If you pay even the slightest attention to Australian politics, you’ve probably been made aware of the incredibly newsworthy event of a politician speaking like a normal fucking human being, namely Opposition leader Bill “Zinger” Shorten calling Liberal MP and horrifying scarecrow of a man Cory Bernardi a “homophobe” on live TV, presumably because Bernardi has expressed many anti-homosexual sentiments in the past and that is the exact word in the English language that accurately describes someone who expresses said beliefs.
“Huzzah”, cries the media, from patronising pats on the back to full blown think-pieces on why this is a great step for politics in general. In spirit, it does make a lot of sense; so much of political discourse in this country is based on sounding as inoffensive as possible while obfuscating your true goals. Locking brown people up on a remote island becomes “border security” to “stop deaths at sea.” Gutting the public service, health and education is “eliminating waste” to “bring us back to surplus”. In light of this, someone as Milquetoast as Shorten using “homophobe” as an insult on a conservative politician, the implication that being anti-LGBTI+ is bad and worthy of mockery, certainly does seem very direct and honest. Not only does it state Shorten’s position, it makes clear that Shorten, and by proxy Labor, do not only think Bernardi and by proxy the Libs are incorrect on this issue, but also that they are morally inferior on it too. No pragmatism or euphemisms, just a simple case of “you want a bad guy? Well, that guy hates gay people.”
Predictably Bernardi has responded by accusing Shorten of bullying, and despite the fact that said bullying happens to be completely true he is actually right. Shorten called him a name in order to get people to dislike him and to make him feel bad. It’s accurate, but it also had malicious intent and didn’t actually advance the discussion any more than getting the crowd to go “ooooooooh” and look at Bernardi expectantly while Bill looks smug.
An optimist may look at this and have hope for the future of the equality debate, or at least for the general quality of political discourse, but those cursed with the gift of cynicism will probably question why, given their generally directionless stance on the issue in the recent past, would Shorten make such a direct and aggressive statement of intent to such a malcontent as Bernardi given his party still doesn’t even have a unified stance on the issue? But given the juncture of history the Labor Party finds itself in, more lacking in a clear identity than ever before with the Greens and minority parties quickly establishing themselves as much more authentic voices for the left, the reason for Shorten’s gutsy gambit comes into focus. With more and more of their policies in regards to border security, foreign diplomacy and management of the economy looking like low-rent copies of the LNP’s, they are desperate for something, ANYTHING, to differentiate themselves from the party they are ostensibly meant to be the main opposition for. In the scrambled race to the centre in order to capture the maximum number of ambivalent, unengaged voters, the two parties somehow collided somewhere to the right of the middle and have been trying to separate themselves from the mangled wreckage ever since.
This is not to say that Shorten does not deserve support for being so forthright on the issue, but one should not mistake a single act of defiance with any kind of real rebellion. Marriage equality will be a hollow victory if society is made more unequal along the financial axis, and even in light of Labor’s recent policy proposals on negative gearing their continued support for costly offshore processing, the TPP and military engagement overseas shows that they are ultimately, from an economic perspective at least, still nowhere near as much of a left alternative to the Libs as they would like to be. But it is not important that they are a left alternative to Liberal, just that they are SEEN as one. Their policies, which affect our lives in small but innumerable ways, will be made in dull back rooms free to drift as right as is required of them by their financial backers while the ideological haymakers, token though they may be, will be thrown on live television giving the illusion of distance. With the election rolling inevitably closer, what is more important now more than ever is that Labor be seen as a viable alternative to the current government. Whether they are or not remains largely irrelevant to them getting elected.