Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Playing the blame game on terror attacks

The sheer magnitude of the terror atrocities in London and Manchester has spawned a dark mood in the community. Our politicians are sensing it but the reactions of some are increasingly dangerous to our survival as a liberal democratic society. At risk is the very basis of our freedoms such as habeas corpus – the right not to be jailed without a body of evidence and due process. 

It is a contemporary version of the notorious view of an American major in the Vietnam war: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” Except now the embedded enemy is not the Viet Cong but Muslim extremists.

The anger and revulsion at reports of a young Australian nurse cut down in the very act of mercy on London Bridge is the reaction of any person with a shred of humanity. That was bad enough. A murderous attack in the name of Islamic extremism in Melbourne brought it home with a sickening thud. The fact the perpetrator had links to the Holsworthy army barracks terror plot eight years ago and was out on parole for violent crimes made it worse.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull asked the question on everybody’s minds: why was the perpetrator, Yacqub Khayre, out on parole? Though Turnbull later denied he was playing partisan politics, he painted Victorian Labor leader Daniel Andrews’ willingness in future to involve the federal attorney-general in parole issues of convicted terrorists as a dereliction of the premier’s responsibility. Khayre, however, was not a convicted terrorist or in jail for related activities.

All this finger-pointing ignores the facts of the Khayre parole process as outlined by the head of Victoria’s Adult Parole Board, Judge Peter Couzens. There is more than enough to suggest failures at the state and federal level. Couzens told Radio 3AW the board received absolutely no information from either Corrections Victoria or from external services such as the police, state or federal, or ASIO “which would cause us to have any concerns about risk to the public”.

The board was aware Khayre had been acquitted of plotting the Holsworthy attack and had undertaken a de-radicalisation program. But it was never told he was on a terrorism watchlist. Indeed, it is not clear that he was. Something triggered his lethal plot and his linking of it with the ideology not only of Daesh but also al-Qaeda. Maybe the coroner will eventually enlighten us.

Politicians playing the blame game are nothing new, especially in the current febrile climate. It is made all the harder for Turnbull because he is under fire from within his own ranks for not being more outspoken on “Islamic” terrorism. As a result, it is a term he and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop are now employing more. Bill Shorten, too, is under fire but it is more from the alt-right media and their fellow travellers on the crossbench and on the government’s backbench. How the repeated use of the term solves the problem is a mystery. It certainly can stir hatred and prejudice against the broader Muslim community, scapegoating law-abiding citizens who are often themselves victims of their perverse co-religionists. 

But those targeting Turnbull, Bishop and Shorten for being soft, according to one Liberal MP, “don’t want to hear common sense at the moment”. And they are breaking cover. Conservative Liberal champions such as Victoria’s Michael Sukkar and Sydney’s Craig Kelly have no scruples linking terrorism with refugees and Islam. But no one is more outspoken than former prime minister Tony Abbott.

Abbott, in a thinly veiled swipe at ASIO boss Duncan Lewis, said on Monday: “All too often in officialdom’s ranks there is this notion that Islamophobia is almost as big a problem as Islamist terrorism.” Lewis clearly believes that stirring hatred can only alienate the Muslim community and potentially make the problems worse by drying up intelligence. And this is the sort of advice Abbott received when he was prime minister. Undeterred, he made this extraordinary statement: “Well, Islamophobia hasn’t killed anyone.” Of course it has, but he had other fish to fry. He went on: “Islamist terrorism has now killed tens of thousands of people. That’s why it’s absolutely critical that there’s the strongest possible response at every level.”

His view that the “top level” in the government is not strong enough is fairly widely shared. Some Liberal MPs say Turnbull has allowed the Liberal government’s ownership of defence and national security to slip. An example cited is making the announcement of more troops to Afghanistan in a senate estimates committee rather than with more fanfare at a news conference.

The conservatives have a hero to fit the bill. As Sukkar told Sky News: “If there is one person you can trust in charge of our immigration and border protection it is Peter Dutton.” Phone calls are being made lobbying other Liberal MPs to agitate for Dutton to head a new super department of “homeland security” with full authority in this space: over attorneys-general, the justice and police departments, border control and immigration. Dutton, they say, has the tough image and the runs on the board to deliver what Abbott is calling for – the avoiding of any spirit of surrender, any spirit of defeatism. The problem is it looks and smells like a decapitation strategy. Under the model being mooted you could fairly ask what role does that leave for Turnbull as prime minister?

British PM Theresa May’s “enough is enough” is another piece of political rhetoric that resonates. The question is what is she or any prime minister going to do about it? Some Liberals are attracted by what would be the nuclear option: declare war on Islam, dispense with habeas corpus, set up a special court and detain “enemy aliens” in internment camps much like then prime minister John Curtin did in World War II. 

This prescription depends on seeing Islam not as a religion but as a political ideology hell-bent on destroying secular, pluralist Australia. We should declare war on it just as it has on us. This should sound familiar. Pauline Hanson spouts it all the time. But much of the inspiration for this plan comes from would-be Liberal senator, retired major-general Jim Molan. It has the advantage of outflanking Hanson and capturing the imagination. “Much like John Howard did stopping the Tampa boat people in 2001,” one of its supporters says.

Perhaps with the realisation that even if he wanted to Turnbull couldn’t credibly carry it off, his office says it’s absolutely not on the agenda. Here’s hoping. Remember boat turn-backs of refugees, first proposed by Hanson when she was last in parliament? Twenty years ago the very idea was decried for its extremism and betrayal of Australian values. It is now hailed as one of the great successes of the Liberal government, albeit carried out in secrecy but in our name.

As if saving our free society is not enough of a task for Turnbull, he also has the challenge of getting Australia to play its part in helping to save the planet from dangerous climate change while at the same time keeping the lights on. Yesterday at the Council of Australian Governments meeting in Hobart, Chief Scientist Alan Finkel presented his long-awaited review of the future security of the national electricity market.

Finkel was overshadowed by discussions aimed at harmonising Australia’s parole processes. Going into the meeting the premiers were more disposed to co-operation combating terrorism than they were to accepting the Turnbull government’s “second or third best option” of cutting carbon pollution. How it would at the same time keep as much pressure as possible off electricity prices was the question.

There were some positive signals coming from the federal opposition. The shadow energy minister, Mark Butler, like his leader, says the time has come to end the energy crisis in Australia thanks to a 10-year-old political stand-off. On Radio National Butler made the point that the Energy Market Commission, the Climate Change Authority and every business group in the country except the Minerals Council believe that an emissions intensity scheme, capping pollution and allowing polluters to trade credits, “is the first-best option”. But federal Labor will seriously consider what Turnbull is allowed to come up with and support it “if it will stand the test of time”. By that he means survive a change of government.

One of Turnbull’s key staffers says there will be no quick reply to Finkel’s work. He cautions against thinking that a low emissions target with tradeable certificates is the way the government will necessarily go. Anything that looks like a carbon price or tax will be the end of the prime minister, according to one veteran backbencher who witnessed his demise as leader back in 2009.

 Dumb politics, playing on people’s fear and prejudices, does work, as we have seen in recent times, but it leaves a destroyed village and too much collateral damage.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 10, 2017 as "Fear-reaching consequences". Subscribe here.

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

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