Comment: Veil of ignorance masks Australia's peak political absurdity

People walk past a mural of a Muslim woman wearing a niqab painted on a wall in an inner city suburb in Sydney on October 2, 2014. (AFP)

Let's face it - the Parliament House burqa ban is nothing more than political persecution dressed up as security concerns.

There isn’t a hell of a lot going on in Australia politics at the moment to recommend itself to anyone not paid to cover it. Mostly, it is summed up by the depressing amalgam of predictability and stupidity we saw this week.

I don’t know if the bookies were taking bets, but the odds of Senator Bernardi bringing up the burqa this week must have been even money.

In a week in which the government was seeking to pass national security legislation which has been attacked by luminaries of the media such as Laurie Oakes, and the same week in which the government has had to back down on its welfare budget cuts, a distraction was always on the cards.

The government has floundered badly on budget issues. This week it was forced to split its welfare cuts into different bills just so it could get some measures passed. At best, Tony Abbott can construe the changes as “recasting” the budget; at worst, it looks like it may have to turn the mid-year fiscal and economic outlook into a mini-budget.

The last thing the government wants is for anyone to remember the budget or to see Joe Hockey talking about leaners and lifters. Luckily, it has national security to drown out the economic unpleasantness.

The great thing about national security is it plays into the hands of those on the right who may not be racist, but sure as heck are number one with racists. Rather than respond to terrorist acts with calm and measured policy, they can instead gleefully use it as another chance to attack and vilify those unfortunate enough not to have Angles or Saxons in their family tree.

And so we see the Prime Minister roll out his usual “this is not about religion” spiel while members of his government such as Senator Bernardi or George Christensen (reportedly with the backing of the PM’s chief of staff Peta Credlin) suggest the real issue that confronts the nation is Muslim women wearing a burqa.

“Perhaps if the government worried more about women hitting the glass ceiling rather than putting certain women behind glass, they might actually have a policy that affects more than a handful of Australian women.”

What a feeble, fragile nation we are when a minute number of women are able to bring the government quivering to its knees. Even more feeble however is that we are just borrowing the same racist crud from Europe where far-right political parties have led the charge for the burqa to be banned.

And just as it is over there, this is all about creating a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

In France, a mere 2,000 women are estimated to wear the burqa. Using similar proportions, that would mean in Australia there are maybe 200 women who wear one. But given the smaller percentage of Muslim women from Afghanistan living here than in France, it is likely to be much, much lower. I must admit I’ve never seen a women wear one in my life, despite daily seeing women wearing a hijab and occasionally a niqab.

Yet apparently they are such a problem that on Thursday the Department of Parliamentary Services, with approval from the Speaker of the House of Representatives and President of the Senate, issued new directives banning “persons with facial coverings” from entering the galleries of the House of Representatives and Senate. Instead, they will have to watch parliament from behind the glass viewing area.

The “facial coverings’ line is a typically underhand one. It makes it seem like they are being fair but everyone knows they are only talking about Muslim women.

Cue the cheers from the “no, we’re not racist we just think the burqa is oppressive” mob. I look forward to them taking their newfound care of female oppression into other areas. Given Senator Bernardi’s joy at posing without a top, I await his support of the “free the nipple” campaign. Or perhaps, as the ABC’s Lyndal Cutis proposed when questioning Kevin Andrews on the issue, they could focus on inequality of women’s pay.

Perhaps if the government worried more about women hitting the glass ceiling rather than putting certain women behind glass, they might actually have a policy that affects more than a handful of Australian women.

Laughably, the measures are being justified because of the need to identity hecklers in the galleries.

So stupid was the decision that Tony Abbott late Thursday evening sought to have it reversed.

But of course it’s all a sideshow – we might as well be arguing about being allowed to bring unicorns into Parliament House, such is the likelihood of  a woman wearing a burqa being present in the parliamentary gallery (let alone heckling while doing so).

And it’s sideshow that is the only issue of national security in which Bill Shorten can be bothered taking an opposite stance to Tony Abbott.

No point taking an opposing position on national security measures that affect everyone – through increased ability for security agencies to access our computers – or affecting journalists though possible jail sentences for reporting national security operations.

Nah bugger that. Instead, the ALP voted for the measures with only the independents Cathy McGowan and Andrew Wilkie and the Greens Adam Bandt voting against.

Predictable stupidity.

Greg Jericho is an economics and politics blogger and writes for The Guardian and The Drum.

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