It was a time for Australian conservatives to be boring and bore each other. CPAC, otherwise known as the Conservative Political Action Conference, had arrived in Sydney. The real entertainment bill was to be supplied by such figures as Brexiter supremo Nigel Farage and former editor-in-chief of Breitbart News London, Raheem Kassam. The rest was poor filling, the tired, cranky Fox and Sky News set.
CPAC 2019 was described in the usual, fun-filled way on the organisation’s website. “The American Conservative Union and LibertyWorks are proud to bring CPAC to Australia for the first time!” Participate, went the message; the “shy voters” might have kept the Australian Labor Party out of office, but, and here Ronald Reagan was quoted with gusto, “The future doesn’t belong to the light-hearted. It belongs to the brave.”
For only the second time since coming into existence in 1974 with 400 registrants, CPAC was holding a gathering outside the United States. Its existence owed much to the initial explorations of the conservative magazine Human Events, and the creation of the American Conservative Union. The ACU was itself a gathering spurred on by the defeat of Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964. As Human Events described it, “The CPAC Conference was seen as a way of rebuilding the morale of conservatives and of refocusing the energies of the movement for future battles.”
Farage did not disappoint, filling the forum with the invective that keeps him afloat. He, for instance, had little time for those he termed “fake” conservatives, the foremost of them being former Australian Prime Minister, the very much knifed Malcolm Turnbull. He also demonstrated certain non-too conservative credentials of his own, aiming a few salvos at members of the Royal Family back home in conversation on a Sky News panel, and during a speech at a gala dinner on Saturday.
While describing the Queen as “an amazing, awe-inspiring woman”, her misguided, degenerate offspring and their issue were quite a different matter. “When it comes to her son when it comes to Charlie Boy and climate change, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.” The Duke of Sussex, Prince Harry, had lost the plot in desiring a modest brood of two children, being worried about climate change.
Where had that old Harry gone, “this young, brave, boisterous, all-male, getting into trouble, turning up at stag parties inappropriately dressed, drinking too much and causing all sorts of mayhem”? Instead of putting this down to age and, unusually for some royals, the maturing process, Farage had the answer: Meghan Markle. Once they met, his credibility fell off a cliff, ignoring, for instance, “the real problem the Earth faces, and that is the fact the population of the globe is exploding but no one dares talk about it.”
This was a chance for Australian conservatives to feel loved and thought relevant by their Anglo-American cousins. Noses were powdered, outfits tailored. US-UK contingent could hardly have been that impressed. Senator Amanda Stoker’s speech on industrial relations was soporific; polemical scribe Janet Albrechtsen struck an odd note of insecurity by deeming contempt cold. “When someone treats another person with contempt, they’re putting that other person down and making themselves feel superior.” (Albrechtsen, take note.)
To the Anglo-American set went the guns, the demagogues, the reactionary ballast. On the subject of guns, Kassam was happy to offer his theory about the murderous bounty reaped by such devices in the United States: “the establishment media and the left”; and the pharmaceutical industry. The children of America were being pumped “with these medications […] and these lies. They want them to have a little anger, but not too much.” Mental instability, anger, and the gun-toting solution: all reasonable progressions in Kassam’s reckoning.
Otherwise, the current Human Events global editor-in-chief proved conventional, lobbing grenades at Islam, recalling his role in establishing an anti-radicalisation group seeking to prevent people “throwing homosexuals off buildings, FGM (female genital mutilation) and lightly beating your wife” and mocking gender politics.
The Australians, as they often do at events where Britannia and Uncle Sam hold hands, were eclipsed. Former Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson lamented “empathy culture” and the left’s abuse of “people who dare to disagree with you”. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who has had his mild spell of demagoguery in Australian politics, took issue with Victoria’s assisted dying laws (“morally shocking”, no less), identity politics, and the loss of faith. “This is why it is so easy for people to put forward fundamentally inhuman ideas and have them taken much more seriously than they should be.”
The CPAC Conference tends to function like a reassuring echo chamber rather than an arena for debate. Added publicity is only generated by those who fear its reach. One such unwitting promoter of the event was Labor’s spokesperson for Home Affairs, Senator Kristina Keneally. Having made it her personal, and failing mission, to prevent certain attendees from coming into the country, she was bound to make a mention at CPAC 2019. She did so by winning the CPAC Freedom Award, one earned for promoting the conference.
This is something she did repeatedly, suggesting that Kassam be banned for his “extensive history of vilifying people”. Kassam, for his part, suggested that the senator, that model of Catholicism, had made him feel unsafe on the streets of Sydney. “She should be ashamed of herself… There is nothing Christian about silencing your opposition.”
What Keneally ended up doing was demonstrating, yet again, how free speech in Australia functions as a mutable construction, easily forgotten in the face of insult and the hold exerted by an odious opinion. Just let them babble and fume.
Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org