Oops ... the government’s Senate leader, Mathias Cormann. Pic: The Australian
Oops ... the government’s Senate leader, Mathias Cormann. Pic: The Australian

Humiliating screw-up leaves govt in turmoil

THE government is in turmoil today after an "administrative process failure" caused it to vote the wrong way on Pauline Hanson's controversial "It's OK to be white" motion.

The motion in question, in which Ms Hanson urged her colleagues to acknowledge "the deplorable rise of anti-white racism and attacks on Western civilisation" and say "it is OK to be white", was narrowly defeated 31-28 in the Senate yesterday afternoon.

Labor and the Greens voted against the motion, but 23 government senators supported it, including Trade Minsiter Simon Birmingham, Small Business Minister Michaelia Cash and Communications Minister Mitch Fifield.

Five Coalition senators who were not present were paired with senators who opposed the motion, so essentially, voted for it as well. Among them was the government's Senate leader Mathias Cormann, who fronted the media to explain the screw-up this morning after Prime Minister Scott Morrison condemned the Coalition's backing for the One Nation stunt as "regrettable" and issued a "please explain" directive.

"Yesterday, as a result of an administrative process failure, the government senators in the chamber ended up, on advice, voting in support of the motion. As leader of the government in the Senate, I take responsibility for that error and I'm sorry that that happened. It is indeed regrettable," Mr Cormann said.

"Let me make it very clear. We did not support the form of words that was chosen in that motion."

Mr Cormann said the plan had been for the government to "deplore racism of any kind but not to actually support the motion".

Pauline Hanson certainly got the publicity she was after. Pic: AAP
Pauline Hanson certainly got the publicity she was after. Pic: AAP

The phrase "It's OK to be white" is associated with white supremacist organisations and has been used to belittle claims of racism by non-white groups.

It was originally conceived by trolls on 4chan's "politically incorrect" image board. Signs and cards bearing the catchphrase have popped up in all sorts of public places since, occasionally inducing outrage.

Ms Hanson initially tried to move her motion during the last sitting period in parliament three weeks ago, but ran out of time. Mr Cormann said the government had made a "clear decision" to oppose it back then.

"As I indicated when this motion first came up, we made a very clear decision to oppose that motion. It wasn't voted on in September. It came back up yesterday and it slipped through. It shouldn't have, and I take responsibility for that," he said.

"It is a matter of administrative error. There is a process involved. There are 50 or 60 motions that get moved this way every week. There is a process involved in determining the position of the government in relation to 50 or 60 motions a week.

"When this motion first came up in September, the former position that was adopted was to oppose. For some reason that wasn't carried through to the vote yesterday. It should have been."

During the division yesterday, multiple Coalition senators could be seen checking their voting advice sheets, apparently unsure their instructions were correct.

But afterwards, several members of the government publicly voiced support for the position they had adopted.

"The government senators' actions in the Senate this afternoon confirm that the government deplores racism of any kind," said Attorney-General Christian Porter.

Today, Mr Porter blamed his staff for the government's mistake, saying the motion was interpreted by his office as "opposing racism" and "the associations of the language were not picked up" because the motion was not raised with him directly.

Senator Lucy Gichuhi, who was born in Kenya, was another high-profile Coalition figure to support the decision yesterday.

"I say no to white supremacy, I say no to black supremacy, but I say yes to human supremacy. Today, the government condemns all forms of racism," she tweeted.

Mr Cormann and fellow senior Liberal senator Eric Abetz both retweeted her comment at the time.

But shortly after Mr Cormann spoke this morning, Ms Gichuhi deleted it.

Mathias Cormann fronted the cameras to explain his mistake. Pic: Kym Smith
Mathias Cormann fronted the cameras to explain his mistake. Pic: Kym Smith

"I'm sure all Australians stand against racism in whatever form it takes," the Prime Minister said at a press conference today.

"I found it regrettable," he said of his government's support for the motion, "but the leader of the government in the Senate will be making a statement on that shortly."

Speaking before the vote yesterday, Ms Hanson claimed there had been a spike in anti-white racism in Australia.

"I hope that the Senate does the reasonable thing today by supporting this motion. Anyone who pays attention to the news or spends any time on social media has to acknowledge that there has been a rise in anti-white racism and a rise in attacks on the very ideals of Western civilisation," Ms Hanson said.

"I would also hope the Senate does the right thing and acknowledges that it is indeed okay to be white. Such a simple sentence should go without saying, but I suspect many members in this place would struggle to say it.

"People have a right to be proud of their cultural background, whether they are black, white or brindle. If we can't agree on this, I think it's safe to say anti-white racism is well and truly rife in our society."

But one of the motion's opponents, Justice Party Senator Derryn Hinch, furiously denounced her words.

"With the federal election looming I'm starting to think that Senator Hanson and her former colleague Senator (Fraser) Anning are now locked in a race to see who can be the biggest, the loudest, racist bigot in their contest to see who can get to the bottom of the sewer first," Mr Hinch said.

"That's what this obscene motion is all about. It could have been written on a piece of toilet paper, which reminds me of that old story about a toilet cleaner. People were nicknamed Harpic because they would clean around the bend.

"There are all sorts of things behind this latest stunt by Senator Hanson. She's using this chamber as a conduit for her headline grabbing stunts. Remember the burqa."

Independent Senator Derry Hinch strongly opposed the motion. Pic: AAP
Independent Senator Derry Hinch strongly opposed the motion. Pic: AAP

Mr Hinch suggested Ms Hanson had first flagged the motion three weeks ago to drum up publicity for it.

"Senator Hanson tweeted a very clever line-up dreamed up by, I imagine, a giggling cohort in the backroom, her line about 'It's okay to be white' and then went public with it before most of the senators in this chamber had even heard about it," he said.

"She tweeted it and went on Sky that night and published it before it was even tabled here in the Senate. I would say this sort of racism is not only wrong, it could be dangerous."

As you may recall, this isn't Ms Hanson's first contentious stunt in the Senate.

She was previously berated in similar fashion by former Attorney-General George Brandis when she wore a burqa in the chamber.

"I am not going to pretend to ignore the stunt that you have tried to pull today by arriving in the Chamber dressed in a burqa when we all know that you are not an adherent of the Islamic faith," Mr Brandis said at the time, his voice cracking.

"I can tell you, Senator Hanson, that it has been the advice of each Director-General of security with whom I have worked and each Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police with whom I have worked that it is vital for their intelligence and law enforcement work that they work cooperatively with the Muslim community and to ridicule that community, to drive it into a corner, to mock its religious garments is an appalling thing to do and I would ask you to reflect on that."

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