Sean Kelly
Security and Malcolm Turnbull’s bluff

A bloke named Craig Morgan got his 15 minutes of fame this week. Barnaby Joyce identified him as the man who once knocked out his front teeth. “You remember his name?” the journalist at GQ magazine asked. “When someone removes your front teeth, you remember their name,” the deputy prime minister responded, in Joycean fashion.

Joyce had been working as a bouncer at the time, a job he said prepared him well for politics. “It does help fine-tune your skills for working out who can really hurt you and who’s a bluff. And it sharpened my contempt for people who throw their ego around. I still find myself sizing rivals up and thinking, ‘You’re not that thick a wheel, mate.’ ”

Talented politicians are good at this task of sorting the phoneys from the genuine. They need it to negotiate power within their own parties. They need to know who can be intimidated, and who it’s worth being intimidated by. They need to make constant judgements about who they can trust.

But very often politicians make the mistake of assuming they are the only ones engaged in this filtering. Voters are also doing it, constantly, if not always consciously. They’re usually much better at it than politicians, too.

In Canberra it was National Security Week, or might as well have been – Malcolm Turnbull has made three major announcements in the past nine days. The first was that he wanted technology companies to give security agencies access to encrypted messages. The second was that he would lower the threshold for allowing military troops to respond to terrorist attacks in Australia. The third was the creation of a massive super department with responsibility for national security, and the appointment of Immigration Minister Peter Dutton to run it.

The usual objections were raised, of course – that this was standard Liberals fare, blowing the national security trumpets in the hope of reaching voters’ ears and lifting those stubborn Newspoll numbers. No doubt there’s something in this – politicians will be politicians – but that doesn’t automatically mean the announcements themselves were without merit. The federal police say that encryption is hampering major investigations. The troops announcement was a response to the New South Wales coroner’s recommendations following the inquest into the Sydney siege. As London and Paris have demonstrated, the need to prevent terrorist attacks is hardly a political concoction.

Perhaps “tough response” will be all most voters see. Turnbull will be hoping so, because he exposed himself to the “who’s a bluff” filter on each occasion, in different ways.

On cybersecurity, he could not or would not explain any detail on what he was planning or how he might succeed in getting tech companies to do what they have refused to do in other countries, culminating in his absurdist pronouncement that the laws of mathematics did not definitively apply in Australia, only the laws of Australia. The announcement about troops was fine, except that Turnbull invited ridicule by holding his press conference in front of gasmask-clad soldiers bearing weapons, the whole tableau looking like it had been ripped straight out of a comic book.

Voters know that politicians have flaws. We don’t expect them to be perfect, only consistent. John Howard was a fuddy-duddy conservative, and the country was fine with that; it was when he started trying to look hip on climate change that the mockery began in earnest. By now we’ve all seen enough of Turnbull not to expect a tough guy. We want the guy who knows stuff, who is across his brief, who can explain things in detail and persuade us he has it all in hand. Instead, this week, we got Turnbull as played by Sly Stallone, the action hero who couldn’t give directions to get to the pub across the street.

The third announcement was the biggest, and the most controversial. A new Home Affairs portfolio will be created, incorporating the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, the Australian Federal Police, the Australian Border Force, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission and more.

In 2014, when a similar but not identical proposal was reported to be circulating, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said that any proposal would have to demonstrate current failures of co-operation between the relevant agencies: “I am not aware of any such failures.” Attorney-General George Brandis publicly agreed.

If Turnbull has in fact demonstrated such failures, it has been behind closed doors. In public, he has done the opposite, seeking to make a virtue out of the fact that there are no failures to identify: “Set and forget has no place in national security,” he has said repeatedly. “Complacency has no place in national security.”

Turnbull’s one stated reason is that this will promote greater co-operation between security agencies, and it is possible he is right. There has been plenty of criticism of the plan, but there have also been a number of respected experts saying there is logic to the move.

Still, there is no avoiding the fact that this is a massive win for Peter Dutton, and that Dutton’s support is crucial to Turnbull’s survival as prime minister. Politicians will be politicians. And voters will notice.

One of the curious things about Dutton’s rise through the ranks is that his performance as a minister rarely seems to be a factor. Doctors voted him the worst federal health minister of the past 35  years. During his time as immigration minister, two Australian citizens have been wrongly detained in immigration detention. His Border Force kept from a parliamentary inquiry the fact it had failed to properly respond to allegations of sexual assault and abuse on Nauru. Just this week immigration centre guards were accused of supplying drugs and contraband to asylum seekers on Christmas Island. The question should be put to Turnbull more often: why has a minister who has presided over so many problems been given more responsibility?

Still, Turnbull will judge his week to have been a success. He has dominated politics with his policy agenda, as he must to have any chance of resurgence, and managed to sidestep Tony Abbott until quite late in the piece.

The Greens, on the other hand, are having the week from hell. Senator Scott Ludlam resigned late last Friday, having discovered he was a dual citizen. This week, Senator Larissa Waters discovered the same thing and also stepped down.

The prohibition on dual citizenship for MPs may or may not be a stupid law, but it’s in the constitution, and there’s no getting around it. The fact that it’s in the constitution also means that it has been there for some time. The Greens were guilty of gross incompetence and looked silly. But people aren’t looking to the Greens to govern, and I doubt it will hurt them much in the long run. Nor will it ultimately affect their numbers in the senate, because it is likely both will be replaced by other Greens, though not immediately. I would add that neither senator should have to repay their salaries in my view – these were innocent mistakes and both have done their jobs.

There are two greater pities here. The first is the loss of talented MPs. The second is that more important issues were overshadowed.

On Wednesday, vigils were held to mark four years since Kevin Rudd announced that no asylum seeker who attempted to reach Australia by boat would ever be settled here. Rudd said there would be an annual review of arrangements; the governments of Abbott and Turnbull have left the centres on both Nauru and Manus Island in place. More than 2000 people remain there. Some have died. There have been allegations of torture and sexual abuse. There has been rioting and shooting.

To his credit, Turnbull reached a deal with the United States to take the refugees. This week, with the US having hit its limit of refugees for the year, officials stopped their interviews on Nauru – a fortnight earlier than expected. Our government insists this is a coincidence, and that the deal will go ahead. We must hope so.

Also this week, the Referendum Council, created to advise the government on options for recognising Indigenous Australians in the constitution, delivered its advice, which it had narrowed to one constitutional recommendation. It copped some criticism for this, but you can see the logic: don’t allow politicians to cherrypick the easy options and claim they’re doing something.

That recommendation was to put to a referendum the creation of a national Indigenous representative body. That body would advise the parliament on legislation relating to Indigenous people, though there is no suggestion of any veto power. It would be a voice to the parliament, not in the parliament. There was also a recommendation that parliaments separately legislate a Declaration of Recognition, articulating Australia’s shared history and aspirations.

Anyone doubting we have a long way to go on reconciliation should note the emergence of reports this week raising questions over yet another death in custody of an Indigenous person. That, too, is a story that deserves more attention.

Malcolm Turnbull has said he believes Australia was invaded. Bill Shorten has said he believes Aboriginal people were dispossessed. Both have indicated they are serious about the potential for constitutional recognition. Whether they are mouthing sentiments or serious in their conviction – whether they are genuine or just bluffs – we will soon find out.


Paul Bongiorno is on leave.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 22, 2017 as "Bland man’s bluff". Subscribe here.

Sean Kelly
is a political commentator and writer, and a former adviser to prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.