THE emergence of the 24-hour news cycle and the growth of social media have changed word usage — in politics and elsewhere. Hyperbole that once prevailed in the front bar of the local pub, now has a permanent status online. Moreover, exaggeration is more than ever likely to get a run against considered expression.
Take Clive Palmer, the member for Fairfax, for example. This month the founder of the Palmer United Party has received publicity, among other things, for denigrating people who have crossed him.
First up, Palmer described Queensland Premier Campbell Newman as a “nazi” and a “criminal” who is less popular than Adolf Hitler was.
Not long after, Palmer got into an argument with Rosemary Laing, the Senate clerk, who advised him that an amendment proposed by PUP Senate leader Glenn Lazarus was unconstitutional. This was sound advice for politicians who should understand that money bills cannot be initiated in the upper house.
But Palmer was not willing to listen to disinterested and sound advice. Instead he declared that Laing “can’t interfere and stop” PUP senators doing what they want to do. Palmer added: “Otherwise you get a bureaucrat being able to veto legislation and we don’t want that; that’s what happens in Stalinist Russia.”
Palmer’s comments linking Laing with Stalin received a run in the electronic media. Hyperbole invariably does. Had he thought before talking, Palmer would have had reason not to exhibit such appalling ignorance about the history of the 20th century.
Joseph Stalin (1879-1953) ruled the then Soviet Union from the time he succeeded Vladimir Lenin in the early 1920s and completely dominated the nation from the mid-1930s until his death. During that time there was a forced famine in Ukraine, purges, the deportation of nationalities and state-sanctioned killing on a grand scale. In August 1939, Stalin signed off on the Nazi Soviet Pact, which divided Eastern Europe between the dictatorships based in Moscow and Berlin and effectively started World War II.
If Palmer seriously believes that, in Stalinist times, bureaucrats in the Soviet Union were able to veto legislation he is grievously misinformed. The Soviet Union was a communist totalitarian state. It was not a democracy with an elected legislature and there was no independent public service. The residents of the Soviet Union lived in fear of Stalin — not from bureaucrats attempting to advise politicians that money bills should rightly be initiated in one chamber of parliament and not the other.
It’s the same with Palmer’s lack of understanding about the reality of Nazi Germany.
Queensland Premier Campbell Newman is an elected politician who faces voters again next year. However, there was no free election between Hitler acquiring power in 1933 and his death and Germany’s defeat in 1945.
If Newman were Hitler, then Palmer would most likely be dead. Alternatively, he would be incarcerated in a concentration camp. However, as we all know, PUP’s leader lives freely in Queensland where he is using the facilities of an independent judicial system to sue the Premier for defamation. Also the Palmer United Party plans to run against the Newman-led Liberal National Party in the forthcoming Queensland election.
Palmer’s comments on the likes of Laing and Newman are but personal abuse, camouflaged by false historical references in an attempt to hide reality. This is a problem in a society not focused on history and that has never experienced totalitarianism of either the communist or fascist variety. When Palmer links Laing with Stalin or Newman with Hitler, all this means he does not like their views. That’s all. The rest is just abuse disguised as historical commentary.
It’s much the same with former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser. For more than a decade, Fraser has been a constant critic of the Coalition governments led by John Howard and Tony Abbott. As with Palmer, Fraser’s special attraction to the media turns on his capacity to exaggerate. On July 4, for example, Fraser tweeted that handing back Sri Lankan asylum-seekers to the Sri Lankan navy at sea is “redolent” of “handing Jews to Nazis in 1930s”.
The former prime minister’s reference to Germany in the 30s includes the events of what is termed the Kristallnacht pogrom. This saw the Nazi totalitarian state explicitly targeting German Jews and their property.
In January 1939, in a speech to the Reichstag, Hitler explicitly threatened the destruction of European Jewry. He began this task soon after.
Fraser knows that Sri Lanka in 2014 is not Nazi Germany in 1939. The country is a democracy that recently went through an appalling civil war in which there were abuses on both sides. But many minority Tamils live freely in Sri Lanka and enjoy the benefits of a democratic state. In Nazi Germany, Jews had no rights.
Fraser, who was born in 1930, well understands the reality that was Germany under Hitler. His suggestion that the Abbott government is proposing to hand over Tamil asylum-seekers to a regime that will dispatch them to death camps is aimed at achieving media publicity. It did so, but at a cost to dispassionate discussion.
Palmer and Fraser are not alone in their use of hyperbole to score political points. This tactic is also favoured by the green-Left, which just loves to accuse its opponents of fascism and the like. It’s just that successful Australians like Palmer and Fraser should do better than engage in using words, which have no historical context, as weapons.
There is also the matter of respect for the victims of totalitarianism. It is offensive to use the murders and the persecution engaged in by the communist and fascist dictators of Europe in the 1930s to score a political point in contemporary democratic Australia — especially if the media joins in the frenzy.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.