Forget Team Australia, 18C is just a desperate way out

IT’S beginning to feel like Christmas. Not in a joy, tinsel and presents kind of way. More in the manufactured-panic-about-a-war-on-Christmas kind of way. Are you familiar with this annual ritual?

A kindergarten decides not to hold a nativity play, or to replace its Christmas party with some generic “end-of-year” fare and it’s on. Non-Christian minorities — namely Muslims — are holding good, decent, Christmas-loving Australians to ransom. Our culture is being sacrificed to a minority that doesn’t know its place.

All this came rushing back to me this week as the Abbott government dropped amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act.

The move wasn’t surprising, but the context was. Suddenly section 18C would stay as a figleaf for Muslims, a transfer fee for their recruitment to “Team Australia”.

Presumably the government still believes this section is an egregious attack on free speech. Yet we must appease Muslims in the hope that they’ll help us fight terrorism. We’re being held to ransom again. Muslims are the Grinch who stole freedom.

But Muslims are peripheral to both issues. I haven’t met a Muslim who cares less about public Christmassy-ness.

And while I have met Muslims who rejected the government’s plans for the Racial Discrimination Act, it’s odd they did, given Muslims aren’t protected by it. The law doesn’t regard Muslims as a racial group. So, whatever it is section 18C prevents you saying about Aborigines or Asians or Jews, you can go right ahead and say it about Muslims.

The talkback radio backlash is unlikely to stick because the government’s political calculations are so transparent. The 18C was so unpopular and politically costly, the government needed a way out. It tried to ignore its mess in a process of reviewing submissions and considering revisions.

But with it so associated with the proposal, it needed a reason to dump it, thus it has become a counter-terrorism strategy. This audacious move relies on the idea that security measures are hard to oppose. It’s a bit too audacious, even if it looked neat on paper.

It takes the government to places I doubt it wants to go.

If 18C is in the interests of “national unity”, was the promise to amend it divisive? If so, what does it think of the rhetoric that violates 18C? Does that compromise national unity, too?

Surely it is more divisive to be a bigot than to stand for someone’s right to bigoted expression.

Do those who breach 18C undermine Team Australia?

Connecting 18C and counter-terrorism is a long bow, but the attempt to do so has its own intriguing philosophical consequences.

By presenting divisive politics as a security concern, the government accepts the social dimensions of terrorism — that it gathers around feelings of social exclusion, that intelligence flows best from those who feel valued and included rather than, suspected and interrogated.

This accords with the best research on the psychology of radicalisation and counter-terrorism policing. It accords far less well with the way government’s talk about terrorism.

Is the Abbott government a devotee of this approach? If so, will it reinstate the Countering Violent Extremism program — and its grants for community programs to “Building Community Resilience”.

Might it axe the regime of preventive detention and control orders? They are the ones that were so abused in the Mohammed Haneef case, and which spook many Muslims who fear their arbitrary use?

The ones that the government’s own legislative monitor recommended be abolished because they are “not effective, not appropriate and not necessary”?

Or do the social dimensions of terrorism begin and end with the Racial Discrimination Act?

Seems an odd place to end. But, unless you focus on the politics of it, it’s an odder place to start.

Fairfax columnist Waleed Aly. hosts Drive on ABC Radio National and lectures in politics at Monash University.