For someone claiming that he has an exclusive hold on the high moral ground regarding ‘love,’ Peter Van Onselen certainly is a good hater. For everyone who dared to vote “No,” — all 4.8 million of them — Van Onselen wrote in the Weekend Australian that they are nothing more than “loudmouthed reactionaries” and “dinosaurs”. How’s that for respect for readers from a senior columnist of The Australian?
In his Saturday opinion piece, which is best described as a paroxysm of loathing and insult, he lashed individuals and institutions alike, making deeply disparaging comments of all who voted “No.” He slammed the churches as “thoroughly out of touch” and mocked former prime minister Tony Abbott’s misfortunes. Abbott, incidentally, was the person mainly responsible for the idea of the plebiscite and saw it as a means of holding a divided Australia together.
However, what amazed me most of all was that Van Onselen, the self-styled current affairs commentator, missed the most significant political aspect of the situation in the post-plebiscite period: the need for reconciliation after such a divisive issue. Mind you, none of the other opinion writers in The Australian, such as Jennifer Oriel, Dennis Shanahan, Paul Kelly, Greg Sheridan, Janet Albrechtsen — to name just a few — failed to see it. Namely, the issue of the ongoing survival of the Liberal Party in general, the Labor Party in Western Sydney in particular, and the burning question of religious freedom, which the vast majority of Australians want protected.
Which is an all the more surprising omission from his article when one considers that Van Onselen is supposed to be a professor of politics. Now, I’m a pastor rather than a politician, but let me just make a few observations about the general area in which I live.
Van Onselen might never ever venture past George Street but in this part of Western Sydney, which is only about 25 kilometres from Vaucluse, clustered all together there were eight of the 10 electorates that returned the highest “No” vote: Blaxland, held by Jason Clare, on 73.9 per cent; Tony Burke’s Watson on 69.6 per cent; Chris Bowen’s McMahon, 64.9 per cent; Chris Hayes’ Fowler and Anne Stanley’s Werriwa, both on 63.7 per cent; Julie Owens’ Parramatta, 61.6 per cent; Ed Husic’s Chifley, 58.7 per cent and Linda Burney’s Barton, 56.4 per cent. Abutting them to the north were four more seats that also voted “No”: Bennelong, currently up for grabs; Liberal Alex Hawke’s electorate of Mitchell and Michelle Rowland’s Greenway and, to the south, another in Liberal David Coleman’s electorate of Banks.
Things sure are going to look interesting in Blaxland at the next election. I wonder how many candidates Cory Bernardi is preparing to stand in Western Sydney? Because here’s the thing. The people of Western Sydney are ready to jump ship. And not just in those Labor electorates. There are some, like my own electorate of Reid, where there are many Muslim and church going voters who feel thoroughly disillusioned with the Liberals. After generations of voting for either of the major parties, there are significant rumblings that indicate there are quite a few of them who are now considering a change.
If neither the Labor not the Liberal Parties get their act together in protecting religious and civil freedoms, then you can bet that people will be turning away from them. As James Allan points out, there are huge political realignments on the not-too-distant horizon. For example, the Western Australian Liberal Party could be decimated as a result of the longstanding issue over the distribution of the GST. People in the west have even raised the possibility of secession from the Commonwealth in the last year. That’s the depth of feeling that the issue has generated. They have yet to punish the Federal Liberals for their continual inaction on the GST. That could be coming in the very near future.
Increasingly, I’m hearing from friends who have been life-long Liberal voters, that they’ve had enough. And they’re switching over to The Australian Conservatives because they want to support a party that truly supports them. It is interesting that even leading journalists are filled with disquiet over the state of the Liberal Party. Note the comments in The Weekend Australian by Janet Albrechtsen:
Here’s another shameful admission in the diary of a political orphan. At the recent local council elections in my electorate that fall within Malcolm Turnbull’s federal seat of Wentworth, I registered a donkey vote. First time ever. Last time? Maybe not.
The Turnbull government has deserted conservative voters like me. The Prime Minister rarely talks about fiscal repair, and when he mentions “Liberal values” there’s no meat on the bones of that phrase.”
So, where do we go from here? While even six months ago Cory Bernardi might have seemed like a bit of a political maverick, more and more his party is being considered a legitimate alternative by many alienated Liberal voters. It may be that a few old-style conservative voters join them too. One Nation is on the rise as well: look at the popularity of Pauline Hanson, especially in Queensland.
Van Onselen neither acknowledges, let alone addresses, any of this. Instead, he gloats that for the past fourteen years now he has been consistently berating the Australian public about the issue of same-sex marriage. And then he proceeds to lecture all and sundry on how socially enlightened his own upbringing was compared to that of everyone else.
The cold, hard statistical reality though is that there are 4.8 million people in Australia — or approximately 40 per cent — who don’t think that the institution of marriage should be re-defined. Van Onselen believes that this will make our country a “more inclusive society,” but the real concern is that it will only make us further more divided.
If the writings of Van Onselen himself are anything to go by, then that’s definitely the direction we are heading in. For those who voted “No,” already being labelled and dismissed by people like him as ‘loudmouthed reactionaries’ and ‘dinosaurs,’ the divide is only getting wider. Van Onselen’s divide-and-conquer policy will backfire as many people see it as politically irresponsible and the exact opposite of what is required.
Not surprisingly, Julia Baird, another triumphalist advocate for the Yes vote, has poured even more fuel onto the fire, and in keeping with her predictable rage against male patriarchy and No voters, has sanctimoniously condemned Christian clergy who opposed the redefinition of marriage as being Pharisees, characterised by “greed, selfishness and a lack of love.”
The vehemence of Van Onselen and Julia Baird’s articles last Saturday indicates why ‘religious freedom’ and ‘protection against religious hatred’ are such key issues. As writers of their ilk stoke contempt for the No voters, we learned from Miranda Devine in Sunday’s Telegraph why their inflammatory articles are against the national interest. A devout Roman Catholic beautician in Western Australia has been asked already to give two gay men a complete body wax before their nuptials in February. Is this potentially a set-up for a lawsuit? Overseas experience tells that anything is possible without religious protection.
In the meantime, Cory Bernardi and alienated Liberal members of parliament are looking more and more as though they could become a third force that will ensure that the Liberal Party in its existing form may never win government again. Some surprising setbacks could also be in store for the Labor Party.
This is a serious situation but sadly it seems that Peter Van Onselen is the only opinion writer with The Australian who can’t see how depriving 4.8 million people in the country of their religious freedom is going to drive deep divisions in the land and far-reaching political change.
Mark Powell is the Associate Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, Strathfield.
Cartoon: Ben R Davis.
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