In appointing the deeply compromised, former Attorney General, counter-terror warrior, Philip Ruddock as his government’s special envoy for human rights to the UN, Malcolm Turnbull has achieved a gesture worthy of Tony Abbott’s appointment of himself as Minister for Women. It is a calculated slight.
Unless, of course, the PM wishes to give the Saudis, the Chinese and the Vietnamese representatives currently disgracing the UN Human Rights Council another rogue they can relate to.
Whatever Ruddock’s appointment may do to boost Turnbull’s stakes in the monkey pod room, the PM’s snub to international standards can only damage his own reputation for sound judgement and leadership.
Was this the only way he could be rid of the ‘father of the house’ as the time-server was so often ironically misnamed? Is this the move to bring an innovative, agile Australia to the world’s attention? Can he do any more to trash our image abroad?
Australia’s reputation will sink even further under Ruddock’s dead weight. Not that much more is needed with our immigration laws, Operation Sovereign Borders, the continued existence of a regime of indefinite detention in unsafe camps on Manus and Nauru Island and the recent high court green light to repatriate babies and children to these places of danger. It will, however, assist us attain new depths of world disapproval.
Ruddock is a rebuff to the court of international opinion if not to the notion of accountability itself. Turnbull is dismissing UN censure over our mistreatment of refugees and asylum-seekers by appointing the one Australian in political life whose career commends him least to the position.
Philip Ruddock helped Howard politicise the maltreatment of asylum seekers in 2001, when he helped perpetrate the myth that boat people were throwing babies overboard and whose career as Attorney General saw a series of assaults on the human rights of ordinary Australians including re-introducing the law of sedition, against expert advice, along with preventative detention and control orders. He pioneered the culture of secrecy which continues to vitiate the people’s right to know what Immigration and Border Control get up to in our name.
Ruddock’s war on terror resulted in travesties of justice and human rights in the cases of Mamdouh Habib and David Hicks whom he insisted, madly, with no evidence, were high-ranking al Qaeda operatives. Habib, whose rendition to Egypt and subsequent torture was witnessed by an Australian official, later successfully sued the Gillard government.
On the domestic front Turnbull is lining himself up with Tony Abbott’s populist, pragmatic chauvinism. Perhaps he thinks by thumbing his nose at Geneva and all other piss-weak libertarians he demonstrates how he’s secretly a tough guy who doesn’t give a stuff what others think of him. It’s a calculated, if not opportunistic, statement of independence, made in the context of the proposed return of vulnerable infants to Manus and Nauru.
Sending Ruddock to the UN is partly a crudely macho swagger. No-one tells Australians what to do. Unless of course, they are American presidents based in Washington who must do the bidding of the pentagon and its powerful patrons and pressure groups and take us into unwinnable battles over oil.
But that’s war. Ruddock helps Turnbull re-position himself as a hard bastard who doesn’t give a fig for the finer nuances of international relations or human rights. It’s another sharp right turn from the image of refinement he presented as the alternative Prime Minister in exile during Abbott’s excesses.
Nothing new here, the PM has done the same on climate change and on social issues such as gay marriage. He has even retreated from his leadership of the republican movement in order to launder his political character to remove all traces of his former, left-leaning libertarian tendencies. Or previous self-inventions.
Abbott was given to railing against a world who dared to ‘lecture us’ on human rights, or which simply seeks to hold us to account for our barbaric, selfish cruelty. Turnbull’s anointing of Ruddock as human rights warrior does much the same. In the process, the PM is capitulating to the very forces in September he pretended to oppose.
For a man who came to power promising to respect the intelligence of the electorate it is an alarming flip-flop; rapid reversal and retreat into the mindless slogans of being ‘tough on border protection’, as if we were threatened with invasion or at war on some battle-field, where our enemies are not ourselves but instead some baroque, fictive, demon people-smugglers that have such enormous power of perception we can utter no word about how we treat even one tiny baby lest this result in a tidal wave of rusty, clapped out fishing trawlers on the horizon.
It’s preposterous but it’s only part of his message. Turnbull’s calculated gesture of contempt for the principles and processes of decent, responsible global citizenship is intended for a wider audience. Geneva will not mistake it for what it is, a two fingered salute to those who criticise our primitive immigration and ‘border protection’ policies.
The UN, for all its challenges and limitations is staffed by intelligent, often learned people, who will have no trouble recalling that Ruddock then attorney-general was the Australian politician who, in 2002, helped then PM John Howard perpetrate the lie that asylum-seekers had thrown babies overboard. It was the first, irrevocable step towards the demonising of the dispossessed and their travel agents, ‘the people smugglers’, a pit into which the PM and his foreign minister have lately taken delight in dragging us all back into.
‘We’ll decide who comes to this country’ ran the headlines in the Murdoch press, featuring an heroic John Winston Howard pretending to take a stand against refugees who had somehow forfeited all right to our compassion and humanity. By means of a lie.
Ruddock helped Howard make political capital out of cruel indifference and wilful deception. He ushered in an era in the nation’s political life in which our cruel inhuman indifference to the worlds’ most unfortunate peoples could be presented not only as right but as necessary. Our national security was at stake. We must maintain our sovereign borders. The hollow, meaningless rhetoric that accompanies the theatre of cruelty reverberates in the nation’s parliament today.
Demonising asylum-seekers began with a lie exploited for political gain, with Mr Ruddock’s agile help and John Howard’s avid encouragement. We were persuaded to surrender our humanity for his political gain. We are, today, ourselves, all of us, diminished, our better instincts all locked down by a perverse determination to keep others out that began with Howard’s desperate bid to win an election, thanks to Ruddock’s help.
No more calculated snub to the UN could be found than to announce the appointment of this man as Australia’s special envoy for human rights. What it ultimately does to the nation is anyone’s guess. But what it does for Turnbull’s leadership and reputation for judgement will, ultimately, be little short of disastrous.