NBN Bust! A brief, grainy, almost noir, news item, with not much action and an eerily silent soundtrack screening repeatedly on national TV Thursday night wins feature of the week, Le chat mort or the dead cat award, in the Federal Election campaign, the latest episode of the long-running Canberra political soap opera, Days of our Knives, (M for mature audiences only.)
Despite – or, perhaps because of its murky production values and its publicity shy team, NBN Bust! goes viral. Like the NBN itself, it is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
Welcome to week two of election 2016, a no-holds-barred contest between the best campaign consultants dodgy “Free Enterprise” fundraising institutes’ money can buy – and all the rest. Winning is everything. Stakeholders in commerce, industry and media are major players. The public, if it’s lucky, gets a bit part. Unless, like Duncan Storrer, it dares speak truth to power.
Cue no mood music. The flickering images on your screen could be a drug bust, a crackdown on 457 visa over-stayers or just another of the regular round-ups of “the 501s”. These are the Kiwi citizens we routinely repatriate to New Zealand via Christmas Island under section 501 of the Migration Act, a courtesy extended to “non-citizens” who hold a “substantial criminal record,” entirely at anti-Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s discretion. Lucky he’s an “outstanding Minister.”
One thing is clear. Along with indefinite detention and blowing the whistle on aid workers who word up asylum-seekers to self-harm, Kiwi repatriation is all part of the “outstanding job” Dutton is doing to keep us all safe in our beds, our places uncontested in employment and dole queues.
Clipping Kiwi’s wings – aka operation flightless bird– is but one of the reasons the Border Supremo is singled out for praise by a political leader pledged to consensus and dialogue, a PM who promised to be a reasoned alternative to Tony Abbott’s obsession with shock-jock politics.
After successfully seizing the leadership last August, Turnbull stepped all over Tony Abbott to step up to the plate. He was determined, he suggested. Determined to rid us of the cheap, demeaning, dehumanising illiterate political sludge of boat-stopping slogans, to say nothing of unbridled pragmatism and messianic delusion. Or such was his promise.
Yet before even a second week is over – and with forty days and nights of campaigning still before him, the caretaker PM is morphing before our eyes into Chief Border Enforcer, PM Malcolm Abbott. Expect a made to measure bomber jacket any day. Tony’s won’t fit and besides, he’s keeping his.
Turnbull says the raid is news to him, he’s just the PM and the NBN was his baby for nearly three years before that. No. It’s not a government stunt. How dare anyone impugn the AFP! He can’t explain how so many members of the media were up out of their beds past midnight and just miraculously appeared upon the scenes of the busts. Not that anyone asks him. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence.
Whatever it is, NBN Bust! needs to eclipse the black hole of entropy that is the coalition election campaign. A slew of opinion polls point to a steady rise in the PM’s unpopularity. For the first time now as many respondents don’t approve of him as do, while the Coalition’s overall political appeal continues to slide as voters tire of jobs and growth sloganeering.
A ReachTel poll, published Saturday in The Herald Sun, suggests Labor could clinch the seat of MacArthur held by Liberal Russell Matheson 51-49 per cent on a two-party preferred basis. Roy Morgan echoes this trend on a national scale.
A dead cat on the table is required. Coalition campaign consultants Crosby Textor use this curious term for a big distraction. “Drop the dead donkey, let’s heave a dead cat on the table.” (Abandon news no-one wants or needs to hear; create a massive distraction.)
Highly skilled, even if it says so regularly itself, the Crosby Textor consultancy has helped Boris Johnson to victory twice. Its team includes at least one former Liberal party bigwig and a pollster who rose to meddle in campaigns in the UK and NZ.
In a controversial decision to award a knighthood for political services in 2015, David Cameron made Lynton Crosby a knight. “Arise, Sir Dogwhistle,” critics wrote.
Doubtless his partner, Campaign strategist Mark Textor, was up for a downunder knighthood had not Tony Abbott cooked his royal goose with Sir Phil of Australia’s knighthood. Mark Textor does boast of putting the following in Abbott’s mouth:
“We will stop the boats, stop the big new taxes, end the waste, and pay back the debt.”
What could possibly go wrong? Taking full credit for Tony Abbott’s amazing success in 2013, Mark Textor wants more satisfied customers. He calls quickly for a big distraction, or two. Wrench voters’ attention away from the Coalition’s flop of a trickle-down economic plan based on cutting taxes for the rich.
Upstage wily Bill Shorten’s successes with health, education, unfreezing Medicare rebates and a full frontal shopping mall snogging from an over-enthusiastic admirer.
A skillfully televised Federal Police raid on the Melbourne office of shadow Communication Minister Stephen Conroy and a Labor staffer suddenly interrupts normal transmission across the nation. Whodunnit? Why? What are they looking for? (Apart from any leakable notes Conroy may have nicked from the NBN committee.)
The show is an absolute mystery to a great many members of the government, most of whom seek out every available network TV camera to exclaim over how they know nothing. Federal Police Commissioner, Andrew Colvin kindly calls a press conference to assist with all enquiries. He tells media the government had been told nothing by the AFP. You can tell he’s not lying because he’s a policeman in uniform.
It is all utterly unbelievable. A human sacrifice is required. Uncommunicative Communications Minister and Minister for cutting funding to the Arts, Liberal Party chief philistine Mitch Fifield, puts his hand up after a few days.
Fifield ‘fesses up. He knew all along but chose to keep it all to himself, a disclosure which his PM, who is pledged to open, consultative cabinet government and team play in general, swiftly publicly endorses. But will the nation recover?
Images of nocturnal AFP operatives entering premises are disturbing. The cinema noir shabbiness of one busted property positively shrieks for a spot of negatively-geared landlord attention, or a boost in overnight expense allowances, serves above all to confirm in the public mind that the ALP are a shifty mob who inhabit a squalid, run-down set from Underbelly.
It does not matter that the raid sought to recover documents already widely and enthusiastically leaked to the media. Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, an out of the loop NBN campaign spokesman calls it intellectual property theft, a theft which, somehow, he hints broadly, imperils, (if it were not already a public laughing stock) the entire NBN project. Or imperils every journalist who has received a tip off. Or anyone who exposes the mountebank in Turnbull.
Nor does it spoil the plot to know that Senator Conroy had sought to table in parliament NBN leaked documents, which reveal that the NBN is lagging well behind schedule, has a massive cost blowout to $56 billion, nearly double its original projected cost – and is facing technical difficulties.
What is a bit messy is that the whole business reveals Malcolm Turnbull’s utter failure as communications minister and the man who invented the Internet to do what he said he would do – create a better, faster, more reliable and cheaper alternative to Labor’s NBN.
The NBN bust upstages an otherwise thoroughly eventful political campaign in a week in which Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton makes inflammatory and irrational anti-immigration claims that refugees are illiterate, innumerate and about to take Australian jobs while they also languish on welfare and are a burden on Medicare. Thousands rise up overnight in remonstration – from all walks of life. But not in the government.
Dutton’s comments are endorsed immediately by the Prime Minister who publishes a wheedling justification in The Age next day in which he makes the absurd argument that our multicultural society depends on secure borders. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop also rushes to defend a minister whom the PM declares to be an outstanding Minister of Immigration on the grounds that we’ve had 600 weeks of unsuccessful people-smuggling operations.
It is just the type of distraction – almost- Crosby Textor recommends – a Textor-book tactic. Or it may even be a little too refined. Textor seems to adhere to the Phineas T Barnum adage that no-one ever went broke underestimating public taste. Or xenophobia.
Meanwhile, the reputedly outstanding Immigration Minister has little or nothing to commend him in the running of his portfolio. Uneasy with inquiry or the Westminster system of ministerial responsibility he either refuses to answer questions, on operational grounds or because they will encourage the demon people smugglers to refine their business model – or he gives misleading answers.
Last week the Federal Court of Australia found that Dutton, exposed Abyan, an asylum seeker, to serious medical and legal risk by flying the woman from Nauru to PNG to terminate her pregnancy, despite this procedure being illegal in PNG. The asylum seeker became pregnant after being raped while in detention. Dutton is now legally required to fly Abyan to a country with the necessary medical expertise and equipment to safely perform an abortion.
The Federal Court also found that Australia owed a duty of care to the asylum seeker, a finding that may have broad ramifications for offshore detention.
One bright spot. Dutton seems big on military drill. He certainly has been happy to continue Scott Morrison’s militarisation of a government department which should be an extension of our humanity, our duty to provide help to refugees and other displaced persons.
Instead Dutton administers a militarised Border Force where families live in fear of a knock on the door in the middle of the night. Uniformed Border Force guards are there with vans and dogs. In Darwin and in Melbourne in the middle of the night, guards in riot gear invade rooms and drag people out to waiting vans for transfer to planes to Nauru.
Women and children are forced to strip in front of guards and to shower without doors. They are given special clothes for the plane journey back to Nauru and escorted up the stairs with guards on either side.
In an open letter to Mr Turnbull and Mr Dutton in New Matilda, Liam O’Loughlin writes
Omid Masoumali spent three years imprisoned on Nauru for fleeing persecution in Iran. Last week he was told by UNHCR officials he would remain on Nauru for another decade. Soon after, he doused himself in accelerant, yelled “This how tired we are; this action will prove how exhausted we are. I cannot take it anymore”, and set himself on fire. Waiting in agony two hours for a doctor’s care, eight hours for morphine, and 22 hours for medical evacuation, Omid suffered cardiac arrest and was dead upon arrival in Brisbane. He was 23.
And what was your response? Charge Omid’s family $17,000 to return the body to Iran. Sedate his wife, deny her a lawyer and refuse calls to family. Then try to persuade her to return to the country from which she’s fled.
Much could be said about Dutton’s signal failure to respond humanely to the tragic self-immolation of those in his care on Nauru but his assertion that detainees were being coached in self-harm by refugee advocates is surely sufficient evidence alone that far from being outstanding, the Minister should be relieved of his portfolio. Or accept the verdict of Tim Costello that offshore detention is not only punitive as an intended deterrent, it is torture.
Those who remain in Australia are made to suffer. For two years Dutton denied 24,500 asylum seekers detained in Australia the right to work or volunteer. Even those who may be released into the community continue to suffer as is attested in the tragic last words of Khodayar Amini, who, fearing a return to detention, burned himself to death in bushland around Dandenong.
Khodayar Amini, left these parting words:
“My crime was that I was a refugee. They tortured me for 37 months…Red Cross, Immigration and the Police killed me with their slogans of humanity and cruel treatments.”
Many eminent Australians have taken issue with Dutton’s diatribe against refugees since last Thursday. On balance it appears he spoke off his own bat and not as a dog-whistler, orchestrated by the Crosby-Textor campaign of a coalition government determined to win at any cost and realising as Malcolm Turnbull said of the asylum seeker issue in 2008 “it’s the only thing we’ve got.”1
With its flash campaign strategists at the coalition campaign helm, bipartisan support on the cruelty of offshore detention and with little else resonating with the electorate, expect more of the same desperation; the primitive tribal beating of the anti-immigration drum.
Unless of course, the vast majority of ordinary Australians who are decent and humane at heart get their politicians to stop the nonsense and bring those suffering in offshore camps immediately to asylum in Australia.
- Back in 2008, while he was still opposition leader, Malcolm Turnbull was tackled in his party room over his ramping up of the boat people issue. His predecessor, Brendan Nelson, had agreed with the Rudd government’s dismantling of the Howard-era Pacific Solution. Nauru was closed. But as the boats began to trickle back, Turnbull was asked by a backbench Liberal why he was passing up the chance to restore the bipartisanship that existed on refugees before Howard torpedoed it in 2001. In the face of a still dominant Labor government, Turnbull responded: “It’s all we’ve got.”
Paul Bongiorno The Saturday Paper 21 May 2016