult because it seeks to encompass minority cultures and views while ensuring the web of systems and structures needed to encompass dissent, including the rule of law, remains viable.
Michael McCormack’s “woke” outburst showed that narrow right-wing prejudices in the US can and do find their way into Australian politics. Now the prospect of an Indigenous Voice is fanning resentment in conservative circles led by National Party luminaries, including former deputy prime ministers Barnaby Joyce and John Anderson.
Their position is based not on careful analysis of policy issues but on old mindsets that took root in the early years of white settlement, when everyone was expected to know their place and stay there. It brings to mind former prime minister John Howard’s distaste for “black armband” history, his opposition to the Mabo and Wik High Court judgments, and his refusal to offer a government apology to stolen generations.
Two decades later, Australia sees things differently. While becoming more aware of past and present injustices, we are seeing how the whole country can benefit by giving voice to wisdom and insights built up over thousands of generations living in this landscape. That is what’s on offer in the Voice referendum.
When political discourse between major parties breaks down we’re in trouble. The US experience demonstrates the danger of putting party ahead of country and threatening social tolerance and inclusion, the hallmark of a functioning liberal democracy.
A lot has happened since McCormack’s woke moment. Devastating fire and flood have undermined the stance of so many in the Coalition against substantive climate policy. Covid focused minds on health and wellbeing, and Labor’s federal victory last year brought the Indigenous Voice to the top of the policy agenda.
And now there’s Aston. The electorate that cemented John Howard’s ascendancy in a 2001 by-election has again spoken, this time favouring Anthony Albanese’s Labor in an exceptional result: the first by-election in over a century where a government has taken a seat from its opposition.
Liberal leader Peter Dutton still refuses to engage constructively on policy, but Aston says loudly and clearly that the party is headed for oblivion if he doesn’t. This was a vote for enlightened government, a warning to politicians that they treat electors like dummies at their peril.
Aston was the people’s memo to Michael McCormack and his Coalition colleagues: we’re woke and proud of it, and we expect you to be the same.