‘Madder than Latham,’ the Rudd-ites are now saying about Julia Gillard, referring to the clumsy way in which she terminated the Parliamentary career of Senator Trish Crossin. The received view is that this is the Prime Minister’s revenge on Senator Crossin for supporting Kevin Rudd. But that does not explain the ham-fisted (‘mad’) execution of her revenge. The other, more mealy-mouthed, view, put by Gillard loyalists, is that Crossin has not been an active performer in the Senate and that it was time for her to go. But who are these model performers? Ask anyone to name his state senators. Few will know them. Senator Crossin has been far more active than most in the daily work of the Senate, especially in its committees, currently in the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee inquiring into the draft Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill 2012 which purports to consolidate, simplify and clarify five existing Commonwealth anti-discrimination Acts.
It is a crucially important inquiry into fundamental rights affecting freedom of speech and religion, the limits of tolerance, the onus of proof, the role of the state. The Committee received more than 800 submissions. Anglicans are divided: some join Catholics in claiming the right to discriminate against ‘lifestyles’ that offend their faith, while others declare that ‘Jesus did not discriminate.’ The Executive Council of Australian Jewry supports the Bill. So does the Bahai community. (Muslims did not officially engage in the debate.) But the Institute of Public Affairs wants it scrapped entirely as blunt, legalistic and bureaucratic. So does the Q Society. So do a host of individuals such as the crime writer Gabrielle Lord. Senator Crossin is the Chair.
To see how she was coping with this gallimaufrey I turned up last week in Parliament House, Sydney, for the second day of the Committee’s hearings. I was early. It was hot. The air-conditioning had not yet kicked in. There were barefoot women, men in shorts, paper fans and backpacks. Representatives of Intersex International and the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby were standing by, ready to give evidence in broad support of the Bill.
At 9 a.m. Senator Crossin called the meeting to order and advised witnesses that Parliamentary privilege and the law of contempt applied to the proceedings. The atmosphere was now more earnest, although I had to strain to hear all the statements, questions and answers. (Some Senators mutter.) But Senator Crossin kept the exchanges moving along, stuck to the timetable, and maintained order. This did not call for the wisdom of Solomon, but she did it professionally and senatorially — despite the occasional provocative intervention from Senator Brandis QC. He referred to Prime Minister Gillard’s ‘characteristic dishonesty’ and contemptuously summed up the proposed legislation as ‘a law against controversy’. He dismissed section 18C of the Commonwealth Racial Discrimination Act as ‘infamous’. Referring to Andrew Bolt’s newspaper comments, which the Federal Court found to be in breach of 18C, he shrugged: ‘I thought that what Mr Andrew Bolt said was perfectly sensible, myself.’ Senator Crossin was competent, experienced and fair. It is hard to find any convincing reason why the Prime Minister should purge her. Some say Julia Gillard must be expelled from Emily’s List because of her racist discrimination against Crossin in favour of Nova Peris. Don’t count on it.
How tedious the annual Australia Day debates have become. Should we change the Day, we are asked? What does it stand for? What does it mean to be an Australian? Should we have a new flag that does not include the horrible (British!) Union Jack? In any case, why limit reforms to the flag? Why not change the name of the wretched country? It is only called ‘Australia’ because some imperialistic English explorer called Matthew Flinders foisted the name on us. Why not adopt an Aboriginal name, say, Alcheringa?
Perhaps the most peculiar of recent Australia Day innovations is the new Pledge of Loyalty to be taken voluntarily on 26 January — not by immigrants seeking citizenship, but by born-and-bred Australians who want to reaffirm their love of the place. It is modelled on the oath taken in citizenship (‘naturalisation’) ceremonies as originally drafted by the poet Les Murray (‘the last of the Jindyworobaks’) and then bowdlerised in Canberra’s groves of government. Murray sensibly dismisses this new Loyalty Pledge. It reminds him of Nazi Germany. It is ‘heavy and pompous, a sort of farting with sincerity’. Australians, he says, traditionally take their rights for granted, as birth rights. ‘Why should I, as citizen, have to reaffirm any bloody thing towards the nation? Now everybody is being made to feel like a provisional citizen.’
There is another theory why the new Pledge appears to be winning some converts. Australia Day has been celebrated in one form or another since Governor Macquarie proclaimed it 200 years ago. It used to be called Anniversary Day. It marked the advent and promise of British civilisation — rule of law, press freedom, parliamentary government, free trade. But in recent decades all that has been played down or ignored. The emphasis is now on multiculturalism and Indigenous rights. Could it be that those volunteering to take the new Pledge are reaffirming their loyalty to the old free-and-easy Australia before the iron rule of political correctness? It would be helpful to take an exit poll of those taking this Pledge.