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Richardson: Labor haunted by racist campaign

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Busy day yesterday.

Four Liberal MPs were ejected – named, indeed – for unparliamentary conduct; namely, calling Labor MP Annabel Digance a “racist”.

Another, Tim Whetstone, was absolved, on the grounds that he did not call Digance a racist, but rather asserted “the member for Elder had a racist campaign”.

If that is the key distinction, then let us reiterate it now, as fact.

The ALP campaign in Elder was a racist campaign.

No-one on the Labor side who is not irretrievably one-eyed, concertedly strategic or, indeed, a racist, can deny this was the case.

The offending leaflet was distributed in the dying days of the 2014 election campaign that saw Labor effectively take power by dint of a single seat – of which Elder was one of many that could have gone either way.

I can’t put it any more succinctly than former Liberal deputy leader Mitch Williams did yesterday, in his ultimately futile bid to avoid his ejection: “A flier was distributed throughout the seat of Elder where the candidate for the Liberal Party was one Carolyn Habib. The flier showed a bullet-ridden wall with the words across it: Can you trust Habib?”

It has been described as a “dog whistle”; a rallying signal to a certain subset, imperceptible to the those in the community who would look at a talented, young, female, half-Lebanese candidate and only wonder what her policies and principles were, rather than consider her ethnic origin.

But it wasn’t so subtle; many a Labor party member will tell you off the record that they found the campaign deeply offensive and disturbing. I’ve been told the authors of the offending leaflet were cock-a-hoop on election night, telling anyone who would listen that, to borrow the famous 1992 headline from Murdoch’s Sun newspaper, it was “Can you trust Habib” wot won it.

Telling them that it was okay to alienate “the Lebbos” if it meant another four years of Labor rule. Telling the squeamish to grow some balls.

Many a Labor person will recount this with disgust; unfortunately, none will take ownership of it. None will put up their hand and say: we got that badly, deeply wrong. We should be ashamed. We are sorry.

The Libs, as they are wont to do, mismanaged the political fallout (though they are, of course, the same party that needs a 17-page internal missive to tell them that “when a tweet is ‘re-tweeted’ it exposes our message to more people”). They wheeled out the media-shy Habib, who appeared so schooled-up with the incessant assertion that this was “a thinly-veiled racist attack” that she appeared bereft of any genuine outrage. Steven Marshall, though, was outraged, and continues to be. He was one of the ‘guilty four’ named (but not shamed) in parliament yesterday which, one senses, was the culmination of a year of disbelief that Labor has been entirely let off the hook for its behaviour in Elder, a seat it was already confident of retaining halfway through the campaign.

Does this absolve the Libs of their questionable tactics in the recent Fisher by-election, when they covertly subsidised the distribution of a letter — ostensibly from an interested neighbour — designed to damage independent Daniel Woodyatt, whom the Opposition knew would snare the seat if he ran second on primaries? Of course it doesn’t. Does it excuse the March 2014 radio spot voiced by independent Melita Calone, again sponsored by the Liberal Party, which falsely accused Jay Weatherill of covering up child sexual abuse? Absolutely not.

But it does mean Labor must drop the pretence of holding some sort of high moral ground. Only yesterday, we were reminded in court of their folly in one of the dodgiest, most desperate electoral scams in recent years, in which ALP volunteers decked themselves out in Family First colours and distributed mocked-up how-to-vote cards advocating the minor party, but urging voters to “put their Family First” by gifting their second preference to Leon Bignell.

Weatherill, it seems, is chasing a cash payout from the Libs – though, notably, not from Calone – for the shameful radio ad; I guess that means I can’t reflect on that case one way or another (even though he seems happy to do so himself).

But it seems odd for someone to take the high moral ground when, as Premier and party leader, he refused to apologise for a pamphlet that victimized an Opposition candidate of Lebanese descent, insisting it did nothing but scrutinise her record as a Marion councillor.

So, no, I’m not calling Annabel Digance a racist. She’s also, incidentally, always been a courteous and friendly interlocutor. And as a marginal seat candidate in a tightly-fought election, she would have been a brave soul to challenge the edicts of her more cynical advisers and the party machine. But I will say this: if I was in her position, I’d hope that I’d have the moral fortitude to say, “This isn’t going to run under my name.”

I’d have hoped she would distance herself, permanently, from advisers who told her this was a legitimate, reasonable electoral tactic.

I’d have liked her to think: “Being a member of parliament is worth more than this; I will not sanction this. I will not stand for this.”

She stood for it. Labor stood for it. Yes, it may have gifted them a fourth term, but its members will have to assess their own consciences in due course as to whether whatever they achieve in office was worthwhile.

In the meantime, they can get off their moral high horses.

Tom Richardson is a senior reporter at InDaily.

His political column in published on Fridays.

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