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Perhaps the ugliest part of the Australian election campaign was the debate over transgender rights. Katherine Deves, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s hand-picked candidate for the Warringah seat, courted controversy this week when she backtracked on her earlier apology for calling transition surgery a ‘mutilation’.
Mr Morrison has resisted calls – including within his own Liberal Party – to ditch Ms Deves since tweets that had been deleted from his account resurfaced, including the original comment about transition surgery. In another tweet, she compared her campaign to ban trans women from women’s sports to standing up against the Holocaust.
Mr Morrison dismissed the backlash to Ms Deves’ comments as a culture of cancel, and in an election season that has been light on politics and heavy on show, the issue has spawned furious comments and countless headlines .
To many, the tone and arguments sound very, well, American. It seems that a conservative conversation in the United States has been exported to Australia. Or is it something that reflects Australia’s own political impulses or unresolved divisions?
This is not the first time that culture war and identity issues have been part of an Australian election campaign. But this time seems particularly ugly, both because of the topics discussed and the vitriolic language used.
“I think it’s more personal, intrusive and hurtful to those caught up in it,” said John Warhurst, emeritus professor of politics at the Australian National University.
He said it seemed like an example of overlap with American culture. “We’ve had political debates before about political correctness and awakening,” Professor Warhurst said. “These usually arise in the United States and are picked up in Australia by those who use them to their advantage.”
Political analysts say Mr Morrison appears hopeful that Ms Deves’ views will resonate with religious voters in rural areas, in districts the coalition is due to win on May 21, even if some moderate Liberal seats have to be sacrificed.
But will it work? According to Paul Williams, political analyst and associate professor at Griffith University, the issue of transgender rights does not resonate in Australia as it does in the United States.
“You can see the culture wars are at the heart of American politics,” he said. “I don’t think we’re at that point in Australia.”
“Central Australia seems like a pretty reasonable electorate,” he added. With economic concerns at the forefront of people’s minds, issues like trans women’s participation in sports are hardly a priority.
That’s not to say there aren’t voters who see politics through the lens of pro and anti political correctness. But do they represent a critical mass? No, said Professor Williams. And would the issue of trans rights decide their votes? Probably not, he added.
But he is worried about the future. This campaign was particularly “presidential”, he said – guided by the personalities of the leaders, not by the politics of the parties. It was also marked by the “atomization” of media coverage, with different outlets constructing different realities for different constituencies, and the militarization of issues such as trans rights, he said.
He fears that “Australia will become not only polarized but as irrational as post-Obama America, where the old adage that you are entitled to your own opinion but you are not entitled to your own facts has been completely thrown out the window. ”
“This idea of winning at all costs, winning on ethos and pathos, sentiment and character – or at least perception of character – but not facts, is a terribly slippery road to walk down,” said Professor Williams.
Here are our stories of the week.