Greens concerned 'nationhood' inquiry could be hijacked by extremists

Sarah Martin Chief political correspondent
Photograph: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

The Greens have raised concern that a bipartisan committee tasked to look at nationhood, national identity and democracy could become a platform for “racist and bigoted” views.

Labor left-winger Kim Carr and conservative Liberal Amanda Stoker have joined forces to establish the new Senate inquiry which will examine all aspects of nationhood including the role of citizenship, social cohesion, cultural identity, multiculturalism and globalisation.

While the Greens supported the motion to establish the inquiry, leader Richard Di Natale said he was concerned that the committee could be hijacked by those with extremist views.

“Given the nature of the language in these terms of reference, and given some of the voices in this place who have clearly expressed negative sentiment towards immigrants and who clearly do not support multiculturalism, we are also concerned that this committee inquiry has the potential to be used for purposes that we don’t support,” Di Natale said.

“We are prepared to accept that it is our role to inquire into issues like this, and we’ll give the benefit of the doubt to Senators Carr and Stoker, who have moved this. But we will be watching very closely that this doesn’t become a vehicle for people who have, quite frankly, racist and bigoted views.”

Carr told Guardian Australia he had instigated the inquiry to seek the public’s views on democracy in the wake of Labor’s election defeat, which had reinforced his concern that economically insecure voters were increasingly disenchanted with the political system.

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“My main purpose is to seek advice from the public about how we can restore confidence in democracy – can we save democracy?” Carr said.

The Victorian left-winger has argued that cultural identity and economic insecurity are linked to a rising tide of anxiety that has fuelled the rise of the far right across the liberal democratic world.

This has manifested itself in Australia through the rise of populist minor parties of the far right such as One Nation and the United Australia Party, which have garnered particular support among blue-collar voters.

In the wake of the election, Carr wrote in the Labor journal, The Tocsin, that the anxieties were the result of “a deep-seated reaction to the effects of automation in industry, to stagnant wages growth, and to increasingly precarious employment practices”.

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“These discontents are not a uniquely Australian development, of course. They have emerged in every industrialised democracy, and are part of the story behind Donald Trump’s election in the US, Brexit in the UK, and the rise of far-right nationalist parties across Europe.

“This kind of politics is a challenge to social democratic parties everywhere.”

Labor has established a review into its election loss, to be conducted by the former SA premier Jay Weatherill. The result showed swings against the party in traditional working-class areas across the country.

Stoker, who is a speaker at the conservative Australian Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC this weekend, was unavailable for comment about her support for the inquiry.

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One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts, who supported the committee referral, said he hoped the inquiry would also examine the how the United Nations had “interfered for many decades now with our sovereignty and the governance of this country.”

The full terms of reference for the inquiry say that the committee’s primary role is to examine “the changing notions of nationhood, citizenship and modern notions of the nation state in the twenty-first century.”

This will include the rights and obligations of citizenship, social cohesion and cultural identity in the nation state, the role that globalisation and economic interdependence and economic development plays in forming or disrupting traditional notions of national identity, contemporary notions of cultural identity, multiculturalism and regionalism, the extent to which nation states balance domestic imperatives and sovereignty and international obligations, and comparison between Australian public debate and policy and international trends.