Paul Bongiorno
Albanese dragged to Dutton’s level

The performance of the first-term Albanese government has been marked by an unusual stability and maturity as it settled into the daunting task of guiding the nation. The government has shown a level of competence in sharp contrast to its predecessor. There have been no ministerial resignations, forced or otherwise; no shattering scandals. In the past few months, however, that sure-footedness seems to have been lost.

Some in the ranks fear Murphy’s Law is at play, where anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Events shape the agenda, as they always have, and every government is marked up or down by voters depending on the way the various unforeseen crises and challenges are met. Here, Anthony Albanese is demonstrating a caution that has allowed a ruthless Peter Dutton to seize the agenda from him.

I say ruthless because the opposition leader does not baulk at using the sort of post-truth politics employed by Donald Trump in the United States, where reality is not the touchstone but political advantage is. Any distortion to stir fears and resentments is utilised. There are no subtleties, just a cartoonish reduction of issues to base prejudices that will ignite visceral anger towards opponents.

We have seen it in the one-dimensional weaponising of anti-Semitism against Albanese in the response to the Israel–Hamas war. At stake here is more than votes – it is the real risk of inflaming divisions in the broader population. Any national political leader should surely have that front of mind.

The prime minister strongly rebutted any charge that he was not supportive of the Jewish community. He gave a dignified and heartfelt speech at the opening of the Melbourne Holocaust Museum midweek. Albanese directly quoted Peter Gaspar, a survivor who lost 40 members of his extended family in the Shoah, saying: “The Holocaust didn’t start with gas chambers and murders and executions. It started with stereotyping, prejudice, discrimination, hate speech …”

The prime minister continued, “Those are words to heed. Every day.”

Albanese noted that, as the Gaza war continues, anti-Semitism is on the rise. He pledged to always denounce and reject it utterly. He also added more emphatically than Dutton has been doing that this applies to “all forms of racism and prejudice”.

In his address, Dutton chose to concentrate on the ugly minority of protesters in recent mass demonstrations – what he called “the hate-fuelled mobs … calling for the slaughter of Jews”. He said, “We stand here today in the aftermath of obscene and unfathomable acts of anti-Semitism on our own soil.” The contrast in language to Albanese could not be missed and did little to foster the sort of appeal to social cohesion needed in the broader multicultural community.

Dutton’s speech followed his rhetorical overreach on the High Court’s determination that indefinite immigration detention was unconstitutional. Even his own shadow home affairs minister, James Paterson, was uncomfortable with the opportunism at the weekend.

Paterson, no shrinking violet when it comes to addressing any issue from the hard right, refused three times on ABC TV’s Insiders to agree with his leader that all of those released by the High Court’s ruling should immediately go back into immigration detention. The best he could do was to suggest the application of controversial counterterrorism legislation around high-risk offenders could be used to put them back behind bars.

This regime applies to convicted terrorists who have served their time but are still considered too great a risk to the community to be released. None of the 93 asylum seekers so far released has been assessed as a security risk by ASIO. Leading lawyer Greg Barns, SC, says the Paterson suggestion is “highly concerning”. He told Guardian Australia that in most cases, as far as he was aware, and he has appeared for many refugees, all who had convictions had served their sentences and largely been assessed by prison authorities and courts “as being relatively low risk of offending”. He slammed other suggestions as “absolutely absurd”.

However, the government itself has not ruled out some sort of “preventative detention” regime, pushed by Dutton and Paterson. Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil says all options are being looked at pending the High Court releasing its reasons early next year. O’Neil is doing her level best to be more hawkish than Dutton about wanting to keep the community safe by getting around the court with “durable” legislation that would survive challenges.

The minister bristles at any suggestion she was not ready when the court finally struck down indefinite detention after finding it lawful in a split decision 20 years ago. She “vehemently” disagrees that she was flat-footed, pointing to a major legislative response rushed through the parliament in seven days. That response came as a capitulation to Dutton. Last Thursday morning, the acting prime minister, Richard Marles, wrote to the opposition leader inviting him to come up with amendments so the government’s bill criminalising breaches of visa conditions could be passed.

Dutton duly came back with four amendments, one of which he knew was poking the government in the eye by demanding mandatory sentencing for breaches in contravention of the Labor platform. He also demanded – and got – a provision that said ministerial discretion would be severely limited so no distinctions between offenders should be made.

A government source says the cabinet was paranoid it would be blamed if one of the released detainees did “something horrible”. All they wanted was to get the issue out of the headlines as quickly as possible.

It took the government three days to respond publicly, giving the opposition political leverage it exploited without scruple. For the Coalition, as far as this issue is concerned, it is as if the world only began at the election in May 2022. Nothing they did before then is relevant and should be expunged from memory.

The Morrison government released five of the 93 people included in the High Court decision, according to a Department of Home Affairs document published by the High Court this week. Not all of them had convictions in Australia, although Dutton claims they are all “hardcore criminals” who should be permanently locked up or have their liberty severely constrained.

Labor’s paranoia, as Crikey’s Maeve McGregor says, debases the principles of justice underpinning our system. It is a coarsening of politics and has the Albanese government afraid to challenge the use of fear for political ends. Dutton, like Howard and his Liberal successors, has dragged his political opponents down to his level.

McGregor says when Dutton and O’Neil tell us to be afraid they are right – although not for the reasons they advance. We should be afraid, because “the point of their panic-baiting, their capering and cavorting about fear, is to blind us into believing punitive and inhumane responses are required to salve the panic they declare all Australians feel”.

The government showed more finesse diplomatically in handling the interaction between one of our frigates and a Chinese warship in the East China Sea, but its media strategy left another opening for Dutton to go into his preferred hyperbolic overdrive. Reverting to his pre-election form of attacking China to score domestic political points, he accused Albanese of not knowing when and how to stand up for Australia’s national interests. The spark for this broadside was the prime minister’s refusal to confirm or deny whether he had confronted President Xi Jinping over the incident when they met on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. Dutton said Albanese’s “got this whole confused explanation as to why he didn’t have the strength of leadership to stand up and talk in our country’s interests”.

According to former senior defence and strategic official Hugh White, Dutton is precisely wrongheaded in this outburst. White says, “Albanese would have been completely justified not to jeopardise Australia’s much broader bilateral interests by raising such a minor matter with the president.”

It is not as if the Albanese government had not lodged strong and formal protests in Canberra and Beijing before Albanese met Xi at APEC, leaving China in no doubt over where Australia stood. White says it is interesting that China disputes the Australian version of the interaction and claims it is not unheard of for reports from the frontline to get it wrong.

The bigger problem, according to White – who was lead author of the 2000 Defence White Paper – is that while the Albanese government has done an excellent job repairing the damage caused to the relationship by the Morrison and Dutton chest-beating, it is still to resolve how to balance our relationships with China and the United States. We no longer have the luxury of sitting on the fence.

Like his immediate Labor predecessors, Albanese is in something of a funk. The opposition is taking any chance it can to paint him as weak on the US alliance and too deferential to China. This was certainly not one of those occasions, however. It was more a beat-up, a confection of Trump-like proportions.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 25, 2023 as "The angle’s fear and dread".

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