The first time I darkened the shores of Oz, in 2011, I was delighted to discover that the clichés I’d grown up with were true. No, there weren’t blokes in corkscrew hats and Fosters-stained boots, unsheathing massive knives as they drunkenly gabbed about Sheilas and shrimps. But there was that thing us outsiders have come to expect of Oz, and which many of us admire: a ballsiness, a willingness to speak as one finds, even if, or especially if, it pisses off the prim and winds up The Man. That larrikinism I’d read about, that itchy, possibly convict-derived agitation with bosses and edicts, was a real thing. The first time I got called a c-word endearingly, after a talk in Perth, I swear I got a lump in my throat. I felt I’d found my spiritual home, c–t that I am.
That was then… Now? In the three weeks I’ve been here this time, a magazine for teen lads has been taken off shop shelves because its tits and gags offended a few noisy Twitterfems. A newspaper columnist — the biting, insightful Mark Latham — lost his column after a truly unholy marriage of well-fed feminists and fat cats (Westpac) bombarded his editor with complaints. An American rapper, Tyler the Creator, cancelled his tour after a mob of the ostentatiously outraged campaigned to have his visa revoked because his lyrics are anti-women. A traditional gay-marriage campaigner, Katy Faust, who appeared on Q&A with me, had every barb in the book hurled at her and was told by Sam Dastyari that she’s ‘entitled to have different views’ (how generous) but ‘this evangelical claptrap is the last thing we need in the debate’ — in short, you can oppose gay marriage in your head, just don’t express it with your mouth. And students at the University of Sydney, during a debate on PC, told me that ‘Everyone can say what they like, but there will be consequences’ — the motto of the barbarians who shot up Charlie Hebdo — and then proceeded to rip up the Uni’s right-wing student newspaper in response to my suggestion that nothing should be banned but rather should be debated. ‘Do you want some matches so you can burn a whole pile of papers?’, I asked. ‘Yes’, they replied, unironically.
A country famed for its plain-speaking, celebrated by DH Lawrence as a place where ‘nobody is supposed to rule, and nobody does rule’, is being choked by a new conformism. The birthplace of larrikinism has become a place where radical youth dream of burning newspapers. It’s the latest outpost of the offence-policing mania that has gripped the West. The rallying cry of the larrikin — say what you think, however you like — has been replaced by the deathly decree of the new censorious set: ‘You can’t say that!’
I knew things had changed after my appearance on Q&A on 17 August, just 48 hours after I arrived, with five bottles of beer in me and gay-bloody-marriage on the agenda. I said religious people must be free to oppose gay marriage without suffering expulsion from polite society, the loss of their jobs, or the life-ruining brand of ‘homophobe’. For saying this, I was called a bigot, naturally. And a c–t (not a compliment this time). And so irritating that ‘mosquitoes must find [me] annoying’ (Sydney Morning Herald). Whatever. I’m London-Irish: we say worse than that to each other before breakfast most days.
But what was remarkable were the emails I got after the show. Loads of them. From an ageing widower, a coal-miner, a young Christian, Aussie ex-pats in Europe, a conservative family near Ayers Rock (who invited me to visit), all saying the same thing: thank you for saying what we feel we can’t. As one put it: ‘When I visit the city, I keep my views to myself. Makes life easier.’ That really got me. Imagine going through life feeling you couldn’t utter out loud what lurks in your heart. Awful.
Such self-silencing, among what is probably a majority, is a consequence of the new conformism and pathologisation of dissent. The new offence-policing elite will harry and brand — metaphorically rather than with fire — anyone who dares dissent from their worldview. Fail to bow and scrape before the altar of gay marriage, and you’re ‘phobic’. Question climate-change commandments, and you’re a ‘denier’ (the same slur used against the poor souls dragged before the Inquisition, accused of denying the truth of the gospels). Wonder out loud if the new feminism is a bit authoritarian, and you’ll be labelled a ‘misogynist’. Like the most authoritarian regimes in history — think Soviet Union sending dissidents for mental-health treatment — the new intolerant elite sees people who disagree with its ideas not as people who disagree with its ideas, but as sickos, hateful, unhinged. No wonder many keep their thoughts in their heads.
It’s the new wowserism. Hilariously, the green-leaning, gay-marriage-loving set sees itself as an awkward squad, a gang sticking it to the blue-rinsed and Bible-bashers. In truth, its ideas are the new orthodoxies, and what reactionary orthodoxies they are: women are fragile and must be protected from harmful images; bad black singers must be kept out of the country; digging for natural resources is disruptive and wicked. This is a profoundly conservative worldview, cynically dolled-up as edgy. Australian public and media life is now dominated by wowsers disguised as larrikins.
In a very short time, ordinary Aussies have become moral lepers in their own nation, their views — on marriage, coal, whatever — no longer fit for expression. And this has been done, not with force, but through the informal imposition of a new conformism — what John Stuart Mill described as ‘the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas… on those who dissent from them’. What a topsy-turvy situation Down Under finds itself in: the supposed progressives are the new wowsers, and the country folk and traditionally minded have become larrikins, by default. I say to these default larrikins: behave like larrikins. Blaspheme against the new elite. Smash their diktats. Remind them that they don’t rule Oz; nobody does.