My Conservative Skeleton in the Closet: Nationalism

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In this new series of articles, we ask people on the Right and the Left about a policy or social issue from the other side of the political divide that they agree with.

Hi, my name is Richard, I’m a Lefty, and I have a confession. I often agree with Bob Katter.

Now, let’s be very clear – there’s plenty not to like about Bob, first and foremost his views on homosexuality are abhorrent and pose real harm to isolated and at-risk teens, especially in the bush.

But let’s talk core Katter: a brand of politics built on twin pillars of nationalism and protectionism. When it comes to keeping Australian farmland in Australian hands, I think the man in the hat has a point.

While ‘the Left’ (capital ‘L’ for the singular entity that hunts online to correct your ‘lens of privilege’) is especially vocal around identity politics, human and animal rights, are less consistently as outspoken about basic material economics.

Katter gets it. Large-scale foreign-ownership of cattle farms or mining leases is just stupid economics, as well as bad politics.

If you’re a cane sugar farmer in North Queensland, it’s hard to feel affection at the sight of Richard Di Natale in a turtleneck or Bill Shorten dropping in for a visit when election-time rolls around wearing brand new RM Williams boots and an unfaded Akubra. ‘The Left’ just doesn’t talk to this constituency. The family farm and the price of milk – not the supermarket price, the price a farmer gets – are not ‘our’ topics.

But Katter gets it. Large-scale foreign-ownership of cattle farms or mining leases is just stupid economics, as well as bad politics. To allow the wholesale raiding of scarce resources for the profit of foreign capital is to throw away the opportunity for any nation state to capture a share of this and redirect into social goods like transport or public services. Fundamental material wealth is the central concern of his rural base, and Katter fights tenaciously and consistently in defending this.

Now, nationalism has a historically well-earned connection with politics of the Right, and there’s no disputing in an Australian context it’s become inextricably interwoven with politics of fear, of racism, of hate, of an existential threat by (insert topically appropriate) ‘other’ that despises our way of life (whatever that actually is).

For a political idea or movement to gain force, it relies on the non-resistance of opposing ideas or movements. Put simply, the Left offers no appealing counter-proposition of a possible Australian nationalism, so the drunken guy wearing the flag as a cape on Australia/Invasion Day becomes the default image of us as a nation. 

Conservative politicians continue to dominate the debate as to who Australians fundamentally are.

From John Howard’s “we decide who comes here” to Tony Abbott’s accusation that the national broadcaster “takes everyone’s side but our own”, conservative politicians continue to dominate the debate as to who Australians fundamentally are, and what a coherent Australian national identity is.

Bob Katter is shrewd enough to tap into a constituency that wants to feel positive, even proud about being Australian. Australian jobs, Australian control of food bowl production, tariffs that protect Australian industries.

Imagine a collective identity that isn’t anchored in a fear of the external, but a pride of the internal?

Imagine a nation state that has a Treaty with its First People, a genuine institutional commitment to biculturalism (or heaven forbid, even multiculturalism), and a national cricket team that draws pride from its reputation for honesty and fairness?

But enough about New Zealand. They even celebrate a leading suffragette on their ten dollar note.

I’d desperately love to feel proud about being Australian again. This doesn’t mean pretending Manus Island doesn’t exist, or that the Black Line didn’t happen, or simply ‘going off Twitter’ every Anzac Day.

But it does mean contesting politicians that frame Australian identity along narrow ethnic or religious lines and challenging individuals who preach a reductive bigotry.

We, however it is that we come to collectively define ourselves, are better than that. And abandoning the idea of nationalism to be the exclusive domain of conservatives is not the way to get to a more positive self-image.