Malcolm Turnbull’s speech at The Sydney Institute on Tuesday night was important not for what it said about his leadership ambitions, but for the simple fact that what he said was important.
He spoke persuasively about the rule of law and its role in mediating government excess: “The notion that the majority entitles the government it appoints to rule as it pleases is as pernicious a doctrine in our times as the divine right of Kings was in the time of King John or King Charles I.”
He elaborated, pointedly: “One of the most important elements of the rule of law is that citizens cannot be deprived of their life, liberty or property without due process of law.”
And again: “Tough policies can be popular, they may even be justified at the time they are conceived, but they can still be a mistake.”
At times, he seemed to goad his own government over the need for “thoughtful and well-informed public debate”. At others, he was more direct: “Denouncing those who question the effectiveness of new national security measures as ‘friends of terrorists’ is as stupid as describing those who advocate them as ‘proto-fascists’.”
Tony Abbott didn’t use the word “friends” when castigating the Labor Party for questioning aspects of his citizenship-stripping legislation. But he did say this: “We’re going to keep terrorists out where they’re dual nationals and it seems that the opposition wants to bring them home – no doubt roll out the red carpet for them like it rolled out the red carpet for people smugglers when it was in government.”
But perhaps Turnbull’s most important utterance was about proportion. As a virtue, it is the one most lacking in Australian politics and political discourse.
“Just as it is important not to underestimate, or be complacent about, the national security threat from Da’esh, it is equally important not to overestimate that threat…” Turnbull said. “We need to be very careful we don’t get sucked into their strategy and ourselves become amplifiers of their wickedness and significance.”
Wittingly, one suspects, Turnbull’s speech broadcast two of the Abbott government’s greatest shortcomings: its confused disregard for the rule of law and its addiction to distraction through overstatement.
Da’esh is a wicked movement, but it is also a distant and incoherent one. The attention given to it is disproportionate to the threat it poses here, despite Abbott’s claim “it’s coming after us”. The spectre of Da’esh is a distraction – one embraced by a government desperately looking for alternatives to actually governing.
The furore over the appearance of Zaky Mallah on the ABC TV program Q&A was a fine illustration, a means to draw a clumsy outline of terrorism into the pages of domestic politics. The story is of little significance. It tells us nothing about our own safety or the stewardship of the national broadcaster. But the government has fed the dumb controversy for three weeks. When it looked like faltering, the prime minister’s office announced an arbitrary boycott. The question was not one of ministerial safety but of column inches – the thought that if the distraction ended, attention might turn to the government’s own state.
Distraction and avoidance are the two things that will take Abbott to the next election. Key decisions are hidden in reports and committees. Key economic measures are set over until after 2017. Key issues are starved of light by petty scandals and overblown rhetoric.
Turnbull’s speech was notable for its calm and reason. He warned the media at one point on how it reports terrorism. “The damage that sensationalist reporting can do can be immense,” he said. The same is true of sensationalist government.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 11, 2015 as "Balderda’esh".
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