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Byron Shire
April 20, 2024

Thus Spake Mungo: Disrobing PM’s discomfort

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In a moment of introspection, Tony Abbott once opined that he was, perhaps, a bastard – or, as he more delicately put it, a love child.

His supposed parents were John Howard, a real prime minister, and Bronwyn Bishop, an absurdly wanted-to-be prime minister.

These days, of course, Bishop sits in the speaker’s chair, the most blatantly biased presiding officer in the parliament’s history: she takes part in the deliberations of the Liberal Party room and has tossed out some 200 opposition members from the chamber, which is thought to be a record.

Between mother and son, family harmony generally prevails. But even in the best regulated households there are occasional spats, and it appeared that one has now developed.

Last week Bishop enacted a ukase that wearers of facial covering, by which everyone understood to be Muslim veils, whether burqa or niqab, would henceforth be restricted to the glassed-in observation chambers of the House of Representatives. The little-known Stephen Parry, the senate president, concurred. The presiding officers have spoken.

It is not entirely certain what purpose the glassed-in areas actually serve; perhaps they are modelled on the glass booth in which Adolf Eichmann was brought to trial in Israel. In the past they are usually confined to groups of school children, who would probably feel more threatened than threatening by the spectacle in front of them.

And there was a rumour – no more – that impostors might arrive in parliament in Muslim dress and, shock horror, demonstrate in the galleries. Perhaps that was what Parry meant when he attempted to justify the edict by saying that if there were hecklers, it might be hard to identify the culprits if their faces were covered.

Even if this were true (and it never has been) it seemed a simple enough problem to solve. Nonetheless, the sledgehammer was produced and the nut was cracked – or, as Abbott attempted in another euphemism, a mountain was enlarged to a molehill.

The ostensible reason for the move came from the usual suspects: those serial bigots Jackie Lambie, George Christensen and Cory Bernardi who wanted the burqa (and presumably the niqab) banned, full stop.

In normal circumstances they would have been dismissed with ridicule and ignored, but there was a catch: the prime minister’s office. Abbott’s Eminence Grise, Peta Credlin, had let it be known that she was not only supportive, but in the loop. She urged Bernardi to go ahead, but counselled him to adopt a bit of camouflage: don’t just say ban the burqa, talk about the need for security in the hallowed precincts of the people’s parliament. So Bernardi did so.

It is not known whether Credlin passed on the advice to her boss, but we do know that Abbott felt compelled to announce, in public, the he felt the burqa (or, presumably, niqab) was a confronting bit of attire, and he would rather it were not worn.

Well, hang on – confronting? A gun-wielding bikie in balaclava might be confronting, or perhaps a cop in full riot gear. A woman clad in a drab garment for reasons of modesty should hardly rattle our pugilistic prime minister. He must indeed have depths of sensitivity of which we were not aware.

But Abbott, following the Credlin/Bernardi line, also went on to muse about the importance of security on the building. Well, wink wink, nudge nudge. Bishop would have had every right to believe that her favourite son had given a hint she could not refuse. And she would have felt equally betrayed when he not only explained later that he had missed her declaration before it had been proclaimed and wanted it reversed.

Of course, this is not the first time Abbott has found his prejudices to be a little impolitic. A few years ago he told the world that he was ‘uncomfortable’ with the idea of homosexuality; earlier he expressed reservations about multiculturalism.

But as prime minister, he has been a little more careful. He has even kept his mouth shut about his lifelong opposition to abortion. But this time, for one reason or another, he cracked, and then had to retreat in the wake of a widespread and well-merited public backlash.

Like Bishop, he was, perhaps, entitled to feel aggrieved. He might have been impetuous, but he was not alone: the subject of Muslim coverings for women has been a long and complex one, involving the conflict between the religious and the secular, the traditional and the modern, going on for many years. Women themselves argue whether it is a matter of female choice or male oppression. France has banned the burqa outright. Other western countries have followed with total or partial restrictions.

But the most interesting example comes, appropriately as we focus our attention on the centenary of Anzac, from the largely Islamic republic of Turkey. The founder of the modern nation, the Anzac veteran Kemal Ataturk, was a zealous secularist determined to modernise the medieval culture of the populace, and he adopted the abolition of the veil as a symbol. But like Credlin and Bernardi, he did it by stealth and misdirection.

He started by insisting that students sitting for public service exams (a much-desired career option) should appear bare-headed – simply because they could then not whisper answers between them and cheat. Similarly, he attempted to replace the fez with the bowler hat to prevent male Muslims from bowing their heads on the ground in prayer. The campaign was not entirely successful: in the east of the country it was frequently ignored and even in the great cosmopolitan city of Istanbul there remain pockets of resistance.

But it took a virtual dictator even to attempt the job. Abbott is not in the same mould, and for that matter is unlikely to succumb to Ataturk’s fate of alcoholism and syphilis – at least as far as we know. Bishop, for all her overt authoritarianism, will probably recant in the fortnight break before parliament resumes and Abbott will be able to get back to plugging Team Australia in the wake of the other grand finals.

But it has been yet another blunder, yet another distraction, and yet another episode which will give the critics (and for that matter the supporters) further doubts about our prime minister’s judgement and stability. To put it bluntly, when it comes to the burqa, Tony Abbott has been a bit of a berk.

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  1. I am very worried about beehive hairdos in our parliament, it is very well known that whole arsenals of AK47’s an colt can be hidden in such hair suits

  2. I’ll pay the above, Arco. Add on . . .Mungo did indeed know ‘his onions’. He’d sniffed out
    the Liberal party when he was but a boy & never let go any dubious fib to the Oz public.
    I reckon he loved to tickle any brain dead P.M. ScoMo got his rightful name on many
    encounters. Mungo took ScoMo down before he passed on. The reckoning’s now here.


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