Clark allegations leave political players lost for wordsby Michael ScammellNews Weekly
, June 30, 2001
If you are wondering what the strange sound is, it's probably the collective scratching of heads by various political groups, media commentators and lobby groups disoriented by the fracas over allegations of rape against ATSIC Chairman Geoff Clark.
While most of the commentary on the claims has focused on free speech and trial-by-media concerns, it has also been a case study in how political issues are pigeon-holed in this country as either Left or Right and how general confusion reigns if a particular event does not fit in with the usual political template.Predictable
Both political parties would claim to "own" certain issues in Australian politics - start dropping words like "small business" and "family values" and you know straight away that you have a conservative politician on the make. Likewise, the Left who at a blink will babble on about feminism, multiculturalism, and battlers as if nobody else can "feel their pain".
The rules of the game are pretty simple. Basically, once a party is deemed to own an issue nothing the other side can do on that issue is ever good enough: talk about Labor and its policies on small business and straight away the Right will tell you how no one in Labor has ever run a small business, and what about all those union links?
Likewise the Coalition, which according to the Left, just wants to use its family values franchise as a way to keep women out of the workforce and in the kitchen.
With everything so neatly compartmentalised, it is not surprising then that worlds do collide in a case like Geoff Clark's which doesn't follow the regular script.
Normally an Aboriginal being accused in such a fashion would automatically have the Left coming to his defence. Problem in this case, though, is that the allegations are to do with rape and women's rights, also issues usually claimed by the Left.
It is not surprising therefore that in some quarters the displays of support have been quite muted.
Adding to the ideological confusion on this issue are the comments by NSW magistrate Pat O'Shane who came out in defence of Clark.
Being female and Aboriginal, O'Shane would generally be regarded as "Left-friendly" but of course she is now perceived by some to have sullied the cause of women's rights by her extraordinary comments that women often fabricate details in rape cases.
This is the sort of remark you usually hear from right-wing men's groups trying to get in touch with their feelings and dismissed by the media and others as the comments of a reactionary fringe. But when the comments are made by an Aboriginal, female magistrate, well in a political sense the whole thing becomes much more complicated. Confusion
This ideological confusion has left some struggling. Sarah Maddison, a spokeswoman for the Women's Electoral Lobby, quite rightly came out this week in an article in The Australian attacking Pat O'Shane's comments as "responsible" and "inexcusable".
Thing is, it took her four paragraphs to get to that point in the article. The first three paragraphs were spent telling us what an inspirational figure the NSW magistrate is. Now imagine if it was a male magistrate who had made those comments ...
To give Maddison her due, at least she is trying to tackle the political issues. Most commentary hasn't, tending to fudge the debate by arguing that the Fairfax press had abused its power.
Interestingly, these are political issues not particularly seen as being owned by the Left or Right. It seems that it is much safer debating these issues when the ideological waters start getting muddy.
It is interesting to consider what this tells us about the protagonists in modern Australian politics. Contemporary multi-function political players usually want to portray themselves as having a dynamism and flexibility ranging across the entire political canvas - everybody wants to be a lateral thinker these days.
But the response so far to the Geoff Clark matter seems to suggest that when a political issue doesn't quite fit into its designated ideological box, our political classes are all suddenly left speechless.
The effect is not unlike that frozen look you get when a bunny stares into a car's headlights.