Sticking points

The Coalition is all of a sudden worried about ‘cohesion’, but it still largely ignores the issues – like gendered violence and homelessness – that tear at our social fabric daily

Cohesion, if you wondered, is defined by the good people at Oxford as “the action or fact of forming a united whole”. Which is good to know, because with the notion of social cohesion doing brisk business in the public sphere, we should get our definitions straight. According to shadow defence minister Andrew Hastie, Australia is facing its “most severe test for social cohesion” since Federation. You might be tempted at this point to interpose the desperate misery of the Great Depression, or perhaps one of that century’s two world wars as moments in which cohesion faced sterner tests, but it seems that global conflict is as nothing beside isolated acts of religiously motivated violent extremism.

Some might also point to recent statements from Hastie’s boss, Opposition Leader Peter Dutton, as examples of someone seeking to gain politically from stirring non-cohesive division. His comparison of pro-Palestinian protests and the Port Arthur massacre, for example, was “somewhat bizarre” according to Liberal MP Bridget Archer, but for Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, it was a conjunction that deliberately tested cohesion. “Sometimes what Peter Dutton does, in his comments, is to think about how hard you could possibly go and how angry you could possibly be – and then go one step further,” he said.

And there’s a thought: was Hastie making a sotto voce plea for moderation on the part of his leader? Only he knows. “We are under immense pressure,” he told RN Breakfast this morning. “People are scared, and particularly in Sydney where I grew up … We have many different people from all parts of the world, and it’s very diverse too. There’s Christians, Muslims, Jews and other religions in between, and we need to be able to live together.”

According to Hastie, that quest for social oneness would be facilitated by the PM doing a more robust job of “articulating the values that we all share and insisting that we all adhere to them, and that there is no place for religious extremism in this country”. How might the PM do that? “He can start by restoring the directors-general of ASIS and ASIO to his national security committee of cabinet.”

Whether in fact we can spook our way to a “united whole” is probably moot, but Hastie’s position is a fair summary of the view, held by many, that social cohesion is less a bringing together of the disparate, and more the enforcement of a particular – and by implication not universally agreed – social paradigm. As Billy Birmingham’s parody of the great Richie Benaud had it: “Let’s work as a team, please, and do it my way.”

None of which is to argue in favour of acts of violence, more to suggest that many see cohesion as an issue of singularity, insistence and enforcement rather than the gentle melding of preserved difference into something that has a happy and accepting unity.

Unheeded through much of this conversation is also the possibility that applying knife attacks as a test of social unity sets a bar so high and rare that it excludes several examples of more quotidian disintegration and dysfunction that arguably do far more to nibble at the social fabric.

The fact that women appear to have been the specific targets of the Bondi Junction stabbings and are the routine victims of domestic violence and weekly death suggests a greater assault on cohesion than any act of religiously inspired violence, never mind the overwhelming attention given to the latter over the former as an example of social fragmentation craving government attention.

Other evidence of the threat to cohesion was provided in research released to mark Youth Homelessness Matters Day. Here we read that last year 38,300 young people aged 15 to 24 presented, alone, to seek the help of specialist homelessness services; of that number, 17,248 needed a crisis bed, but only half got one. Nearly 90 per cent of them were escaping violence.

Reassuringly, homeless children are a group that 80 per cent of people surveyed by Essential consider worthy of some kind of ameliorating government attention. According to the survey, 82 per cent agree that “no young person in Australia should have to be homeless”, and 56 per cent strongly agree with this statement. Similarly, 80 per cent believe “there should be the necessary accommodation available for any child or young person in need”.

And there’s an irony: that an achingly sad example of social dysfunction should prompt a rare example of social consensus. If only it threatened some notion of “national security”. Maybe it should.

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