Turnbull continues to attack our democracy.

turnbull 18 jan

“We are very concerned at the growing gang violence and lawlessness in Victoria, in particular in Melbourne …This is a failure of the Andrews Labor government.” Malcolm Turnbull 1 January

The PM’s uplifting, personalised New Year goodwill message, vilifying public enemy Andrews and belittling the Premier for causing The Herald-Sun’s fake African gangs crime wave, fuels another wave of racist xenophobia and shit-holery.

Top Dog Peter Dutton savages Victoria’s judges for their lax sentencing at home this week, while Trumpista Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, shit-holes China, our biggest trading partner for poaching our Pacific Island pals.

A born megaphone diplomat, hard right wing warrior, International Development Minister Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells on Wednesday bawls out China for building “roads to nowhere” and “useless buildings” in the Pacific. Even worse, they’ve been duchessing local politicians and promising a slew of new jobs, practices abhorrent to Australian politicos.

Australia is in no position to criticise. First, as ANU’s Development Policy Centre research shows, where our aid funds once gushed, there is now a mere trickle. And it goes against the flow. Other OECD nations now pump up aid; do their bit for global security if not humanity. Yet for every $100 we earn as a nation, we now give only 20 cents in overseas aid.

And our giving is not selfless. Our aid program boosts Australia’s commercial interests at the expense of genuine local poverty eradication. Neoliberal, “Aid for trade” programs, first adopted by Howard, benefit Aussies far more than Islanders. “Creating a favourable environment for business”, or giving to the rich increases local poverty and inequality.

Of course there’s more to aid than helping others. We like to be “geostrategic”, or keep other nations off our patch.

But it costs. There’s some concern in Canberra and Washington over China’s rapidly growing influence in the Pacific since Hockey and Morrison plundered our aid programme’s piggy-bank but Connie’s on to the Chinese. She’s not holding back on how she sees China’s aid programme as a type of indentured servitude or neo-colonial expansion.

Rising sea-levels should worry Oceania less, she contends, than its rising sea of crippling debt. Islanders are in hock to China over their heads. And Beijing’s influence can only grow.  Sri Lanka handed over its strategic southern port of Hambantota in a 99 year lease to the Chinese government last month because it couldn’t meet debt repayments.

Similarly, Landridge, a Chinese company, now has a ninety-nine year lease on the port of Darwin, because NT Chief Minister Adam Giles saw the deal as a fiscally responsible way of reducing the Territory’s indebtedness to Canberra.

There’s been a bit of a fuss since about the lack of due diligence, but given Darwin is not exclusively a military port and we are all one free trade, neoliberal, global fraternity, the government argues, what could possibly go wrong?

In 2009, Tonga’s debt to China was $US100.4 million ($A132.9 million) or roughly one-third of its national income.   Samoa and Vanuatu are also over-committed with big debts to China. In 2013, The World Bank warned Samoa of about “debt distress” where public loans repayments would exceed 56 per cent of Gross Domestic Product each year.

It’s all part of China’s One belt One Road plan to buddy up with foreign governments and companies to channel $trillions into ports, roads and other big infrastructure to boost its sea power or as it says “counter its maritime vulnerabilities”.

The Lowy Institute estimates China has poured $2.3 billion in aid to the South Pacific since 2006 – almost half Australia’s commitment. It’s expanding while our aid budget is the lowest it’s been in half a century and it’s still being trimmed.

The Abbott-Turnbull government cut a whopping $11 billion from our aid budget. “Unmet and unfunded”, moreover, remain our promises of climate change aid.  Oxfam Australia reports, Australia’s average annual contribution of $200 million to international climate finance has not increased since 2010. Little wonder China has been able to buy in.

Oxfam is calling for Australia to boost its contribution to climate finance to $3.2 billion by 2020.

Fierravanti-Wells, however, is a bull in a China shop. The best defence is offence. At least her panda-bashing will win US approval. And it’s a perfect fit with US-sycophants-R-US and Project Normalise Trump, the Coalition’s team plan.

Beijing is not bluffed. Australia is “the daring vanguard of anti-China forces” says the Global Times, Chinese edition.

China’s influence must be pegged back. Trump even threatens trade sanctions. But must we copy his combative communication style? Are we infected with Trumpism? Our Minister, it seems, cannot help herself.

Nuance, subtlety and indirection may be China’s diplomatic bag. Our Connie prefers a Trumpista style. A vociferous foe of abortion, marriage equality and coy reserve Concetta is a self-proclaimed loudmouth of the silent majority. She prides herself on speaking out – venting preconceptions, prejudgements and, in this case, insults.

“I think in politics it’s good to be upfront about what you believe in”, she says, as if communication were really that simple. As if all beliefs were rigid, unchangeable. Already she’s lost her PM, a politician who struggles more than most with knowing what he believes and how to voice his equivocation. Yet like Concetta, he’s quick to strike a pose.

Holding that pose is harder. Turnbull is a notorious flip-flop.  New Year’s Day, he proposes a postal vote on a republic. The next day it’s off the agenda. Doing a Turnbull will enter the language for a volte face; an abrupt reversal of position.

Like most MPs he’s constantly changing beliefs and seeking ways to hide, disguise or deny them. Little wonder he leads a government which has taken years to admit to its hoax about a carbon tax. The upfront plain speaker theory is bunkum.

But that’s not what Concetta’s really saying. What she means in this context is that it’s OK to be tactless or calculatedly offensive. Why, it’s now almost compulsory, as MPs are thrust on to a global stage, awash with Trumpist, “shithole”, anti-diplomacy. Yet Fierravanti-Wells dresses up bluntness or insensitivity as a virtue. Firstly, it’s a time-saver.

“It means that people don’t waste time. It means that they know where you stand,” says the MP. If only. As it stands, she’s offended both Pacific leaders and the Chinese. Prolonged hostility, not communication, results, despite the best efforts of our celebrity Foreign Minister and polo aficionado to step in with her talking points and smooth things over.

“Australia works with a wide range of development partners, including China, in pursuit of the goal of eliminating poverty in our region and globally.” Bishop refuses to endorse her development Minister in The Australian  which reports the Foreign Minister’s intervention as a slap-down. Samoa is not placated. Nor is China.

“The comments … have certainly surprised me, indeed, they are quite insulting to the leaders of Pacific Island neighbours,” St Paul’s College Old Boy, the urbane Samoan PM Tuilaepa Sailele, Auckland University’s first Samoan Commerce graduate  tells the ABC, “they have the capacity to “destroy” Australia’s relationship with the region.”

China lodges a formal protest. A diplomatic slanging-match breaks out. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang calls the Minister’s comments “nothing but irresponsible” complaining they show “scant regard for the facts”.

Xinhua News, which SBS and ABC, our own state news agencies love to demean as China’s state news agency, publishes an angry editorial accusing Australia of acting like an “arrogant overlord”.

“If Australia really cares about its Pacific neighbours, it should first learn from China’s to treat those much smaller neighbours as equals and refrain from behaving like an arrogant overlord,” Xinhua retorts.

“Then it could learn, again from China, to contribute constructive ideas, if not funds, to address the real concerns of the peoples in those countries.”

It’s a fair call. The diplomatic fracas intensifies. Doubtless, the PM will call in his right hand man, Peter Dutton, whose sensitivity to climate change sea rise faced by Pacific Island nations was immortalised, along with his condescension and indifference in his witty joke two years ago.

“Time doesn’t mean anything when you’re about to be, you know, have water lapping at your door.” 

Dutton, however, has a home fire or two to keep burning. He is busy branding Daniel Andrews an enemy of the people.

He means well. Grand Poo-bah, Home Affairs Supremo, Dutto sheds buckets of crocodile tears over “a small element of The African Community” who tarnish others’ reputations as he gangs up with News Corp to slander Victoria’s Premier for creating lawlessness by appointing limp, left-wing ideologues; wimpy civil-libertarian judges and magistrates.

It’s a rehash of last week’s outrageous attack, reheated and served up with calculated malice aforethought. He’s goading Andrews and the judiciary if not the whole legal establishment to see how much he can get away with. It’s also a stunning display of just how much authority he has over Malcolm Turnbull. Would any other PM indulge him thus?

Dutton also follows his leader’s Trumpism. His libellous allegations are utterly unfounded. Of Victoria’s 57 Supreme Court Judges, Associate Judges in Victoria, the state’s Attorney General, Martin Pakula has appointed 10. Out of 126 magistrates, he’s appointed 17 and out of 68 County Court Judges, a mere 17. But do the facts matter?

Our Home Fires Super Minister, whose interpretation of his role owes much to Tony Abbott’s junkyard or attack dog routines is not just the PM’s bodyguard and Party Room door butch but is already acting as Turnbull’s chief head-kicker.

He’s also treading thin ice. Even a Grand Poohbah can be charged with contempt of court. Is it macho bravado? Is he “going the niggle”  or does our newbie Home Affairs Tsar not understand the separation of powers? That the act is not more complex than it seems is betrayed by his decision this week to attack Lex Lasry for making fun of him in a tweet.

Thin-skinned as his mentor Trump, Dutton personally attacks Victorian Supreme Court Judge Lex Lasry. “Mr Lasry, who is a left-wing ideologue appointed to the court, is dismissive the other day of some of the comments I made.”  

Lasry tweeted that “citizens are out to dinner in Mansfield tonight and they are not worried.” In an alarming show of lack of proportion and decorum, Dutton goes nuts. His rebuke of Lasry is tellingly less than coherent.

“If you’ve got that sort of attitude towards the public, these people who think they’re above the public, it’s a complete nonsense.” 

Dutton is more offended by being mocked than by any legal issue, although he implies that judges should echo public opinion, a dangerously superficial interpretation of the role of the judiciary, especially from a Home Affairs Minister.

His attack earns him swift rebuke. President of the Judicial Conference of Australia, Supreme Court Justice Robert Beech-Jones, says “personalised attacks on judges and magistrates as opposed to individual decisions are unfair and unwarranted. (They) …  cannot respond, and the comments undermine the capacity of the judiciary to apply the law impartially.” 

The JCA rejects Dutton’s claim there was a “problem” with some of the state’s judges and magistrates, describing it as “generalised sledging” that “does not add to the debate”.

Sledging? Dutton’s certainly detracted from so many debates so regularly that his promotion to a Home Affairs super-ministry can only be explained as a leading example of Malcolm Turnbull’s incomparably poor political judgement.

A few examples will suffice. Dutton lashed out at Amnesty International for bullying him, when in October 2015,  Amnesty alleged Australian officials paid $45,000 to six crew to return a boat of asylum seekers to Indonesia and that money was also paid money to the crew of a boat turned back in July. Amnesty’s report describes Australia’s secretive Operation Sovereign Borders as “a lawless venture that should be fully exposed through a royal commission”.

After a spate of horrific incidents in May 2016, Dutton alleged that refugee advocates were “teaching asylum seekers to self- harm”. Refugees leaving Manus for the US were “economic refugees” who could afford Armani luxury fashion items, he claimed in September, in his on-air rub-down with Ray Hadley.

“Somebody once said to me that the world’s biggest collection of Armani jeans and handbags [is] up on Nauru waiting for people to collect when they depart.”

He’s accused men on Manus of paedophile behaviour to explain why drunken off-duty troops in PNG opened fire on the detention centre.  He’s been prepared to violate UN conventions on refoulement. Yahya Tabani, a 32-year-old Rohingya man who arrived in Australia in 2013 but was sent to Manus Island, told Guardian Australia he had no choice but to return. He said he had been promised $25,000 by the Australian Border Force.

Pressed by ABC 7:30’s Leigh Sales to say whether it was safe for Rohingya to return to Myanmar presently, given close to 400,000 Rohingya have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh, many with bullet wounds and stories of mass killings, Dutton says “it depends on the circumstances”.

He has promised thousands to Rohingya refugees who agree to return to Myanmar, a country accused of carrying out genocide or what the ABC continues to call with barbarous euphemism, “ethnic cleansing” against the Muslim minority.

Dutton’s unsuitability to hold office as Home Affairs or any other cabinet post is enough for a separate article. Most damning recently is a report from Queensland police who are investigating an incident in which a South Sudanese-Australian family say were followed home, racially abused, and threatened on Thursday afternoon.

Dutton’s dog-whistling and disinformation may incite further racist violence. He is too powerful to be held in check by his week Prime Minister. Yet he represents a more general malaise as Peter Brent explains.

Australian politics is not in a healthy place. Donald Trump aside, it is difficult to think of national leaders and senior government members of other comparable democracies who regularly debase themselves, and their country, as ours do with these campaigns against minorities. Turnbull, once proudly above all this, is now so enfeebled he feels obliged to join in.

It’s a trend which Brent and others trace to John Howard’s deployment of the politics of division in 2001 with the Children Overboard lie and the notorious, meaningless and false slogan “we will decide who will come into this country and the circumstances in which they come”.

As Brent points out, Howard would have won the election without the arrival of Tampa. Perhaps when Dutton seizes the leadership from Turnbull, as he is manoeuvring to do, he can lose the next election comprehensively by beating the anti-immigration drum and put the lie to the hard-wired notion that stopping the boats and persecuting migrants is somehow an election-winner.

Dutton for PM! The right man to lead the coalition to the defeat it richly deserves.

Just before the last election The Guardian published an Australia Institute poll which showed that most Australians believe that refugees who arrive in the country by boat ought to be allowed to settle here.

Two-thirds of Australians believe doctors working in Australia’s offshore detention regime should be free to speak out about conditions in detention centres, and a majority believe New Zealand’s offer to resettle refugees from Manus Island and Nauru should be accepted.

What Turnbull’s government proposes, however, in a bill introduced in the House of Representatives in December when it would be overshadowed by the result of the postal survey, is the Coalition government’s broader crackdown on treason, espionage and foreign interference in a bill which interprets these matters so broadly it threatens democracy.

If passed into law, the bill increases tenfold the maximum penalties for anyone communicating information potentially harmful to the national interest, where that information is obtained via a government official without authorisation.

As Barrister Greg Barns and lawyer Anna Talbot write, it’s a law which is designed to prevent an incompetent government from embarrassment rather than from any real threats to national security.

Both espionage and national security are defined so widely as to allow almost any writer to fall foul of its provisions which also, alarmingly, uniquely, remove the notion of intent to commit harm before being found guilty of espionage.

The net is cast so wide that almost any writer revealing corruption or misconduct could be caught in it. There is no public interest defence.  Its severe penalties of 5 to 15 years imprisonment with up to 20 years for aggravated offences are out of all proportion to the circumstances or the threat faced.

As Turnbull’s government continue to lose the plot, it resorts to a primitive racist scapegoating and scaremongering it mistakenly believes will rescue it from certain defeat next election. In the process, it emulates the wilful disinformation denial and savage attacks on opponents, individuals and the judiciary that characterise the worst of Trumpism.

Its Pacific foreign policy is an embarrassing self-inflicted failure; its short-sighted massive cutbacks in aid have helped cede influence in the Pacific Islands to China. Trump-like invective and attacks on our greatest trading partner are no substitute for a rational, co-operative policy. Security means an increased investment in foreign aid, not cutbacks.

Similarly the proposed espionage laws represent “a creeping Stalinism” to Ethicos Group specialist Howard Whitton, who has advised governments and the United Nations ethics office on whistle-blower policy.

“The absolute protection of principled disclosure of wrongdoing – unfettered by government – must be preserved, or Australia will become a laughing stock internationally.” Especially a government which has preached the virtue of open and transparent government. But that’s the least of its worries.

The bill will allow government to forgo vital checks on its decency, honesty integrity, justice and efficiency and promote a culture of secrecy and lies which will inflict irremediable damage on our already faltering democracy.

 

References:

Creeping Stalinism …

Turnbull’s terrifying new espionage laws endanger many innocent people

 

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