The great English man of letters Samuel Johnson left the world a pithy aphorism on false patriotism. “Patriotism,” he opined, “is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” No one knows what prompted the thought but it has been applied unkindly ever since to politicians wrapping themselves in the flag to win favour with voters.
“Scoundrel” is too strong a word to apply to the prime minister and his minister for immigration and border protection, Peter Dutton, as they bang the drum of national security and citizenship. “Opportunists” could fit the bill better.
The government is finding it very hard to land a credible and enduring energy policy beyond 2020. So while it juggles the arguments between the climate change denialists in its midst and those who accept the science but are worried about the politics, better to throw a dead cat on the table. One that, with a bit of luck, will have the Labor opposition at each other’s throats. Enter the country’s enduring anxiety about migrants.
After telegraphing for almost a year that it is too easy to become an Australian citizen and that they planned to do something about it, the Liberals moved this week. Malcolm Turnbull deftly married the idea to stopping Islamic extremists prone to terrorism, while at the same time bending over backwards to claim he was not targeting any particular nationality or religion. It’s an art John Howard perfected. It remains to be seen if Turnbull has learnt the lesson well from the old master.
He framed changes to visa and citizenship requirements in terms of new members of society embracing Australian values and positively contributing to Australian society. More eloquent than Tony Abbott’s “Team Australia”, he said “we should make no apologies for asking those who seek to join our Australian family to join us as Australian patriots”. With resonances of Howard, he said: “Our success as a multicultural society is built on strong foundations which include the confidence of the Australian people that their government and it alone determines who comes to Australia.”
Sure, but, as Labor’s Tony Burke pointed out, when we talk about granting citizenship we are talking about people who have already been allowed into the country, permitted to work here and been given residency. In fact, Dutton proposes to have these candidates for dinkum Aussiedom live and work here for not one year but four before they are eligible to apply. And more: to have acquired a proficiency in English to university level. On these points, however, Dutton does concede he will allow some carve-outs.
What unmasked the blatant politics of it all was that the immigration minister’s taunting of Labor for months came before he had even produced a bill. A briefing Burke received back in May was unable to provide the Labor shadow minister with the evidence base for the flagged changes. There was no modelling, guesstimates or work to show how many who currently apply for citizenship would pass the English test.
This harder English hurdle had an eerie sense of deja vu about it, all the way back to the White Australia Policy and the dictation test. That was designed to principally keep out the Chinese and other Asians, although it also applied to Europeans who weren’t from the British Isles when it suited.
Now, with a wink and a nudge, we are supposed to get that it’s really intended for Muslims from non-English-speaking countries. They, after all, are the ones being radicalised in our midst. But if they are so perverted and plan to do us harm, wouldn’t it be better to deport them? After law-enforcement agencies produce the evidence, charge them and they are found guilty? Wouldn’t that be more in line with the liberal democratic values we are urging them to uphold?
To the consternation of much of Australia’s legal fraternity, Dutton and the government have set about the deliberate undermining of confidence in our judicial system. Like the dark days of the Bjelke-Petersen government in Queensland, the separation of powers is a nuisance to be dispensed with. Three federal ministers attacked Victorian judges this week, even while three were still presiding over a terrorist sentencing appeal. It came awfully close to perverting the course of justice, sending a message of what the outcomes should be.
The professor of citizenship law at the Australian National University, Kim Rubenstein, told Radio National she doesn’t think Dutton understands the very acts he wants to change, or if he does cannot be bothered with the due process required for him to apply them. Rather than reforming the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, she says he proposes to nobble it and take its powers to himself. Rubenstein says this is a return to the notion that we are subjects of the state rather than citizens. This is a retrograde denial of rights that sits uneasily in a modern liberal democracy. “It’s not,” she says, “the sort of thing that we would want to highlight as values of Australia today.”
It’s a sad fact that such concerns are dismissed as the work of the “human rights industry”. Like the frog in the boiling pot, we are slowly dying as a free people. But Labor is unwilling to enter a protracted argument with Dutton. Nothing would suit his purposes better. This does not mean that it will automatically vote for his changes. The senate rejected Dutton’s plan to permanently refuse even visitor visas to United States or New Zealand citizens who had formerly been refugees held on Manus or Nauru. “We’re not scared of Dutton,” was the assurance from one senior Labor MP.
But if Dutton’s critics dismiss him “as dumb as dog shit” – the assessment of a Liberal colleague this week – his party organisation in Queensland certainly doesn’t. Labor is intrigued by the Liberal National Party’s submission to the Australian Electoral Commission’s planned federal redistribution of boundaries. The LNP head office wants a huge swag of Liberal voters moved out of Wayne Swan’s seat of Lilley and Liberal Luke Howarth’s seat of Petrie into Dutton’s seat of Dickson. “They’re prepared to risk one of their own and shore up Swannie to save Dutton,” was the conclusion of one strategist.
Another significant supporter of Dutton’s is dumped prime minister Tony Abbott. On his regular Radio 2GB spot, the one he took from Scott Morrison, he said: “Peter is an outstanding minister, absolutely outstanding.” It’s not clear what the effect of such a glowing endorsement might be, except to say that Abbott’s ability to be disruptive to the Turnbull agenda is not to be underestimated. In the same interview he characterised the prime minister’s attempts to end the climate wars through the chief scientist’s view of the future security of the energy market as a virtual tax on carbon.
Even before he read Professor Alan Finkel’s work, Abbott said, “My anxiety, listening to reports of the report and this statement that they are going to reward clean or low-emissions fuels while not punishing high-emissions fuels, is that it’s going to be a magic pudding.” Someone’s got to pay, he said: consumers or taxpayers. His attempt to play “brutal retail politics” again by dishonestly making the issue about the hip pocket and not about the environment is certainly resonating with a sizeable chunk of the Coalition’s party room.
There is no doubt cost of living is a particularly sensitive electoral sore point, something influential Liberal backbencher Russell Broadbent argued passionately in the three-hour government party room bunfight over Finkel. Critically for Turnbull, senior conservative ministers such as Barnaby Joyce, Scott Morrison and Mathias Cormann accept the chief scientist’s analysis that business as usual will mean higher prices for consumers going forward, not lower ones. And while 20 MPs seemed to share Abbott’s rejection of this reality, 80 did not join the argument.
The Nationals leader Joyce accepts the Finkel framework, except he wants to include “clean coal” in the mix of renewable energy sources. This has left the Labor Party flummoxed. Shadow energy minister Mark Butler says Joyce is trying to rig the definitions. His leader, Bill Shorten, says Labor has already come a long way to show its goodwill. Its preferred policy – endorsed by the CSIRO, business and unions – is an emissions intensity scheme, but it is prepared to accept a clean energy target model (CET) “providing it is genuine”. Raising the emissions intensity above Finkel’s benchmark to accommodate “ultra-supercritical black coal” looks beyond the pale, although Butler says it would still leave coal unattractive to investors when it comes to new power stations. This last point is something Finkel agrees with in his report.
After the sound and fury of Tuesday night’s party room venting, the prime minister’s office went into damage control, trawling the press gallery with the message it was all a healthy exercise in democracy. Nothing has been accepted or rejected yet. In the meantime, what about the dead cat?
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 17, 2017 as "Dirty, rotten scoundrels". Subscribe here.