Monday, August 29, 2005

Bishop & the Poison Chalice

The French did it. The Brits claimed to have suffered for it. So some Aussies thought they might follow the French example and pre-empt the Brit experience from happening.

Remember Australia’s MP Sophie Panopoulos from the Liberal Party - I blogged on her sometime ago, in Sophie Panapoulos – Silly She Ain’t!, about how clever she was in organizing her political activities to catch PM John Howard’s eyes?

Well, the right wing and very outspoken lady took a populist stand by commenting last week that Muslim girls wore headscarves to school as more an act of rebellion than a need of religion. She discarded the Aussie political convention of not debating in public, issues that may be seen to attack minorities.

Panopoulos said girls attending government schools in Australia should wear the official school uniform a la the French approach. The French recently passed a law directed at the wearing of religious or ethnic symbols such as Sikh’s turbans, Jews’ yarmulkes, and Muslim headgear, etc in public schools, that would symbolise divisions within French society, especially among school children.

Another right wing Liberal Party backbencher, Bronwyn Bishop has joined her call. Bishop wanted to ban Muslim girls from wearing headscarves at government schools. Like Panapoulos, she reckoned that the use of such headgear was an iconic act of defiance. She is worried that Australia would experience a clash of cultures if nothing was done now.

She suggested that such drastic actions need not be necessary in an ideal society, but she believed that, given the current terrorist attacks in Britain and some parts of Europe, it’s time to stop dividing society by displaying religious or ethnic symbols.

To be fair to Bishop she recommended that the ban applies only at state government schools, and that Muslim girls were entitled to continue wearing their scarves in their private/personal capacity, at home or in Muslim schools.

She explained that she “singled out the Muslim headscarf because no other religious group was arguing for the fundamental rules of society to be changed”, meaning that some Muslim clerics were preaching to their parish to obey Islamic law above Australian law. Recently the Aussie DPM Peter Costello has issued a no-shit warning that there is only one law in Australia, which is the Australian law.

I saw on Aussie TV some (sweet looking) Aussie students of the Islamic faith, explaining and clarifying very articulately their religious obligation to don the headgear, not because of any silly defiance of western rule, but for modesty as required by Islam. Those girls were obviously Aussie-born or brought up in an Aussie environment. There’s no mistaking their Aussie accent. They were very calm and relaxed in their responses to Bishop’s suggestion.

Unlike the cleverness and rising star of Panapoulos, Bishop is regarded as a has-been in Australian politics. She still has a core of supporters but she is nowhere near the dynamism and cunning of Panapoulos.

Bishop was once a prime ministerial wannabe. She fancied herself as another Margaret Thatcher and I suspect, modelled herself after the British Iron Lady. In her heydays she tried to project herself as a no-nonsense, decisive and resolute politician. At one time her hairdo looked suspiciously a la Margaret Thatcher. Unfortunately there has been no harmless-looking “Denis Thatcher” to stand beside her to complete the Margaret Thatcher image.

There was a time when she wasn’t even coy about her prime ministerial prospect. But when John Howard became the PM, he sorted her out, gave her a lousy difficult ministerial function that was the downfall of her, then demoted her to some minor ministerial post and eventually kicked her to the backbench.

I wonder whether she ought to see that as a backhanded compliment to her potential threat? But in her last ministerial post, she was an utter disaster though I wonder whether a man holding that same poison chalice would have done any better.

Another prime ministerial wannabe, federal Education Minister, Brendan Nelson, deflated Bishop’s proposal, stating that he supported the right of students to wear headscarves provided this fell within each school's uniforms policy.

Not entirely unexpected, the adverse fallout of this right wing proposal seems to be focussed on poor Bronwyn Bishop alone rather include Sophie Panapoulos, even though it was Panapoulos who raised this first. Bishop has again drank from a poison chalice.

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