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Perhaps the ugliest part of Australia’s election campaign has been the debate around the rights of transgender people. Katherine Deves, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s handpicked candidate for the seat of Warringah, courted controversy this week when she walked back a previous apology for calling transition surgery “mutilation.”
Mr. Morrison has resisted calls — including from within his own Liberal Party — to drop Ms. Deves since tweets that had been deleted from her 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 has dismissed the reaction to Ms. Deves’s comments as cancel culture, and in an election season that’s been light on policy and heavy on spectacle, the issue has spawned furious commentary and countless headlines.
For many, the tone and the arguments feel very, well, American. It seems as though a conservative conversation in the United States has been exported to Australia. Or is this something that reflects Australia’s own political urges or unresolved divides?
It’s not the first time that culture war and identity issues have formed part of an Australian election campaign. But this time feels particularly ugly, both because of the topics being debated and the vitriolic language being used.
“I think it’s more personal, intrusive, and I think hurtful for those who are caught up in it,” said John Warhurst, an emeritus professor of politics at the Australian National University.
He said it seemed to be an example of overlap with American culture. “We’ve had earlier political debates about political correctness and wokeness,” Professor Warhurst said. “Those generally arise in the U.S. and are picked up in Australia by those who use them for their advantage.”
Political analysts say Mr. Morrison seems to be hoping that Ms. Deves’s views will resonate with religious voters in rural areas, in districts that the coalition needs to win on May 21, even if some moderate Liberal seats have to be sacrificed.
But will it work? According to Paul Williams, a political analyst and associate professor at Griffith University, the issue of transgender rights doesn’t resonate in Australia the way it does in the United States.
“You can see culture wars is at the heart of American politics,” he said. “I don’t think we’re at that point in Australia.”
“Middle Australia seems to be a fairly 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 doesn’t mean there aren’t voters who view politics through the prism of pro- and anti-political correctness. But do they amount to a critical mass? No, Professor Williams said. And would the trans rights issue decide their votes? Probably not, he added.
But he’s concerned about the future. This campaign has been particularly “presidential,” he said — driven by leaders’ personalities, not parties’ policies. It has also been marked by the “atomization” of news coverage, with different outlets constructing different realities for different constituencies, and by the weaponization of issues like trans rights, he said.
He fears that “Australia will become not just polarized but as irrational as post-Obama America, where the old adage that you’re entitled to your own opinion but you’re not entitled to your own facts has been completely thrown out the window.”
“This idea of win at all costs, win on ethos and pathos, feeling and character — or at least perception of character — but not on facts, is a terribly slippery road to go down,” Professor Williams said.
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