We expected an Abbott government to herald a new wave of right-wing populism but it is increasingly disconcerting that even the ostensibly progressive media is encouraging the conservative swing.

Earlier this week, the Age published an opinion piece by former Howard government immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone. Vanstone has a regular column with Fairfax now and generally uses it to argue predictably about the failings of the Labor Party. On Monday, she decried not only the actions of asylum seekers – ‘a sad story does not entitle them to come to Australia’, she argues, except that, well, it kind of does – but those people who ‘use the media’ to help the cause.

It’s not exactly unexpected for a former Immigration Minister of the Howard Government to accuse asylum seekers of somehow playing political ‘hardball’ with their own lives (and with such sophisticated technology, too – mobile phones on international roaming!) This is, after all, the politician whose career highlights include dismantling of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and the unlawful detainment and deportation of Cornelia Rau and Vivian Alvarez Solon.

As a piece of writing, Vanstone’s article is almost completely incoherent. What is coherent, however, is the extent to which the Age, supposedly Melbourne’s mainstream progressive paper, is willing to pander to the increasingly conservative status quo.

If Vanstone were really so sickened by those who ‘jump on any tragedy, any person with a sad story, and use them politically’, one wonders why she thought it politically expedient to pen 800 words doing just that. She then follows this up with a bizarre digression into the gender imbalance of Prime Minister Abbott’s cabinet, and the views of the ‘feminazis’ who have condemned it.

The ‘feminazi’ slur is probably not unfamiliar to any woman who has had the gall to reject a particular kind of man in a bar, or raise the issue of fair pay in unsympathetic company. It’s a word that has its roots in the reliably unhinged ravings of right-wing US talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, whose views on the women’s rights movement are as unequivocal as they are Neanderthal: ‘Feminism was established so as to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream of society.’

The Nazis were fascists who killed six million people. The comparison with the women’s rights movement is not only ludicrous and offensive but in any other context it would be rightly denounced on the spot by Jewish groups and incur massive public outrage. Yet here it is used by a former politician in all seriousness, and published with equal seriousness in a Fairfax paper. It’s a reprehensible editorial decision but it’s also a sign of how far to the Right the local media landscape has shifted.

It wasn’t all that long ago that Fairfax was lauded for being one of the last remaining strongholds against a Murdoch monopoly: the one place progressive voices in Australia could be guaranteed to find an outlet. The matter of independent ownership makes little difference if such publications parrot the same baleful sentiment as every other paper in the country. Perhaps it is not all that coincidental, then, that Vanstone’s piece appears on the very same day as an article by Nicholas Reece, a former Labor government staffer, arguing that the Australian Left can only ‘regain its mojo’ if it adopts all the ideas of the right.

If Labor’s defeat in the recent election demonstrated anything at all it’s the futility of the Left attempting to beat the Right at their own game. Whether it’s for the sake of a few advertising dollars or an attempt at political revival, for Fairfax, it’s a strategy that’s sure to fail, and it bodes ill for progressive thought and independent journalism in the coming years.

Stephanie Convery

Stephanie Convery is the deputy culture editor of Guardian Australia and the former deputy editor of Overland. On Twitter, she is @gingerandhoney.

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  1. Thanks Stephanie. As a Fairfax reader for four decades I find their willingness to give over regular column inches to the likes of Vandstone and Nicole Flint very disconcerting. It is interesting that these two have become regular columnists at the same time Fairfax has been establishing a paywall for online content. Looking for a foot in each camp maybe? They mistakenly seem to believe that articles such as these provide “balance” to their opinion pages but anyone who followed the hounding of the Gillard Government by most of Faifax’s opinion writers – notwithstanding their editor’s half-hearted endorsement of a Rudd Government prior to the election – would know that there has been little balance for a number of years. Apart from anything else, Vandstone (as pointed out by Stephanie in this article) is not a very competent writer. In particular she builds a fragile argument based on flimsy evidence but has no qualms about making sweeping generalisations based on that argument.

  2. The Russians may be somewhat surprised to find out that the Nazis only killed 6 million people,but more worryingly,why do people continue to maintain that Fairfax is in ANY way progressive?What evidence is there to suggest that the Fairfax papers have been on the side of the angels?

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