Other member nations bring valuable insights from their different traditions. This can be a rich and textured dialogue. No one should preach the absoluteness of their own tradition.
Perhaps we could learn something from that member of the Human Rights Council in good standing, Saudi Arabia. We could introduce frequent beheadings, ban women from driving, and outlaw the public practice of any but the state approved religion.
That will be a culturally sensitive, open to dialogue, respecting of other traditions kind of approach to human rights.
I am not someone who believes my country is always right. Australia gets things wrong. But Australia is a 24-carat democracy with a human rights record and practice as good as any nation on earth. Only in the distorted, surreal world of the UN could this ever be in doubt.
The Monty Python show at the UN does hold some serious lessons for Australia, however, and for the Turnbull government.
So far, Turnbull has started off brilliantly as a new Prime Minister. You could not really have imagined a much better beginning. As well as communicating a certain graciousness to the electorate, he has worked hard to unify his party and he has been wisely and rightly considerate of his predecessor.
Without in any way vilifying Tony Abbott, Turnbull is nonetheless achieving colossal goodwill purely from being the unAbbott, or even, stylistically at least, the anti-Abbott. This is a very familiar syndrome in Australian politics. Morris Iemma was praised when he took over as NSW premier for not, like Bob Carr, having an interest in American politics, so great was the media driven desire for change and novelty and something different from the old incumbent.
The left liberal commentariat, which dominates in Australia, thinks Malcolm Turnbull is the most progressive leader on the conservative side they will ever get, they don’t really like Bill Shorten and in any event don’t think he can win, so they are projecting onto Malcolm all of their identity desires.
Turnbull is absolutely right to welcome all this support with a benign smile while conceding nothing of substance.
But the contradictions between the commentariat’s fantasy Turnbull and the hard needs of Australian policy will ultimately drive them to dislike Turnbull too. They might not hate him quite as irrationally as they hated Abbott, although eventually there might be that special hostility for Turnbull which the left always has for the betraying seducer, that is to say a politician who smiles at them but then deals sensibly with reality. Think Tony Blair.
Here is a very hard truth which is almost unsayable in Australian politics today. On almost every issue where politics and culture intersected, Abbott’s position was the right position for Australia, and the only position a centre right government can take.
There were only one or two exceptions where Abbott made howling blunders. But these cost him dearly. The worst was the restoration of knights and dames and the awarding of an Australia Day knighthood to Prince Philip. This was a nearly insane decision which did Abbott more harm than any other single action in his political life. And it had absolutely no upside. It was an astonishing mistake for a man of Abbott’s intelligence and courage to make.
But the ridiculous UN rubbish shows that on most of these things Abbott was absolutely right.
Everyone who looks closely at the UN sees how corrupt and ludicrous most of its workings are. One of our most distinguished career ambassadors to the UN, John Dauth, a fine man who could not remotely be labelled a conservative, finished his time there by declaring: “The UN is rotten to the core and the General Assembly is its core”.
Recently, the equally intellectually substantial head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Peter Varghese, a former speech writer for Gareth Evans among other things, gave a subtle speech about human rights in which he rightly recognised that what we regard as universal human rights are concepts which emerged out of our own cultural tradition. But he didn’t use this fact to reach a relativist’s conclusion. Rather, he faced this historical fact squarely and asserted that it was not the case that we were incapable of finding universal truths through our historical experience.
In other words, subtly, carefully, but with no real equivocation, he was arguing the case for Western exceptionalism, not that we should be judged by any different standards from anyone else, but that the universal standards the world should adopt had come to historical prominence primarily, though of course not exclusively, through the Western tradition.
What made Abbott very different from other leaders was that he was prepared to speak honestly, even perhaps bluntly, about the UN. But here’s the thing. The positions he took about the UN were absolutely correct. We would not be lectured to by dictatorships and postmodern European leftists about the integrity of Australia’s democracy. We certainly would not allow any veto, or even influence, over our national policy on this basis.
Perhaps no political leader other than Abbott could have stopped the boats.
In doing so he has saved hundreds of lives and restored Australian sovereign control over our immigration program, (incidentally, exactly the issue David Cameron is threatening to leave the European Union over).
Turnbull is far too smart and too wedded to good policy to change Abbott’s approach on the boats or to allow his policies in any meaningful way to be influenced by the chattering gibberish of UN committees. But one of the gestures of his government which was interpreted as very unAbbott-like was the decision to seek a term on the UN Human Rights Council and another term on the UN Security Council.
Abbott may well have taken the same decisions himself. But the left liberal commentariat chose to see the UN moves as a sign of the profound change to the enlightened, liberal internationalist, globally engaged, kumbaya Turnbull era away from the horrid knuckle dragging Visigoth Abbott era.
But in reality, in substance, the Turnbull position will be exactly the same as the Abbott position. This drooling nonsense from the UN will have no effect on Australian policy.
Similarly, and quite rightly, Turnbull took Abbott’s position in defence of coal.
How could any Australian prime minister stand against such a central pillar of the Australian economy? And as anyone with the slightest acquaintance with international relations or international economics knows, India, the subject of much recent Australian debate regarding coal, plans a very big expansion of its coal use.
This is no criticism of Turnbull. It is to his credit that he can smile and coo at greenie sentiments and still defend coal. But in substance, as opposed to style, Turnbull rightly follows the Abbott path.
Similarly, the latest legal challenge to the proposed Adani Carmichael coal mine in Queensland is an outrageous and shocking abuse of process. If any big mine can be subject to simply endless legal challenges, each of which results in delays of months or years, that is not justice. For justice delayed is justice denied. If that is the case then democracy has seriously declined in Australia. Death by endless and vexatious litigation is a blow to democracy and a denial of justice. It is also very, very bad policy. That is rule by the courts, that is policy by judges. It cries out for legislative remedy.
Either a government fixes this situation or it concedes a veto on national policy to green lawyers, often enough in Australia — and this is the most bizarre touch of all — funded by the taxpayers.
Mainstream voters mostly don’t care much about the issues that stir the hearts of the left liberal commentariat — see how many votes you get running a pro-UN party against border control — but if the commentariat relentlessly smears and libels a political leader, who then manages to make a few mistakes of his own, mainstream voters can easily have their own doubts about such a leader greatly magnified.
For the moment, Turnbull has the style of Keating and the substance of Abbott. So far, it’s a winning formula. Turnbull is absolutely right to avoid being caught up in needless symbolic conflicts. But eventually the substance of things means that if he governs well the left will grow to hate him. That needn’t be debilitating. As John Howard showed, a good leader can live with that and a few twinkle toe pirouettes to avoid needless cultural polarisation early on is no more than good political management.
But as even Bob Hawke found, consensus in democratic politics is a chimera, a temporary fantasy at best. Politics is rightly about choices. And conflict.