Palmer, like Hanson, is drawing out poison

The PUP leader's assertions about China are foolish and paranoid, but they will also flush out latent prejudices in the electorate to the benefit of our democracy.

At the time of writing we still do not know whether the video and pictures purportedly showing the beheading of American journalist James Foley by Islamic State militants are authentic.

Foley was captured in Syria two years ago, and the Islamic State insurgents in the video claim it is retribution for US airstrikes in Iraq.

What we can be more certain of is that more than 50 journalists have been killed covering the Syrian conflict.

They and their colleagues who continue to cover that dreadful war are helping democratic peoples around the world decide how to tackle the barbarism and reign of terror emanating from the region. We all owe them a debt of gratitude.

The most tragic thing about the video is watching Foley implore his brother John, a member of the US airforce, to question what he is doing and ask himself whether the US authorities considered the fate of James, John or of their family when they ordered the airstrikes.

Those lines, undoubtedly written by Foley’s captors, fail to understand how the imperfect world of liberal democracy works. They also fail to understand the powerful resilience of democratic institutions.

In Australia we can be proud of the rule of law, the rigour with which we organise, hold and scrutinise elections (last year’s WA senate bungle notwithstanding), the separation of powers between judiciary, legislature and executive branches of government, freedom of speech and a free media.

Those are the institutions journalists working for a free press die for.

In Australia and elsewhere, we have not perfected any of these, but we have spent centuries improving them to create, in Churchill’s famous words “the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried”.

It would be easy to lose sight of this in the current political environment. The furore this week over Clive Palmer’s and Jacqui Lambie’s rants about China are a case in point.

Palmer is holding the upper house to ransom, extracting every drop of political blood possible from the Abbott government -- a plan seemingly driven as much by the psychology of personal vendetta as by wanting the best for Australians.

But he is not acting undemocratically, even when airing foolish and factually wrong assertions about China.

Trade Minister Andrew Robb took his criticism of Palmer too far when he labelled the PUP Senate road-block a 'sovereign risk'. Foreign investment is essential to continued prosperity, but it doesn’t trump the Senate’s mandate to review legislation on behalf of voters in each state and territory.

A party that blocks legislation without good reason is letting down its constituents, who will retaliate at the next election.

Likewise, any senator who voices opinions as absurd as Lambie’s will bring her own party into disrepute in the longer term. The feisty Tasmanian showed a complete ignorance of geopolitical forces shaping the ‘Asian century’ when she warned Australia should double its defence budget to ward off an invasion by China.

‘In the longer term’ is the operative phrase in the above paragraph, because the last major rupture in our comfy two-party-dominated political system, Pauline Hanson, showed that short-term embarrassment on the global stage eventually leads to a better Australia.

Hanson was a lightning-rod for latent racist attitudes in Australia in 1996. She brought the idea of racial discrimination in immigration out of the closet it had been shoved into with the end of the White Australia policy in 1973.

If the sentiment is there in the community, bringing it into the open allows the absurdity of the argument to be highlighted again and again.

Abbott said of Palmer’s references to the Chinese as "mongrels" who "shoot their own people": "I think the Chinese appreciate Australia enough to understand that Mr Palmer just speaks for himself on an issue like this and he certainly isn't speaking for Australia."

That’s not quite right.

He, like Hanson, is speaking for some Australians whose view of China is riddled with paranoid fears, particularly those who formed their impressions of ‘communist China’ during the pre-Deng Xiaoping reform era that began in 1978.

As described some years ago (Our politicos face a crisis of virtue, September 2011), about 6 per cent of the Chinese population, as active members of the Communist Party, attend public meetings, take part in open votes on policy matters, and increasingly get to debate the issues through social media when they get home.

In Australia, the membership of the Liberal and Labor parties is roughly 0.6 per cent of the population, proportionally a much smaller political elite deciding what choices are put before voters.

When there is a rupture in that small political class of the kind that Hanson, Palmer and Lambie represent, it’s tempting to say “they have no right to say those things”.

Wrong.

Back in the Hanson era, Nationals Party deputy leader Tim Fischer said her racist views threatened Australian exports and jobs.

One hugely successful mining-boom later, we now know that Hanson only really threatened one thing: racism itself.

By letting democratic debate flourish, latent prejudices can be drawn out like poison, leaving Australian democracy stronger and healthier than ever.

The voters in the seat of Fairfax know what Clive Palmer said. Let them decide his future.

We owe it to the journalists who are dying for reporting the vile actions of despotic regimes to keep our eye firmly on democratic principles even if they do, from time to time, throw up the kind of nonsense we heard from the Palmer United Party this week.

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