The Attack on 'Political Correctness': Islamophobia and the Erosion of Multiculturalism in Australia under the Howard Regime

By Poynting, Scott | Social Alternatives, First Quarter 2008 | Go to article overview

The Attack on 'Political Correctness': Islamophobia and the Erosion of Multiculturalism in Australia under the Howard Regime


Poynting, Scott, Social Alternatives


John Howard's culture war on political correctness and multiculturalism included direct and indirect encouragement for Islamohobia in Australia. This article explores the manner in which this war was waged against the 'Muslim Other'.

This article explores changes in Australian civil society from 1996 to 2007 through a case study of the rolling back of multiculturalism and the rise of lslamophobia over this period. John Howard's neo-conservative Liberal-National coalition came to office in 1996 with a concerted ideological attack on what it identified as 'political correctness', which was supposedly preventing 'us' from being relaxed and comfortable about who 'we' were, and was stifling the voice of ordinary 'battlers' in such matters as a debate about ('too much' or the 'wrong mix' of) immigration and multiculturalism, as well as about Indigenous land rights and reconciliation, gender relations, and a host of other issues allegedly dominated by unrepresentative, middle-class, metropolitan elites. At the end of his political career, days before the 2007 federal election, Howard was citing his purging of 'the overdose of political correctness' as one of the major and abiding achievements of his 11 Vi years in office:

We no longer have perpetual seminars about our national identity.... We no longer agonise as to whether we're Asian or European or part-Asian or part-European or too British or not British enough or too close to the Americans or whatever. ... We actually rejoice in what has always been the reality and that is that we are gloriously and distinctively Australian (The Age 22111/2007).

'Political correctness' proved an effective rod with which to beat the proponents ('industry' or 'lobby' were the preferred epithets) of multiculturalism, which all but disappeared from the political landscape in Australia, as a set of principles and policies, submerged in the mainstream of a renewed assertion of 'integration'. What was the terrain on which this battle in the 'war of position', one of many in Australia's version of the 'culture wars', was waged?

All who deploy the concept of 'civil society' since its return to social-scientific currency in the 1980s and 1990s are inevitably influenced by Gramsci's seminal reworking of the concept in his notebook elaborations over the years when he was incarcerated by Mussolini's Fascist state. The concept of civil society was revived by intellectuals of central and eastern Europe seeking to theorise and to advance the struggle outside of and against the 'really-existing' Communist State (Kumar 1993). With the collapse of the Soviet Union, it gained considerable currency among 'Western' scholars and indeed entered into common-sense usage among journalists and political commentators (Buttigieg 1995, 2).

A generation earlier, from the late 60s and especially the 70s, Gramsci's parallel concept of 'hegemony' had become influential within 'Western Marxism', as the left confronted the 'fortifications' and 'earthworks' of bourgeois civil society, which would need to be occupied or rather replaced in any socialist transformation, capturing the State being unfeasible in the West and increasingly seen as problematic when looking towards the Eastern Bloc. The poststructuralist turn saw Gramscian approaches go out of fashion in western academic circles, at times even travestied in a 'post-Gramscian' version of 'post-Marxism' (Laclau and Mouffe 1985). The rise of the Polish Solidarity movement and the eventual disintegration of Soviet socialism gave impetus to the turn away from classbased theories and working-class politics and towards the 'new social movements' as the newfound agents of history - an intellectual trajectory that had begun in the 1960s with the proclamation of the 'end of ideology' (e.g. Bell 1961) and the heralding of the 'postindustrial society' (e.g. Touraine 1974; Bell 1973). The 'new social movements' would come to be seen as the paradigmatic social actors of civil society.

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