Opinion

Malcolm Turnbull’s intemperate attack on Gillian Triggs is a sure indication of the heat the PM is feeling from his hard-right flank. That he panders to it in such a ham-fisted way has many on his own side despairing. By Paul Bongiorno.

Paul Bongiorno
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull tries to shift focus

On one of his overseas trips as prime minister, Paul Keating entertained the travelling media with his raw meat analogy. When the dogs are grabbing at your ankles, he said, the only thing to do is to throw a chunk of raw meat as far as possible in the other direction. This week Malcolm Turnbull threw the bait and no one ran.

Hard as he might try with the idea of a permanent visa ban for any adult refugee on Manus and Nauru who came by boat after June 2013, it just didn’t catch on. In parliament, Turnbull sounded very shrill and very backward looking. He went all the way back to the 2007 election. In his sights were Kevin Rudd and the abandoning of the Howard government’s Pacific solution. Six years later, of course, Rudd resurrected a crueller version to “save the furniture”. But Turnbull was not interested in that this week. “Well,” he said, “it was too late for the 1200 who drowned, wasn’t it? It was too late for them, no shame. No sense of conscience on the part of the Labor Party.”

But the theatrics undid themselves. While excoriating Labor for its failure, he blamed Rudd for putting the people on Manus and Nauru. But this crucial element of the new Pacific solution is now wholly owned by the Turnbull government. Turnbull’s system gives as much weight to detention as a deterrent as boat turn-backs. We are expected to believe that if one wretched soul currently detained on the remote islands is allowed to settle in Australia, or even visit in 40 years’ time, then the whole terribly effective edifice will collapse.

In a piece of politics too clever by half the prime minister and his immigration minister, Peter Dutton, insisted that unless the policy of a total ban on these refugees coming to Australia was legislated then there could be no resettlement of them in third countries. Although this claim was a very moveable feast. It was not made to Labor in briefings. In fact, the link was denied only to be reinstated on Sky News by Dutton after Labor announced it would vote down the visa ploy.

There is fevered speculation that the third countries for resettlement might be Canada and the United States. New Zealand ruled itself out when its prime minister said it wouldn’t accept Australia making second-class citizens of refugees through this ban. But one senior Labor figure says the speculation is “horseshit”. It’s hard to see how Canada or the US would have a different view to New Zealand’s John Key. But perhaps more to the point, with an annual eight million visitors, tourists, students, business people and others churning through our ports and airports, implementing the permanent visa ban is highly problematic.

The Essential poll found majority support for the government’s tough new measures. It seems no cruelty, however farcical, will cause a serious number of our fellow citizens to be concerned. But two factors are minimising the political risk for Labor rejecting the latest outrage. One is the assurance from the government that the boats have stopped and they will continue to be stopped. The other is that, according to another Essential poll, a majority of Australians see little difference between the two major parties on the issue.

At his news conference, Bill Shorten claimed Labor was “on a unity ticket with the government to stop the people smugglers but we are not on a unity ticket to stop the tourists”. Labor was prepared to support legislation banning permanent settlement but Dutton ruled out any amendments or negotiation. It was his way or the highway, a message he hoped would split the Labor Party. It didn’t. Caucus unanimously agreed to reject what it sees as political games “chasing One Nation’s policies by proposing ludicrous and ridiculous ideas”.

The refugee raw meat distraction didn’t stop the culture warriors within the government and the News Corp papers from chasing down another obsession. The pressure on Turnbull has been relentless over “free speech” and the emasculation of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Not a priority two months ago, the prime minister has had to capitulate and reopen a discussion he knows is political dynamite. Turnbull warned his party room Labor would paint his reference of the laws to the parliament’s joint Human Rights Committee as a thinly veiled attempt to green light intolerance and racial hatred.

He called for a measured debate to try to achieve a consensus on any changes – a very tall order when a number of the 18 MPs and senators who spoke on the move in the party room took widely divergent views. MPs in marginal seats with large ethnic communities are appalled. The member for Bennelong in Sydney, John Alexander, is one who sees no need to tinker with the act that makes it unlawful to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” a person or group on the basis of race, colour or national or ethnic origin.

While Turnbull is calling for “balance” in the debate, he showed none in an interview on the ABC’s AM program. He launched a badly disingenuous attack on the Human Rights Commission and by direct implication its president, Gillian Triggs. He said the commission “has not done itself or its reputation or the respect for the law a service by bringing that case, which most people found extraordinary”. He said that the federal court judge, in throwing out a complaint against students at the Queensland University of Technology for statements they made on Facebook, had attacked the commission for wasting the court’s time and taxpayers’ money.

This was no slip of the tongue. He went on to say “the Human Rights Commission has not done itself or its reputation or the respect for the law a service”. Except the commission had done no such thing. It had terminated the QUT complaint in August 2015 because no resolution could be reached. As Professor Triggs herself pointed out, the commission does not initiate court proceedings and “had no role in the subsequent laws suit in the Federal Circuit Court”. How could a prime minister with a reputation as a fine lawyer get it so wrong?

The intemperate attack is a sure indication of the heat Turnbull is feeling from his hard-right flank. That he panders to it in such a ham-fisted way has many on his own side despairing. Labor can’t believe its luck. As an issue, it throws up in lights divisions within the government over an issue peripheral to many people’s daily concerns. Labor’s Mark Dreyfus didn’t miss the mark. As Turnbull predicted, he asked “what kind of racist hate speech does he want Australians to be able to use that they’re presently prevented from doing so? Labor and the Greens will oppose any attempt to change or weaken the Act.”

Indeed, Labor and the Greens argue the clause has contributed to the cohesive, multicultural society that Australia has become. These sentiments were given eloquent and powerful expression in one of the finest speeches heard in the parliament for some time. Veteran Liberal backbencher Russell Broadbent confronted the cultural warriors head on. He dared to question that a “members’ right to free speech ... should be unlimited”. It was a delayed reaction to one of the more prominent big C conservatives, Nationals chief whip George Christensen. Broadbent said Christensen’s diatribe against the rise of Islam in Australia was an appeal to fear and prejudice and it appalled him. He warned the Coalition about “cuddling up” to Pauline Hanson’s views and rhetoric. He said it would only hurt his side of politics in the long run. Sure, it was more division on show; but the purpose was a wake-up call to all politicians.

Broadbent, who in 2001 defied John Howard over his ruthless politicisation of refugees, said: “It is time for us to rise above the politics of fear and division, because our love of diversity, difference and freedom will endure.” In a sentiment his own leader could have used to bring the “freedom” agitators to their senses, he said: “We should always have empathy and consideration for those doing it tough. We must speak to the people in their language about the basic concerns affecting their daily lives.”

Christensen took to Facebook to reply. In phrases reminiscent of John Howard, he said: “Mr Broadbent is suffering the same problem many other politically correct hand wringers suffer ... [he] is part of the elitist set here in Canberra that we find on all sides of politics.”

The parliamentary inquiry will report back in February. Traditionally, the Human Rights Committee strives for a consensus. Given its membership, that will be nigh impossible. What is clear is that if the culture warriors don’t get their way, Turnbull will continue to be buffeted by their campaign.

The marriage equality cause is another example. The senate rejected the shoddy political compromise that was the same-sex marriage plebiscite, opening the way for pressure to build up for a free vote in the parliament this term. Already one Liberal senator, Dean Smith, is calling for it and there is plenty of support in the senate to initiate it.

Meanwhile, the union-busting laws are on hold with the numbers too shaky for the government to chance a vote.

It will take more than raw meat to revive the government’s stocks.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 12, 2016 as "Meat and two wedge". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a regular commentator on ABC Radio National Breakfast.