They lie the men who tell us for reasons of their own
That want is here a stranger and that misery’s unknown …
Henry Lawson Faces in the Street
Loud Hosannas, cheers, applause and dancing in the streets erupt across a grateful nation this week as our bravely innovative, PM, Malcolm Turnbull, proclaims Peter Dutton, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of Australia.
Dead-eye Dutton’s rise is but one sublime peak in a week action-packed with fear and surprise featuring a Turnbull presser at a military base, backed by a blackface troupe of armed commandos in balaclavas, keeping us all safe.
Meanwhile up the coast, intrigued by our amphibious landings and all agog at sundry other top-secret-state of the art, war games with the US, so cleverly filmed by our ABC, a Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army-navy spy ship is observed “aggressively” lurking off Queensland’s coast, within our Exclusive Economic Zone in the Coral Sea.
So much for Malcolm Turnbull’s 2016 ring of steel, encircling Australia’s northern waters, protecting our borders.
In NSW, Liberals savage each other before their national conference, a stoush billed as a clash between left and right factions in a fight for control of the party. The vote also is a proxy war between Abbott and Turnbull.
Abbott leads a push to include members in candidate pre-selection in a “democratic reform” move which will only lead to a return to right-wing branch-stacking. Above all, it will help ensure his own pre-selection, currently at risk.
His “Warringah motion”, for one member, one pre-selection vote which features speeches from windy, right-wing warrior, retired Major General Jim Molan receives 61% of the 1224 votes, taking NSW Liberals further to the right.
Abbott’s eager contribution to political conflict also includes the gift that keeps on giving, the legacy of his plebiscite on same-sex marriage, a cynical, last-minute tactic to prevent a party conscience vote. A non-binding, non-compulsory, snap postal plebiscite, a Clayton’s plebiscite, “just to get a result” on same sex marriage, has been prepared by a secretive government keen to avoid having to take the issue to the next election.
Peter Dutton, an opponent of marriage equality, threw his extra-large hat into the postal vote ring last February, as did Matthias Cormann. If a postal vote can take place quickly, it will avoid the scenario where Liberal senator Dean Smith can bring his promised private member’s bill to his party room and to a parliamentary vote in August.
Gorgeous George Christensen is urging everyone to go postal, as is the Queensland Liberal National Party, which last week called upon the Coalition to conduct a mail-out plebiscite, a process which is predicted to favour the no case partly because young voters, who are more likely to vote yes, are believed to be less likely to return non-compulsory ballots.
A no vote is the outcome the party right, who run this government prefers, despite it being a minority view in parliament and in the nation. Abbott may be long deposed, but his spirit of evasion, tactical subterfuge and reality denial lives on in Turnbull’s era. Dutton steps up to swing the vast bulk of Home Affairs behind a postal ballot.
Sunday, Dutton is right on song with the quick and dirty idea that a voluntary postal vote would be a “much cleaner process” than a private member or a Labor bill. Dispensing with pleasantries, early, in a Sunday interview, he quickly assumes his super minister bully role with a resounding rebuff to his imaginary enemy, a left-wing ABC.
In a twist on his 2015 denunciation of the national “Jihadist” broadcaster, in league with Fairfax to do the government down, the paranoid and autocratic Dutton, as befits a newly anointed super minister, now sees the ABC as a culturally-flawed “worker’s collective” that has deviated from its charter. Shades of Donald Trump.
Like any self-respecting Coalition heavy, Dutton puts pressure on ABC’s MD Michelle Guthrie to further diminish the possibility of objective commentary or factual reporting impeding the processes of government. No holding to account. It’s proved a devastatingly effective tactic when combined with budget cuts or chronic under-funding.
“I hope that Michelle Guthrie can arrest some of that direction and bring it back to a more sensible position,” Dutton tells Sky News on Sunday. He also adds his signature dog-whistle, this time, to all of ABC’s right-wing critics.
“That’s been my long-held view of the ABC … and I haven’t seen anyone dispute that with any seriousness.”
No-one cares much any more about the ABC but Alex Greenwich, Australian Marriage Equality co-chair, a NSW independent MP, is quick to denounce Dutton’s call as a “political trick to override the role of parliament”.
“Any attempt to hold a non-binding and voluntary postal plebiscite will be seen as a pointless political trick to override the role of parliament and delay the settled will of the Australian people.”
Luckily Alan Tudge is on hand to advance the national conversation from political chicanery to statistical duplicity. Taking time out from extorting “overpayments” from innocent and often helpless Centrelink victims to provide tax cuts to the rich, while unemployment benefits stay unchanged since 1994, the Minister for Social Services and Neoliberal nurturing, declares poverty is all your own fault. Time again to blame the victim.
More welfare, he tells the tough-luvvies of the hard right CIS think-tank in Sydney, will do nothing to alleviate what is simply the result of your own dysfunctional family. He echoes Jeremy Sammut’s remarkable piece in The Australian last year when he identified “bad parenting” as the real dysfunction. Helping only makes this worse.
“Long-term welfare dependence is a poison on the individual, it reduces people’s ability, it reduces people’s confidence,” Tudge tut-tuts. CIS members whose think tank enjoys long-term tax-free status as a charity, cheer.
Some Indigenous communities, he blusters, before singling out Wilcannia NSW, are at “saturation level” of funding. In an echo of the Coalition argument for reducing our investment in education by billions, he contends that more money won’t fix the problem. What’s needed is to address the causes, he reckons.
Yet Tudge’s list of causes or “pathways to poverty” reads suspiciously like effects. He cites welfare dependency, drug and alcohol abuse, family breakdown and poor education standards. More self-righteous victim blaming.
But there’s more. A late ray of sunshine across a wintry national stage, littered with the corpses of dud ideas, Tudge has a magic formula of “absolute deprivation” to redefine poverty as your ability to afford, food, clothing, education – compared with say, thirty years ago when even a neoliberal Hawke was vowing to end child poverty.
Calculating poverty from average household earnings, taking, for example, the OECD’s benchmark of 50% of median income, puts 3 million Australians, including 731,000 children, below the poverty line, is so passe.
Instead, argues Tudge, go back thirty years. Apply an absolute deprivation filter. Presto. A single unemployed person on $38 per day, today, is ten per cent better off than in the past. People with children are even wealthier.
It’s a cruel statistical hoax, of course. The reality is that poverty is increasing as shown by a range of reputable researchers such as ACOSS. At least of third of those receiving social security live below the poverty line. It is highly likely, moreover, that poverty is under-reported but for this government, if you are poor, it is your own fault.
Tudge could go back to 1890 and find figures to prove that today’s poor are fat cats relatively speaking. But only if we accept a ludicrous formula which, among other flaws, ignores the soaring costs of accommodation and energy.
Blaming the victim and demonising the poor are not new trends. Nor is sophistry and wilful ignorance.
“People who have secure accommodation, decent food on the table, access to medical care and whose children go to school are not poor”, thundered The Australian in 2004, denouncing “the welfare lobby”‘s attempt to define poverty as earnings less than average weekly income. No matter that no such definition has ever been ventured.
Tudge continues to argue against increasing government spending on welfare. Spurious statistics are adduced to persuade us that a married couple on welfare now enjoys 38% greater benefit that a couple thirty years ago. Benefits have increased, he claims in real terms by 10% for a single person. It’s dangerous nonsense.
Tudge and his government are reviving a culture of cruelty, a mean-spiritedness which speaks against a culture of compassion or solidarity in favour of division and an ethos of competitive rivalry, a survival of the fittest in a type of neoliberal authoritarianism which threatens the very fundamentals of our welfare state and our civil society.
Aside from the cheer squaddies, others see Turnbull as a forlorn Theresa May figure, a PM in title only, cynically embracing fear-mongering and in no position to refuse his right-wing rival in a last-ditch bid to stay in power.
Butch Dutton’s elevation comes a day after the PM stages his weirdly dystopian press-terror show. It’s an ironic over the top homage to military fetishist Tony Abbott who followed his mentor Howard, in politicising the military. A beached assault vessel lurks behind masked ADF soldiers in camouflage gear who brandish automatic weapons to help the PM explain the ADF’s need for greater powers; expanding into domestic terror attacks.
As Guy Rundle writes, “up pops Malcolm, to announce a vast centralisation of state power in one department, and a weakening of the barrier between military and police operations in domestic matters.”
Dutton grins. Becoming super powerful is something he and his Immigration and Border Protection secretary, Mike Pezzullo, have been working on for some time, despite enjoying very mixed success with their day jobs.
Is it another of the PM’s cunning plans, a Turnbullian tactic which flouts all expert advice, common sense and the mind-numbing dullness of collegiate decision-making to buy off a right-wing challenge? Or is it capitulation?
Certainly, it’s another fracture in the image of reasoned collaboration and consensus-seeking. A day after deposing Tony Abbott, a junkyard dog of opposition promoted out of his depth, who sensibly left all big decisions to his chief of staff, Peta Credlin, Turnbull declared he was a Prime Minister who would listen to his peers.
“We need to restore traditional cabinet government. There must be an end to policy on the run and captain’s calls,” he said, in what proved to just the first step to becoming an answering-machine of high-sounding, crowd-pleasing promises he had no intention of keeping. And even less capacity. Now, even Greg Sheridan protests:
“The decision … to establish an omnibus, security-focused department of home affairs, with Peter Dutton leading the new ministry, changes the Prime Minister has described as the most important to the organisation of national security in 40 years, never once went to a full cabinet meeting for consideration.”
Nor was it taken to the cabinet national security committee for any deliberation or evaluation. “The Ayatollah”, as Turnbull was known in merchant banking, has returned with a vengeance. He’ll do anything to stay in power – he” even over-promote Peter Dutton whose record as a Minister is one of manifest serial incompetence .
Dutto’s promotion makes the former Queensland drug squad policeman, aka J. Edgar Tuber, the most powerful man in Australia. He’s now way above the PM atop a brand-new, instant, Super-Ministry of Home Affairs, a press-ganged crew of ASIO spooks, Border Force cowboys, our AFP and many others, none of whom were consulted and all of whom may be counted on to resist the amalgamation, especially when it comes to co-operation and sharing.
For all his high-sounding embrace of “the sensible centre”, a posturing which involved the reinvention of Menzies during his speech in London, Malcolm Turnbull has taken the Liberal Party and his government hard right. In this he may, indeed, prove tactically agile, moving to a position where Abbott’s attacks are unable to find him out. He may also as Guy Rundle suggests move closer than he knows to Ming’s reactionary and ruthless pragmatism.
In the process of shoring up his leadership, however, Turnbull has created a monster which is far more likely to prove a major liability rather than any streamlined, linked-up, co-ordinated, up to the minute anti-terror fighting machine or super ministry. Even the one voice in cabinet promise sounds like a problem. One voice three times?
The PM’s ignored good advice; a review of the intelligence system by two top mandarins, Michael L’Estrange and Stephen Merchant commissioned last November. These senior bureaucrats were advised by former senior British spook Sir Iain Lobban. Nowhere does their report propose an amalgamated Home Affairs ministry.
Not that it’s more than a bureaucratic exercise. For Bernard Keane, the review of Australia’s intelligence community is superficial; “a major, perhaps spectacular, missed opportunity, [which] skips critical thinking for bureaucratic insularity, empire-building and a bizarre indifference to the key issues of intelligence and national security.
Lots of new high-ranking bureaucratic positions will be created, however, in a process of systemic self-perpetuation. Naturally, both Turnbull and Morrison are pretending all will be cost-neutral.
Turnbull was not seeking depth or objectivity; rather a box to tick. In the process, however, he appears overly receptive to Peter Dutton whose secretary Mike Pezzullo is the architect of the Home Affairs concept in a process which rewards DIY empire building at the expense of any wider, objective or detailed view.
Home Affairs is what Dutton wants and what Turnbull thinks he could use; a recipe for disaster from day one. Then there are practical issues such as ASIO issuing warrants which will have to be signed off on by Brandis.
Apart from unease over the process, strains will naturally quickly appear in Home Affairs, a forced menage a trois of three separate government bodies, none of whom favour amalgamation – and with key issues unresolved – let alone under Dutton, a Minister who has struggled to administer the unhappy merger of Immigration and Customs.
Is the PM tongue in cheek when he praises the new model’s superior communication and collaboration potential? Peter Dutton is typically evasive, non-communicative or hostile. Of all ministers, he is the least responsive.
He has yet to explain why he misled the parliament and the Australian public when he asserted that shots were fired upon Manus Island Detention Centre on Good Friday this year in retaliation over the refugees’ suspected paedophile activity, an unsubstantiated slur. Greens Senator Nick McKim reports that after visiting Manus, he found that Dutton’s account was not supported on the ground.
“What I can say is that both the PNG police and Ronny Knight, and all of the detainees … are consistent in their positions, and that is that an event involving a small child had nothing whatsoever to do with the attack and the shooting, which obviously puts the lie to Peter Dutton’s version of events,” he says.
The super ministry is likely to get in its own way; confuse the allocation of counter-terrorism roles and responsibilities. Yet the elephant in the room is the over-hyped terror threat which is its reason for being. Seriously. Despite Abbott’s rhetoric, Australia does not pose an existential threat from ISIS or any other group.
Talk it up all you will, Prime Minister, our nation’s terrorist experience is tiny – mercifully. As Mehdi Hasan writes, “there have been zero mass-casualty terror attacks on Australian soil since September 11, 2001.”
Or as Greg Austin, international security expert at the University of NSW, observed last October:
“More Australians have died at the hands of police (lawfully or unlawfully) in 10 years (50 at least from 2006 to 2015) or from domestic violence in just two years (more than 318 in 2014 and 2015) than from terrorist attacks in Australia in the last 20 years.”
The threat our nation faces from the right-wing of the Liberal Party and the puppet Turnbull government it runs is immeasurably greater than any external threat it must conjure in order to boost its dwindling authority.
While the super-ministry fiasco, a giant bureaucracy no-one except the PM needs and no-one except Peter Dutton and Mike Pezullo want reflects its manifestly inept decision-making, the Coalition’s fixation with neoliberal ideology is more pernicious and far more pervasive than any possible external terror threat.
A PM who truly cares about national security would look within. The war on terror is a hoax. The government’s capture by business, mining and banking has led it to inflict injustice and indignity including the cruel trickle-down fraud of $65 billion dollar tax breaks for business in the pretence of prosperity for all.
Forget the war on terror, Prime Minister. Spare us the weird theatricals. Look at rampant inequality fostered by your neoliberal economic policies. If you want better security, cease your war on the poor and the vulnerable, the cutting benefits and penalty rates. Address underemployment. Get real about enforcing working conditions and pay rates. Ensure that businesses pay a fair rate of tax.
Stop the demonising of the poor. Take the $65 billion you were going to give to the rich and boost pensions and benefits. Set an adequate minimum wage for the average worker. Invest in education. Health. Boosting living standards and reducing inequality will foster social cohesion. Real national security needs no super ministry.