Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Idiot and the Village

Never argue with an idiot, quoted Billablog in his most excellent blog, referring to the social media storm that hit yesterday in response to Teresa Gambaro’s bizarre suggestion that we teach immigrants about deodorant and the etiquette of queuing. The idiot, of course, is Ms Gambaro, the Member for Brisbane and Opposition Spokeswoman for Citizenship and Settlement. Billablog made a valid point when he pointed to the dangers of public outrage drawing attention to something best left alone. The risk of giving the idiot attention is to increase her profile and give the argument longevity and even credibility.
In fairness, the only people arguing with this particular idiot are the members of her party, and probably a few family members, friends and advisors. The rest of us are just stating our opinions and arguing amongst ourselves.
Really, all the attention has added to Ms Gambaro’s statement is visibility. It’s up to us, her constituents, to determine whether her comments are credible, and by extension, whether she is credible. I believe that bringing Ms Gambaro’s ‘deodorant and queues’ comment to prominence is important because it gives the electorate the chance to see what she stands for.
So who is the idiot-woman? Ms Gambaro is the Member for Brisbane, an experienced parliamentarian, yet in her first term representing the precarious seat of Brisbane. The LNP holds the traditional Labor seat by a margin of 1.1%. There’s a reasonable chance that she might not be re-elected. Billablog is right to say that she was, prior to yesterday, a minor player at best, with no national profile. Well, she has one now, as an opposition backbencher who spouts unpopular opinions that don’t reflect the mood of the country and aren’t endorsed by the party to which she belongs. These are serious charges for someone hoping to build a positive profile.
And what did she say? She told The Australian that she was concerned about new migrants on work visas not integrating into the community because Australia had failed to teach them about cultural issues related to health, hygiene and lifestyle.
Using deodorant properly and waiting patiently in queues were two examples she used to illustrate what she considers to be acceptable norms.
“Without trying to be offensive, we are talking about hygiene and what is an acceptable norm in this country when you are working closely with other co-workers.”
Billablog hit all the sensitivities in his blog: I care.
“Of course, we could talk about how this trivialises the issue of multiculturalism, we could talk about how it appeals to racists, we could talk about the irony of a daughter of Italian immigrants saying something like that but really, who cares?”
I can’t agree that Ms Gambaro’s comments have trivialised the issues of multiculturalism. In fact, I suggest that the Deodorant Debacle has brought the issue into the public domain, and forced us to think more about how we behave, and how we expect new arrivals to behave. It makes us ask questions about our responsibility to prepare new arrivals to live as part of an Australian society we can barely define. I’d like to think that the mention of deodorant and the etiquette of queuing was a clever ploy by Ms Gambaro to get these issues on the agenda and gauge the response. I doubt that’s the case. I doubt Ms Gambaro is that wily. The social media response to her comments tends to suggest that if anything here is trivial, it’s Ms Gambaro.
But do comments of this nature feed into the stubborn streak of racism that we see every so often in Australia? Yes, I think it does. A quick analysis of the first 200 comments related to the Courier Mail’s online coverage of the story showed that 54% of comments were either opposed to Ms Gambaro’s comments, or thought she was targeting migrants when the larger population was a fault. Only 35% agreed with Ms Gambaro. 8% of comments were either irrelevant of could not be classified. Is there a degree of racism at play? At least one in three Courier Mail comments – and these are traditionally conservative – supported Ms Gambaro’s comments.

Perhaps racism is the wrong term, as Ms Gambaro didn’t specify a race. She did specify immigrants though, and by singling them out for mention, her words are discriminatory.
What have we achieved, by voicing our disapproval through social media, on talkback radio and in online comment sections? Is it, as Billablog suggests, counterproductive as it raises her profile, and hence her standing?
I think it’s far more than that, and I think our right to hear our politicians’ speak  and respond to them is one of the strengths of our democracy. At its most basic level, the attention Ms Gambaro received tells her that her comments are not shared by a majority of the population. Her response to the message we sent was to issue an apology for any offence she may have caused. Note that she didn’t not apologise for her words, or retract them; her apology applies only to the impact of her words. It’s standard in politics and celebrity circles, but seems to lack conviction and sincerity. In Tony Abbott’s absence, acting Opposition Leader rebuked her, saying that her suggestions were “not Coalition policy and not in line with modern Australian attitudes.” At the least, Ms Gambaro knows exactly where she stands…which is, politically speaking, on her own.
Oftentimes, it takes a controversy or a scandal to reveal the truth and bring it to the attention of those who are not generally interested in politics. Now, when voters in the seat of Brisbane head to the polls, if they know nothing else about Teresa Gambaro, they’ll probably remember that she considers new arrivals to be ill-mannered and foul-smelling.  Some will agree – about 1 in three, if you believe the comments pages of the Courier Mail, and I don’t – but others who may have considered voting for the LNP may turn away because of this. Remember, it’s an inner city seat.

There’s a larger effect to be considered when feedback is provided to politicians: the richness of being part of the process, or being heard and being acknowledged, the sense of vindication when you react and see others reacting the same way, and know you're part of a community of shared values.
We vote for our candidates, we elect a government, and quite often, when our local member is less prominent, we hear little of them beyond the occasional press release and appearance at speech nights.  I’ve scoured her website; there is no mention of her shadow portfolio – Parliamentary Secretary for Citizenship and Settlement – since July 2011, when she attended a forum with Scott Morrison. Neither yesterday’s interview, which sparked the controversy, nor the hasty apology, are on her website today. She doesn't make the news...well, not until now.
Shine a light on the idiots and hold them to account.


  1. To me, her "gaffe" didn't look like a throw-away remark. I thought it was carefully-crafted dog-whistling. By putting "hygeine" and "queueing theory" together, Gambaro was effectively saying...
    Q: What's worse than a queue-jumper?
    A: A *smelly* queue-jumper.

    But you are correct about Gambaro shooting herself in the foot re her re-election chances. As she shrinks her support base to only Caucasian 4th generation or older "Aussies", Andrew Bartlett must now be a good chance in Brisbane in 2013.

    If only I had worked harder on Arch Bevis.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Mike. You may well be right. I hadn't considered that poor queuing etiquette could be linked to "queue jumping"! You might be right about that. - Sal

  3. Hi Sal,
    Humble thanks for the kind words and thank you for a very thoughtful reply.

    My biggest concern is that media are drawn to comments such as these like flies to... well, you know. Almost immediately, the loudmouths become the go-to people any time one of the current affairs shows want to turn a run-of-the-mill-story into a national outrage. In fact, I suspect it's only because we're in the non-rating period that they haven't done a profile and a phone poll already.

    Tragically, "Moderate MP makes thoughtful comment about complex situation," just doesn't pull the punters like, "Outspoken MP makes outlandish statement. Agree/Disagree?" That applies in print, electronic media and even on twitter.

    Recognising this sad reality, I believe the best thing we can do is to deny the idiots the attention they crave and ensure that more reasoned voices are heard above them.