“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” … “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
Thunderous applause reverberates up and down the nation this week as the High Court releases its reasons for allowing the Turnbull government to do as it wishes with the $295 million slush fund it has put by for postal surveys and other unforeseen national emergencies and crafty evasions of parliamentary democracy.
What constitutes an emergency, the High Court reasons, is essentially the government’s call.
The decision puts a bit more muscle in the increasingly powerful executive arm of government. The court rules the Coalition may spend its contingency fund on almost anything it sets its tiny heart on, provided the Finance Minister can claim it’s an emergency, unforeseen at the time the budget was put to bed.
Unforeseen? Matthias Cormann has sworn an affidavit that in May the idea of a postal survey, the nation’s Clayton’s plebiscite was not even a glint in aspiring Prime Minister Peter Humpty Dutton’s eye.
But does any government’s lack of awareness or planning constitute an emergency? It does now.
According to the court’s gloss on section 10 of the Appropriation Act No 1 2017-2018 (Cth) it’s the Finance Minister’s call. An emergency happens whenever, like Humpty Dumpty, the minister is “satisfied” there’s an emergency. In other words, it’s an utterly subjective test or, as lawyer Michael Bradley says, a legal fiction.
While the urgency of the postal survey is patently bullshit in the literal sense of the term, in the legal sense it’s entirely defensible. The minister being satisfied that it’s about to rain, and having good political reasons for saying so, permits him or her to spend our money on umbrellas — notwithstanding the clear blueness of the sky.
It’s a huge win for government by spin, the messaging that now upstages, if not entirely usurps our political leaders while shrinking our national discourse to fit the front bar of some western Sydney pub.
“Politics will eventually be replaced by imagery,” Marshall McLuhan predicted in 1972. He foresaw the rise of “propaganda, not in the sense of a message or ideology, but the impact of the whole technology of the times”.
“The politician will be only too happy to abdicate in favour of his image, because the image will be much more powerful than he could ever be.”
Turnbull may have some way to go on his own project but it’s a work in progress.
McLuhan may also have oversimplified the transfer of power but spin is certainly king this week. Whether the ABS is the right body to carry out the government’s survey, as Coalition blowhards insist, still seems highly contentious.
For many it’s a bit of stretch to contend that a postal survey of people’s views involves the collection of statistical data. Yet The High Court rules that the survey data has a sufficiently close relationship to topics such as marriages, law and the social characteristics of the population on which it already collects data.
The precedent is set for a government to spend as much of its slush fund as is expedient while the court signals a flexible approach to how far it will permit government to interpret what its agencies can do – and as Michael Bradley suggests, opens the door any number of issues being decided by postal survey.
Perhaps the Finkel Clean Energy Target that is proving such a headache for Malcolm and the Monkey Pod, his merry band of sniping, climate change deniers, could also be decided by voluntary, non-binding plebiscite.
Monday sees the PM call another of his fearless tough talks with gas company CEOs where he’s able to parlay to a grateful nation the terrifying news that the shortage will be far more dire than predicted given the companies’ fondness for selling our gas offshore. The same scare campaign was run in 2014. No-one calls deja vu.
No-one mentions the twentieth straight News Poll disaster in a row. Labor extends its two-party lead over the Coalition to 54-46%. The Turnbull government would lose 20 seats if an election were held tomorrow. But Turnbull’s a black belt in gas-baggery. Shock, horror, Victoria could run out gas tomorrow. If you’re gullible.
BHP Petroleum chief Mike Yeager told journalists in 2014 that there was plenty of gas available in the Bass Strait, and it could supply Victoria, NSW, and even Queensland, “indefinitely”. The Australia Institute’s Richard Denniss notes that gas production on the east coast is up 20%, largely because farmers have been unable to prevent fracking for Coal Seam Gas in Queensland. There is no shortage. The problem lies in the marketing.
Rather than admit that it’s the Coalition’s beloved free trade that sees our gas being sold off-shore to the highest bidder, or admit that the solution lies with renewables, Turnbull must find scapegoats, namely the states and environmentalists. And Labor.
There’s no show without Punch. Turnbull fills his performance with name-calling his nemesis. “Blackout Bill” is to blame for everything in the power game. “Brownout Butler” is also a villain. It’s testament to the PM’s ear of tin and the show biz principle that no-one ever went broke underestimating popular taste. And to his desperation.
By Wednesday, he’s got Kiwi Barnaby in tow to let us know it’s all sorted. Super-Mal saves the day. Of course he puts it more poetically, given his tough negotiations have wrung concessions, or so he claims, out of the hard-nosed captains of the gas industry.
Turnbull seems to have a deputy who’s running dead. Some cynics suggest that, with Kiwi’s dual nationality threatening his eligibility to even be an MP, that he’s been sidelined from negotiations. Companies could hardly be bound to an agreement signed by a resources minister who shouldn’t be in parliament. Turnbull talks it all up.
“They have given us a guarantee that they will offer to the domestic market the gas that was identified as the expected demand shortfall, by AEMO, in 2018,” he says – in his Turnbullian way of not saying very much at all.
At least he’s leading by example with the recycling. Bernard Keane notes in Another Day another Gas Conference, it’s an almost verbatim repeat of his message of “gas in our time” which the plucky little PM delivered 15 March. No-one at the presser calls him on it.
AFR’s Angela Macdonald Smith shows the PM’s boast is hollow. There’s still the same gas volume available as there was yesterday but it’s at prices industry says it can’t afford. Triple the tariff. The electricity forward price in the eastern states edges up $2 a megawatt hour on Wednesday afternoon after Turnbull announces his gas deal.
Insiders, clearly, expect gas prices to rise under the government’s Domestic Gas Security Mechanism, not to fall.
Turnbull promises another meeting next Tuesday which involves executives signing something. It’s all about his not having to “pull the trigger” of curbing gas exports.
Luckily, Turnbull can fall back on Labor-bashing. It’s all the fault of the states which ban fracking. Especially the LABOR state of Victoria, (can anyone labour the word Labor quite like Malcolm Turnbull?) which sits on “enormous stores” of conventional gas, a palpable lie which the PM is keen to make true by Goebbels-like repetition.
Turnbull’s assertion that the state is awash with gas just waiting to be tapped is at odds with the facts. Energy market experts and the Victorian state government point to a 2015 parliamentary inquiry which shows that whilst the state has large reserves, they are in Bass Strait. Victoria currently exports Bass Strait gas to Queensland.
No proved or probable onshore gas reserves exist in Victoria despite the issuing of many exploration licences.
At best, there may be up to six months’ supply, says The Geological Survey of Victoria, which estimates that up to 110 petajoules of conventional gas could be accessible, subject to a comprehensive geoscientific investigation.
Party-pooper and Victorian State Treasurer, Tim Pallas, offers to put the PM’s DIY gas crisis in proper perspective.
“Malcolm Turnbull might want to pretend that this has got something to do with an unknown and undeclared gas resource in the state of Victoria,” he says. “I think it has a lot more to do with an enormous resource that is being shipped offshore.
Not so fast, Tim. The PM insists that it was Luh-hay-buh that began the folly of permitting our finest multinational companies have carte blanche to exploit our resources to export gas. Yet it was, in fact, honest John Howard. Export controls on gas were lifted in 1997 by a PM eager to win a long-term Chinese contract. It worked? Too well.
With typical, self-effacing modesty, the great power-walker was so chuffed with his 2002 $25 billion LNG deal with China, he called it “a gold medal performance”. Yet it locked in prices based on 2002 lows, a feature of the deal which would mean that by 2015, Chinese customers would pay a third of the price Australians were paying.
Somehow, a contract clause which allowed the price to rise in line with world pricing eluded a consortium of hard-headed, hard-hatted North West shelf oil business types which saw two “local” companies, Woodside and BHP Billiton join BP, Shell, Chevron and a combination of Mitsui and Mitsubishi.
In 2007, Howard crab-walked away from all responsibility for his dud deal – because of his daft neoliberal ideological mindset that such matters are best left up to the market.
“I would never encourage the idea that governments should negotiate LNG prices,” he said. “At no stage was the Australian government directly involved in pricing issues in relation to the $25 billion contract.”
The lie of the week is that old chestnut that the more gas that is drilled, the lower the domestic price. The reality is that any new gas supplies will be sold on a market which links all of Eastern Australia and which is driven by international prices.
A related lie given much airplay recently is that the “energy crisis” is the result of too much politicking which radio and TV sages nod, interferes with business’ sacred need for certainty. Uncertainty is a barrier to investment.
Seriously? As Richard Denniss details, between 2009 and 2015 Santos and its international partners blew $10,000 a minute on a $25 billion mistake, building a gas export plant at Curtis Island off Gladstone, a plant which today is worth billions less than it cost them. Two other consortia did their dough on building similar plants alongside.
Add in WA and NT and the total gamble amounts to $200 billion of the gas companies’ shareholders’ money. No wonder they are keen to gouge consumers today.
A bipartisan approach will fix everything, surely, commentators cry. In the meantime, the government is doing everything it can to use its manufactured crisis to wedge Labor; paint Labor somehow as the party of higher electricity costs. It’s all going to come to grief when consumers get their next bills. But at least it buys a little breathing space.
It’s sleeves rolled up and on with the job from a PM who oozes practicality from every presser, a leader whose pledge to “get on with the job of governing” inspires Peter Dutton’s team to pay $25,000 to a Rohingya refugee on Manus to return to certain persecution in Myanmar. Dutton refuses to confirm the man’s testimony on ABC 7:30.
The Immigration Minister is keen to deal himself back into the national conversation. And a gas diversion would be handy. He puts the boot into refugees bound for the US.
His pal, Sydney radio host Ray Hadley feeds Dutton the line on his regular Thursday that a photograph of the group published by News Corp this week “looked like a fashion show on a catwalk in Paris or New York”.
“They’re economic refugees; they got on a boat, paid a people smuggler a lot of money, and somebody once said to me that we’ve got the world’s biggest collection of Armani jeans and handbags up on Nauru waiting for people to collect it when they depart,” Dutton dog-whistles in reply.
‘Somebody once said to me the world’s biggest collection of Armani jeans and handbags was up on Nauru waiting for people to collect it when they depart,’ he adds with the shabby “somebody once said” hearsay tactic or utterly unsubstantiated assertion.
Was that someone Pauline Hanson? Doesn’t the Minister have a responsibility to find out the facts? Stick to facts? Dutton’s favourite line is interviews is that he deals in fact; leaves the commentary to others. Nothing could be further from the truth, however, as is evident in his comments about refugees taking our jobs and our welfare.
Dutton’s monstrous lie is as despicable and as damaging in its own way as Turnbull’s lies about gas. Firstly, the refugees have been subjected to Australia officials’ degrading, invasive and protracted harassment fondly known as “processing” with additional “extreme vetting” by US authorities.
Extreme Vetting is a mysterious process yet to be fully explained but it is likely to be highly invasive and have scant regard for human rights. The Wall Street Journal warned in April that it could involve tourists from Britain and other countries visiting the US being asked to reveal mobile phone contacts, social media passwords and financial data.
That Turnbull’s government acts the ever obedient servant to the Trump administration and religiously repeats its rebuking of “rogue state” North Korea won’t help.
Some commentators even fear The Donald will hear the Immigration Minister’s comments and the refugee swap deal will fall through. Not to be misheard or misunderstood, Dutton repeats himself in London, adding a thank you to the President.
‘We have been taken for a ride, I believe, by a lot of the advocates and people within Labor and the Greens who want you to believe this is a terrible existence,’ Dutton says.
‘These photos demonstrate otherwise. People have seen other photos in recent weeks of those up on Manus out enjoying themselves outside this centre, by the beach and all the rest of it.’
Erick Jensen, The Saturday Paper’s editor takes up the “all the rest of it” wondering what Dutton means. All the rest of the rapes, the suicides, the deaths, the days without sanitation?
Perhaps it’s the makeshift tents in which children have lost their childhoods. Perhaps it’s the women denied abortions or the pregnancies produced by rapes.
Perhaps he means the self-immolation or the murder by paid guards. Perhaps he means the mental anguish, the loss of hope, the calculated destruction of a few thousand lives for the sake of political gain.
The UN has condemned our offshore detention camps. Experts have testified that indefinite detention in dangerous and unhealthy conditions amounts to torture. The biggest condemnation and contradiction of Dutton’s glib slur, however, comes from his own government’s admission of culpability last June when the Australian government agreed to the largest human rights payout in our nation’s history.
A class action in the Supreme Court of Victoria on behalf of 1,905 asylum seekers and refugees held at the Manus Island detention centre from November 2012 to December 2014 was resolved on the eve of the hearing, for a reported $70 million.
A payment of nearly $37,000 dollars, on average, for each detainee is to compensate detainees for physical and mental injury caused to them by the government’s failure to provide clean and safe water and food, shelter to protect them from heat, rain and insects, essential personal items such as clothing, shoes and toiletries, adequate and hygienic medical and dental facilities, hygienic bathing and toilet facilities and protection from violence and assault.
The slur of “economic refugees” is part of the vocabulary of hate speech of those who seek to demonise refugees and deny their claims on our compassion. A decent Immigration Minister would have stopped Ray Hadley in his tracks. Instead, Dutton colludes with him; lying on air to demonise those whom he is supposed to protect; even trying to play cheap wedge politics. His comments will cause irreparable harm.
Similarly, Julie Bishop has been evasive on every occasion where she’s been asked when Australia will take Rohingya refugees who are suffering extreme persecution in Myanmar where security forces are engaged in a campaign of genocide ill-served by the 1990s euphemism ethnic cleansing. Bishop calls it “a security operation”.
Bishop has said that “independently verifiable sources” are required as if the facts are in any doubt. Worse, her government continues to provide military training and support to the Myanmar government.
“This engagement allows Australia to promote the role of a professional defence force and highlight the importance of adhering to international humanitarian laws and norms” a spokesperson says. Pious piffle. No evidence of reality, Ms Bishop, whatsoever.
Appearing on ABC Insiders, Bishop even chooses to portray events as “a security operation” between a Rohingya army and the Myanmar army. Does she mean The Rohingya National Army, last heard of in 2001?
Or does she have some other insurgent group in mind? Whatever, her aim the effect is a distortion of reality as cruel as Peter Dutton’s.
Dutton and Bishop, of course, follow Tony Abbott who simply declared it was safe to return Sri Lankan nationals, claiming the civil war in their homeland had ended and their country was “at peace”.
In 2014, a boat carrying 153 Tamil asylum seekers was intercepted at sea by Australian customs vessels and returned to Sri Lanka. Another boatload of 28 Sri Lankan nationals was handed over to Sri Lankan authorities. Reports of torture followed.
In 2014, the Abbott government deployed 11 ninety seat Chinese made orange fibreglass lifeboats, which cost $46,000 each in asylum-seeker turn-backs to Indonesia.
Then Head of Operation Sovereign Borders Lieutenant General Angus Campbell confirmed in January 2015 that 15 boats carrying 429 asylum seekers were forcibly returned to Indonesia and Sri Lanka since the operation began.
Later, a “multi-million dollar deal” to have 10 custom-made wooden-hulled “alternative transportation vessels”, resembling Asian fishing boats were built in Vietnam.
Julie Bishop echoes Tony’s “Nope, nope, nope” – Abbott’s 2015 response when some 7000 Rohingya people and Bangladeshi migrants were stranded at sea after Thai authorities closed a popular trafficking route out of Burma and the people smugglers jumped ship, leaving their human cargo to starve.
Questioned on ABC Insiders, Bishop says she thinks Peter Dutton meant “those found not to be refugees” – implying that there are “Armani refugee” bludgers cluttering our luxurious detention centres. Those who have not been afforded refugee status, she hints, are somehow fair game.
It’s an appalling gaffe from a Foreign Minister who must know that asylum seekers rarely have documentary evidence that strongly supports their claim for protection.
Tough on borders as always and following rave reviews for its gas company bargain, this week, a re-run by popular demand of its popular farce, the Coalition turns from disguising its lack of energy policy to bullying states into coal seam gas mining.
It’s process that could only be improved by sending in the army according to Liberal Party elder statesman Dr Tony Abbott who urges Turnbull to invoke “defence powers” to deal with a gas crisis totally of the Coalition’s own making.
What could possibly go wrong? On current form, the High Court may even accede, especially if the government were to work the word “emergency” into its scare tactics.