How Election Campaigns Hurt Us
📓 In which I suck a fat BONG and discuss bigotry
This last week in politics has been a rollercoaster, if that rollercoaster was designed to careen down in perpetuity until it slips off the tracks and plummets into an abyss. Watching the Religious Discrimination Bill debated in parliament was like watching the opening to a Final Destination film, if the things being killed off were the basic human rights of Australia’s most vulnerable communities and my own faith in the democratic system. Of course, as soon as it was pulled from the Senate I tried to convince myself it was a nightmare, knowing full well that all signs point to the same horrors unfolding in parliament after the election, regardless of who we elect.
Add to this these other waking nightmares; the crumbling aged care system, the fumbled “apology” to women, koalas being listed as endangered, anti-vaxxers not being endangered enough, a former Australian of the Year revealing she allegedly received a threatening phone call on behalf of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and Morrison threatening the nation with a career a stripped back ukulele covers album if we don’t vote the Coalition in – it’s been a lot. The election date hasn’t even been set yet, but I’m feeling so tense I’m tempted to lay back on my couch, pull a few cones, and forget this election is even happening.
I’m supposed to use this platform to help make sense of the electoral process (and perhaps help us get through this election while maintaining our collective sanity). But all I can think about is how last week my trans and disabled friends were used as a political battering ram by both major parties to help secure election support from a minority in the Christian right (or, to deflect their ire) which doesn’t make sense to me at all.
I think when we approach election campaigns we can get hopped on Clive Palmer ads and democracy sausages, and forget the real human toll these campaigns can take. I remember, during the Howard years, some of my Chinese and Vietnamese school mates dreaded elections. We weren’t even old enough to vote yet, but they knew that an upcoming election cycle meant a spike in harassment from white kids at school and white strangers on the street. This isn’t surprising considering we were kids during Pauline Hanson’s “swamped by Asians” era.
But, just like the inexplicable popularity of low-rise jeans, this isn’t a phenomena contained to the late 90s and early 2000s. In fact, during the 2019 federal election reports of racism, islamophobia, antisemitism, homophobia and transphobia surged, with targeted public attacks seen against a number of candidates, including campaign posters grafittied with swastikas and hate remarks like “kill all abos”. Bigotry played such a big role in the last election, news of it hit the New York Times, and some speculated it was a deciding factor in the Coalition’s victory.
On Saturday, at the Strathfield byelection, we saw NSW state Labor candidate Jason Yat-Sen Li and his volunteers targeted with racial abuse at the polling booths, with some calling into question Li’s “loyalty” and “patriotism”, and others just shouting various slurs like they were playing a very racist game of Wordle.
This came only two days after Liberal MP Peter Dutton told parliament that China was backing Labor in the upcoming federal election. It would be an amazing get if this were true, but Anthony Albanese can barely persuade Australians to back his leadership, let alone an entire global super power. With this, in addition to the fact that Labor has supported the Coalition on most of their major decisions concerning China over the past few years, it’s difficult to justify Dutton’s claim as anything other than vitriolic race-baiting, a move to sensationalise the so-called “China threat” and attract voters from the extreme right who’ve been otherwise distracted by anti-vaxxer rallies and taking a dump on parliament lawn.
I worry that we’ve become so accustomed to outright bigotry being branded as “election strategy”, we don’t always recognise the harm it causes. An example of this harm comes from Deakin University’s Chair in Global Islamic Politics, Greg Barton, who claims the mainstreaming of white supremacy in Australia stems from former Prime Minister John Howard’s decision to back Pauline Hanson’s extremist politics during his post-9/11 campaign trail. This, according to Barton, led to the rise in popularity of hate groups and the radicalisation of violent white extremists like Christchurch shooter Brenton Tarrant.
Sorry to bum you guys out, especially after the week we’ve just had, but I think it’s vital we understand how dangerous these election campaigns can be, and I’m nervous about this one. If Morrison’s already desperate enough to play ukulele on national TV, God knows what else he’s capable of.
There is good news here though: We get to vote. It isn’t much, but it’s something. And we should all be voting with the knowledge that we have the power to change not just our government, but our culture. I think that’s pretty cool, but I’m a bit stoned at the moment* so I’m feeling fairly optimistic about the upcoming election in general, especially if that election involves a sausage sizzle.
*For legal reasons, I have to specify that this is a joke. I’m only high on life, and about five cups of coffee.