The First Casualty

If truth is the first casualty of war, it is also under constant attack in the Morrison-Joyce regime’s love-in with spin enabled by Murdoch and a media oligarchy who help the Coalition demonise China and Russia, “shape the narrative” of foreign affairs, to distract us from its terminal, internal disunity and its own catastrophic incompetence.  

Emperor Morrison has no clothes, Paul Bongiorno says. And his policy cupboard is bare. Since Malcolm Fraser, our foreign policy has become “narrower, more inward-looking and mean” warns former ambassador to China, Geoff Raby, in his Fraser Oration in Melbourne recently. Abandoning those who helped us in Afghanistan is a serious lack of moral leadership. 

And empathy. If Ukrainians apply to come here, they will “go to the top of the pile”, Morrison beams ABC listeners a warm and fuzzy vibe without a skerrick of commitment.

Raby could also add insincerity, hypocrisy and venality, also superbly illustrated in its current rhetoric denouncing Putin, but keeping our $0.5bn trade with Russia in alumina and $100m live sheep under the table – lest our own party donor oligarchy take offence. 

Denouncing Putin as a bully is ironic, tokenistic and is not backed up by real action such as targeting elites enabling Putin. Russian diplomats could be expelled, tourism could be halted except for those with humanitarian visas. We could cease importing Russian oil and fertiliser and send home the thousand or so Russians who are studying here.

Above all there could be honesty, accuracy and independence in our government’s depiction of the situation in Ukraine, a state whose pro-western government was installed in 2014 by a US-backed coup. We can oppose the Putin government’s horrific invasion without capitulating to the prevailing MSM narrative of virtuous western democracy versus Russian tyranny. Caricatures of evil Putin merely recycle US propaganda. We deserve better. Refugees everywhere deserve better.

It takes neither courage, nor leadership, notes Raby, “to stoke fear of the other, to set the community on edge, to find threats and enemies at every turn”.

What Raby doesn’t say – or can’t -in a formal encomium – is that whilst Fraser may have (unsuccessfully) called for a sporting boycott of the Moscow Olympics, when the USSR invaded Afghanistan in 1980, yet he wouldn’t block our export of wool to the USSR, including wool from his own farm, nor would he join Carter’s wheat export embargo.

Boasting about its defence spending, however, simply draws attention to the Coalition’s submarine debacle, the scuttling of a contract in favour of a promise of nuclear subs we can neither service nor crew, via AUKUS, another acronym to embellish buying obsolete US ships and planes. We are now ludicrously ill-prepared. As Rex Patrick notes, the new subs will be beaut when we get them in 2040 – if they arrive with a time machine.

Ambushed by his own impotence in almost every arena, Morrison’s latest setback occurs at 10:00 pm Friday, when the PM is thwarted by Supreme Court Justice, Julie Ward, who rules against the legality of his cunning plan to declare the NSW branch of the Liberal Party in breach of its constitution, because it has not yet held an annual general meeting.

It will be harder now for him to draft his own servile candidates, Trent Zimmerman, Alex Hawke and Sussan Ley, instead of fussing with the fol-de-rol of a democratic plebiscite, an Abbott innovation. Or risking losing key toadies in the only battle Morrison is committed to, the fight to keep himself in the top job. And how good are yes-men and women? 

Friday’s outcome is bad for the PM’s increasingly tenuous grip on his leadership. NSW is revolting. Niki Savva reveals insider tips that senior NSW Liberals threaten to “bring the show down” if there is intervention in the state branch, or if Morrison attempts to impose his candidates without letting members vote in pre-selections, given his stooges are said to have stalled procedures to get their own way. 

Whilst the federal party can still overrule the NSW Liberals’ branch executive, Morrison spent much of his party’s federal executive meeting last week– called to resolve the NSW preselection fiasco – “yelling and thumping the table” to get his way, while reminding colleagues that he was the PM, Ms Savva reports. 

Perhaps like Nikita Khrushchev, in the 1960 UN General Assembly, he could take off a shoe to hammer home his waning authority. Or read the room.  

On the Sino-Russian Fronts, our lucky country is vastly cheered to hear our top bully say he will stand up to bullies, (keeping Xi in his sights as well as Putin). Thursday, he uses “bully” or a variation twenty times in two hours, notes The Monthly’s Rachel Withers. 

“This is about an autocratic, authoritarian government that is seeking to bully others,” he tells Sunrise. “There are consequences for this threatening and bullying and aggressive behaviour,” he claims on Today. But so far, our sanctions look lame. 

Reviled by his own party’s rump, the PM uses Putin’s invasion of the parts of Ukraine which are not already under Russian control to pose as a strongman who might shirtfront Vlad, as Tony Abbott failed to do, (he left it to Julie Bishop) but – as in When Harry met Sally, he’s having what Boris is having but without Johnson’s hint of military intervention. Has the man with the toddler haircut learned nothing from Afghanistan?

Our sanctions mirror the UK’s heavy breathing against some oligarchs and banks but at least Morrison is refreshingly upbeat, upfront and insightful about their impotence.

“I don’t necessarily expect it to deter an authoritarian, autocratic leader .. intent on taking [the] opportunity to pursue their own interests by violating another country’s sovereignty,” he says.  Nor will the sanctions take effect until late March.

While tales of Vlad the Impaler of Ukraine add a Gothic touch to Liberal fearmongering,  China is the federal government’s arch nemesis. Not only will China buy wheat to help Putin’s war against neo-Nazism and genocide in Donbas, in The Shining, the PM turns to horror and science fiction to lure us into a sense of insecurity. It’s a spooky story.

A ghastly green shaft of laser light reveals the underbelly of an elderly Poseidon RAAF P-8A Maritime Patrol Aircraft, spy plane, a converted Boeing 737-800, burning 3409 litres of fuel an hour. Over its life-span, it will spew a million tonnes of CO2 into our global greenhouse gas trap, cooking the planet; causing freak weather disasters. 

While our fourteen P-8As and, indeed, our entire navy are but a drop in the ocean, tragically, given all the other nations burning fossil fuels and polluting in the name of keeping us safe, it all adds up. “If the US military were a country, its fuel usage alone would make it the 47th largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world.” report researchers in the UK.  

Then there’s China’s vast war machine. Beijing rules the waves. And waives the rules. Or the rules-based order fantasy, US neocon cowboys expect of everyone but themselves. Marise Payne recites the phrase to chide Vlad, the bad actor on the world stage, but she never explains what it means. China is too big to have to explain itself. 

Put to sea anywhere and you’re bound to see a PLA-N ship or two. China will have 420 ships in 2025 and 460 in 2030, according to the US Congressional Research Service

But it’s not just the pollution taking place in the name of being tough on national security. So wedded is the world to hydrocarbon burning armies, navies and air forces that any serious attempt to curb fossil fuel usage faces stiff military opposition.

Yet to former party apparatchik, ScoMo, the glad-handed former tourism salesman, a man who reveres Trump, a fabulist who is more a fan of Captain Kirk than Cook, as Guy Rundle wryly notes – a PM facing a re-election while fighting a war to get the NSW candidates he wants, the story is all big bully China picking on plucky little Australia. 

It’s bizarre if not surreal. A sailor on a ship owned by our largest trading partner fires a shot across the bows of our starship, by shining a laser at one of our spy planes?   

Being a strong “middle power” doesn’t come cheap. We now have fourteen Poseidons at Edinburgh base in SA. Apart from being environmental hazards, they are expensive to fuel. Each takes 34 tonnes of Jet A1, currently priced at US$871.40 per tonne, or US$29627.60 a full refuel. Putin’s putsch can only increase the cost of a top-up.  

Boosting CO2 is only one way that the military makes our world a safer place, a mission statement seldom far from our federal government’s epic self promotion.  Today’s commercial Boeings will exude a million tonnes of CO2 over their twenty-year plus working life-span. Organophosphate esters (OPEs) are not just the mainstay of pesticides, they are sprayed out in unburned jet engine lubrication oil – a big part of aircraft emissions. And they don’t dissipate, they accumulate over time. 

Other costs are huge, such as depreciation over the P-8A’s twenty year life span; a new plane sets you back US $1,6 billion. Without them we’d have to use drones to spot refugees in leaky boats as well as spooking sailors with lasers all the way from China. Most prudent refugees and asylum-seekers, of course, pay for their own air tickets.

In the meantime, the cost of boat-stopper Morrison’s fleet is top secret because it’s on an on-water matter. And there are forty-six government agencies involved. Or as the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre notes, “transparency in budget reporting of related expenditures has deteriorated further. Published costs and arrival numbers are extremely limited and available information does not add up.” 

Yet profligacy is a badge of honour when it comes to military spending. Tony Abbott’s completely arbitrary stipulation, in 2012, that two percent of GDP be spent on Defence was just a cudgel to beat Gillard’s Labor crew which it accused of the lowest defence spending since 1938. None of this made sense then. Nor does it make sense now. 

But the canard is resurrected by Morrison who is desperate to paint Labor as being weak on national security. The lie gets stronger by repetition. An ABC’s Insiders’s panel nods sagely when the furphy of Labor’s under-spending on defence is regurgitated as established fact. Yet reason and empiricism have never been the Coalition’s strong suit and this campaign begins with another shrill, baseless slandering.

It’s boosted by a manufactured incident about China’s aggression towards one of our spy planes, a charge based largely on lies and wilful disinformation. And a single laser. 

All hell breaks loose amidst the feral roos and the asylum of loons in the nation’s Top Paddock over our Poseidon misadventure. Canberra rants fit to pop its bubble wrap. The ADF, on standby for senior services in the federal government’s criminal neglect of our elders held captive in gulags, cloaked in NewSpeak as aged-care residential facilities, claim the lasering is akin to firing a missile. Everybody knows that before you shoot down any aircraft, you bathe it in laser-light.  

Laser pointing could be “separated from firing a missile with hostile intent by a mere split second” ANU’s John Blaxland, a professor in international security, intelligence and freelance warmonger, helps the federal government fear campaign by noting China was flashing our chopper pilots in 2018, a topic on which Dr Graham is a world expert.

Dr Euan Graham, a hot-shot in maritime security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore, is sure the laser is a flash on a bridge too far. 

“…this act has crossed a red line in terms of what Australia considers normal or acceptable and it’s decided to name and shame accordingly”. It’s “an extremely serious incident” that risks “injury or worse”.

Worse? Imagine the Chinese crew when the Poseidon retaliates. The Australian reports, “Defence confirms a RAAF P-8A maritime patrol aircraft dropped anti-submarine sonar buoys around two Chinese warships in the Arafura Sea last week to check for “subsurface contacts”. 

Only after China’s Defence Ministry releases, via The Global Times, the voice of the Chinese government, an image of an orange buoy, do the Morrison government’s accusations abate.   

The Poseidon’s patrolling the Arafura Sea between the NT and Papua, spying on a brace of Chinese ships, a Peoples’ Liberation Army’s Navy (PLA-N) Luyang-class destroyer and its comrade in arms, a Yuzhao-class amphibious transport dock, two of 355 vessels – and counting – in the biggest navy in the world, as they steam east across Australia’s Exclusive Economic Zone, (EEZ), a kleptocratic, grab for vast resources. 

Dangerous? Our spy-plane is four kilometres away when it is lit up by China’s laser sighting. Almost. A Chinese matelot points a laser at an Australian spy plane? Outrageous. Defence Minister and childcare millionaire Peter Dutton and current PM Scott Morrison, go off like a frog in a sock; or two bullfrogs vying for the same slimy rock atop a toxic swamp. 

Dutton packages the act for the few still watching Sky News in vain hope that it will improve. It’s “aggressive bullying” which can cause “the blindness of the crew, … damage of equipment,” Dutton bullshits in that contemptuous-of-his-audience’s intelligence, free-wheeling, fact-free way that is the Morrison government’s communications’ signature. 

Spud is spitting chips. And Our Prime Minstrel is fit to kill. If his murdering of a Dragon hit doesn’t do it, he will gong someone with his ukulele. He takes time out of his hard-hatting cosplay. Gives himself a flash from a welder when he lifts his auto-darkening visor but you can tell he’s not just some dork from central casting or a party apparatchik who’s never had a real job. Sunday we see images of him in a chopper over a flooded Brisbane River. Climate change is conspicuously absent from the commentary. 

“I can see it no other way than an act of intimidation, one that was unprovoked, unwarranted,” Morrison huffs and puffs, Media mavens helpfully spin one laser into “lasers” plural. Suddenly they become “military-grade”. Is this our own Gulf of Tonkin incident, the pretext for the US military’s illegal incursion into Vietnam in 1964?

“Australia will never accept such acts … It was a reckless and irresponsible act and it should not occur. We are raising those issues directly through the diplomatic and defence channels.”

Laser-gate provokes cries of outrage from our tough on national security border bouncers ScoMo and his rival Dutton, in an incident that evokes John Howard’s 2003 Babies Overboard lie, an excuse for demonising boat people to win votes.  

In reply to what the PM pretends are representations to Beijing through all official channels, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Wang Wenbin, eventually accuses Australia of maliciously spreading disinformation, Tuesday. Lasers are part of modern range-finders, found on ships in navies all over the globe, including our own. He’s right.

In 2018 SAAB proudly announced that it will supply all twenty-five patrol boats once known as Armidale but soon to be re-named Arafura class with its state of the art lasers. “The Vidar advanced laser rangefinder … designed primarily for anti-aircraft operations as an integral part of a weapon system or surveillance system.”

Such rangefinders use a laser beam to measure the distance to the target.

But those who recall Dutts’ insistence, early in 2018, that Victorians were terrified of going out to eat because Melbourne was overrun with African gangs, which would follow diners home from restaurants, will understand that Morrison’s government, like that of Boris Johnson, or his mentor Trump, never lets fact get in the way of a fear campaign.

 A priceless 11 million square kilometres of ocean, our EEZ contains oil and gas fields, and shipping lanes. And creatures of the deep. The destroyer is in the Arafura Sea, one of the world’s richest fisheries, between the NT and Papua, on its way through the Torres Strait at the top end of Down Under, to a spot in the Coral Sea off the Queensland coast to watch our naval exercises.

It’s almost as entertaining as our Tongan volcano relief show. Our navy’s pride of the fleet, HMAS Adelaide runs out of power just at the moment when we’re keen to be seen as Tonga’s rich and powerful friend. China seems to have no such problems when two vessels turn up a week or so later bearing a cargo of aid.

What the skippers and their crews don’t realise is that they are cruising for a bruising. First, there’s the Morrison election campaign’s war of words; bagging China, bully-shaming Putin, and high-fiving Biden, as befits our role as US imperialist running dogs, a cringe-worthy toadying to Washington that earns us Beijing’s enmity, costs us dearly in trade and lowers our credibility in any international forum, let alone in the White House or the Pentagon.   

What it means to our relationship with Russia is less certain, but Murdoch media is keen to warn us that as “allies of Ukraine ” we face a crippling wave of cyber warfare.

This line of thought is quickly soft-pedalled. Perhaps advisers fear it might invite attacks. We mustn’t poke the bear too much. No-one mentions our trade surplus with Russia, although Crikey’s Bernard Keane notes that if Morrison had the ticker, he’d stop supplying Moscow with alumina and seize RUSAL’s twenty percent share in QAL, Rio Tinto’s Queensland alumina plant. They can take it. We could also halt our $100 million live animal exports.

World’s third-largest aluminium producer, Rusal, posted a profit of $2 billion in the first half of last year’s trading. World aluminium prices rose by thirty percent per tonne in the same period. 

But seizing RUSAL’s share in QAL could cost votes in rural seats and upset key party donors. And the Nationals love to pretend that the live sheep trade is worth a fortune, when it’s a dead loss – Pegasus Economics calculates that stopping the trade would cost $9 million a year for WA farmers. But it could also lead to 350 jobs at West Australian sheep-meat processors. Cruelty to animals intrinsic to the trade would cease.

Whatever happens, Putin’s Russia is cosying up to fellow extortionists oil producer Saudi Arabia, another despotic regime which likes to kill its critics when they are in other countries. They have us over a barrel – and they know it. The pair will help push up the price of fuel and inflate the cost of everything, a way of hastening a global economic recession, already imminent if the overheated stock market is any indication. 

More troubling is Dutton’s cheapjack sabre-rattling and the Coalition’s war on Labor, whom the three arch-rivals, Frydenberg, Dutton and Morrison, claim is joined at the hip with Beijing, weak on national security and unworthy of a vote in May or whenever an election is called.

Dutton politicises ASIO, a move which top spook Mike Burgess says is unhelpful. The Defence Minister claims the Chinese government had picked Albanese “as their candidate”. Worse, he says he bases Thursday’s inflammatory allegation – ruled by the Speaker to be out of order – on “open source and other intelligence”.

By Friday, after a top performance, the day before, from the PM in which Russia is denounced as a bully, the Morrison government’s talking-points revert to China because it’s harder to wedge Labor by railing against Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. 

China’s villainy increases when it offers to buy Russia’s wheat, a deal denounced by government spin as a “lifeline” to Putin, virtually enabling Russia to run amok in Ukraine. 

Under parliamentary privilege, Morrison dubs Richard Marles the “Manchurian Candidate”, a droll jibe, he withdraws, after the damage is done. Albanese, he jeers, is the nag China is backing. David Speers on ABC Insiders tries to get Penny Wong to look weak on bullies.  

In reality, Labor is in lock-step with the Coalition. 

Why be a big target on hot-button issues? Expect Russia to revert to its historical hegemony. The West helped it follow a traditional path – when the USSR’s communism, a state capitalism melted under Boris Yeltsin’s charms.

Yeltsin helped the new boyars – robber barons amass fabulous power, presiding over a crony capitalism which would make our own “can-do” capitalists blush. A few dodgy oligarchs became rich beyond belief while most of the population were driven into poverty. 

To close observers of inequality in Australia and Little Britain these are familiar trends.

Yeltsin’s “shock therapy” economic reforms, masterminded by Anatoly Chubais and supported by Washington in the early 90s, were radical, causing a collapse in living standards” which helped Putin to impose his strong man act as the only solution.

Following the debacle of defeat at the hands of his own party, over his religious bigotry bill- a stunt to wedge Labor, which ends up wedging only his own backbench, blind rage grips our ukulele-packing paterfamilias, Bunnings’ influencer and default PM. ScoMo can live with being called an absolute arsehole, and a menacing wallpaper.

Old news. Besides, insults are a badge of honour to any malignant narcissist.  But it hurts to hear his team now call him a fraud, a hypocrite, a liar, a horrible, horrible person in a new series of leaked SMS.

And as for “psycho”, that’s rich coming from any member of a party who assents to (and enables) the indefinite detention of children, deporting Kiwis caught jaywalking and any refugee who arrives by boat. Not to mention his obsession with secrecy. Besides, who doesn’t beg the producer to let you play the first verse of Dragon’s take me to the April Sun in Cuba in your own mockumentary, Meet the Morrisons? 

Observant viewers with the stomach to sit through the ScoMo propaganda segment of Nine’s 60 Minutes, ScoMo-ProMo note that neither resident grandmother is present at the family curry. Aged care is so politically sensitive these days. ScoMo’s mother and mother-in-law are probably watching cricket. Eating KFC. 

But it’s enough to make you choke on your chicken tikka. Not only is he publicly pilloried by anonymous assailants from his own cabinet, ScMo’s impotent. The PM, clearly, has less control over his party than over his ukulele. Things turn ugly.

Now five MPs have crossed the House of Reps floor, he’s lost control of the Senate and even Murdoch’s suggesting he’s toast, Morrison has blood-lust Dutton and “NFI” Frydenberg, all over his “comms” unit these days, like flies on an outback dunny. 

Too cute for words, these two smell the death of a salesman. They’re jockeying to depose Morrison, a dead man moon-walking-even as opposition leader after May. 

(His attack on Albo, the small-target, Opposition Leader coincides with The Lantern Festival and other celebrations of the Chinese lunar new year, The Year of The Tiger.)

Complicating matters is a report from Karen Middleton that “key Liberals” are plotting to block Dutton before he cherry-picks the leader’s job for himself. Ms Middleton regales Saturday Paper readers with the hilarious scenario of several feckless and ineffectual Morrison muppets brokering what is described as a Left-Right deal between “Dutts” as he is known and the “Kooyong Dolt”, as Joe Aston calls the feckless feather-brained Treasurer, to prevent a coup by the current Minister for Defence. 

Should Dutts take revenge on “Bonkers” Morrison, the incumbent psycho, all hell would break loose. Even with the $16bn which trusty Frydo stashes in a brown paper bag at his PM’s request in order to buy victory with pandemic relief handouts or tax-rebates or some other grubby scheme to court the majority who don’t follow politics with an appeal to self-interest. 

Hence the recent bottom-feeding frenzy in Question Time. Morrison slanders Albo to get below Dutton in the gutter.   

“Bonkers” Morrison howls the house down in question time; accusing Antony Albanese of being weak on national security, a cheap stunt from the Crosby-Textor playbook, while throwing a dead cat the size of China, on the national table, as Bernard Keane puts it. 

Now that five MPs defy him to vote down his signature legislation, his impotence as leader is revealed and he must muscle-up to compensate. What could possibly go wrong? 

Shout? You can hear him in Beijing. Or Kharkiv.  

No-one will ever teach Morrison that it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt. Not that he cares just how awful he is with his harangue of the Opposition Leader for “being a small target” “or just small”? 

But it won’t be his reducing of Question Time to howling abuse, that decides this election, nor will it be his despicable treatment of women, particularly his office backgrounding against Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame, although that could play a big part. 

It is unlikely that any of Morrison’s chest-beating posturing on foreign affairs, reciting US talking points, will convince anyone that a PM who can’t control his own party is a strong man who will keep the nation safe. Nor will the happy family man fantasy even begin to atone for the leaked texts which reveal how much he is reviled by his party including his deputy PM. 

The decider could be the sixteen billion dollar election war chest. Unless, of course, voters worry where the money’s coming from. Or have relatives in aged care. Or have a disability or care for someone who has. Or the PM puts his money where his mouth is and funds refugee to flee Ukraine, in the humanitarian crisis that is already on its way.