Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Parliament fixes its focus on the election

All is fair in love and war, and the same is true in elections. Whatever it takes to win. That is the context for the next two sitting weeks of the federal parliament. There are strong indications this could be the last time the parliament meets before a snap election in September.

On the agenda: screwing Labor on tax and bolstering the Liberals’ default superiority over national security. The giveaway that electioneering is top of mind is the urgency claimed for bills dealing with foreign interference, espionage and sabotage. Absent from the list is the long overdue bill to ban foreign political donations. Labor voluntarily gave up on that cash cow 18 months ago. The Liberals continue to have their hands out to all comers. And that includes Chinese donors – if they are still of a mind to curry favour with the governing party. Why would the Libs want to lose out on this money, estimated to be at least $3 million, when they know they are actively considering a dash to a general election?

A clue to the Liberals’ mindset is the fact they voted against a Labor bill to ban foreign donations back in 2009. Their elder statesman, John Howard, is on the record defending the practice as long as there is disclosure. This view is not shared in the United States or most other modern democracies. And not surprisingly. If curbing foreign interference is your most pressing concern, then excluding these donations should surely be top of the list. They are the most direct form of foreign interference to be had.

Labor’s Mark Dreyfus says this bill has disappeared into a black hole. Special Minister of State Mathias Cormann denies the government is being slow with it. Complex amendments recommended by the joint standing committee on electoral matters are being worked on and the bill will be progressed “as soon as possible after those processes are finalised”. The committee chair, Liberal senator Linda Reynolds, expects it to be done before the next election. But that certainly won’t be in the next two weeks, and no doubt her party fundraisers will be hoping Lord Ashcroft in London will be working overtime to more than match the $250,000 he raised for the party in recent elections before the boom gate comes down.

Reynolds says her bipartisan committee recommended a prohibition on all donations from foreign citizens and foreign entities to Australian registered political parties, associated entities and third parties. Dual citizens living overseas can donate but not with foreign-sourced money. This, she says, should meet Australian constitutional concerns.

Maybe the government is hoping no one will notice the strange omission of foreign donations in the fog of war against foreign interference. Malcolm Turnbull told his party room earlier in the year that they were in a strong position to attack Labor on national security. But efforts to paint the Opposition as weak in this area are undermined by selectivity. This is especially the case in light of government ministers frequently quoting our domestic spy chief, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation’s Duncan Lewis, warning that foreign interference in our domestic politics is now at unprecedented levels. This is a claim we are expected to take at face value, as there has been no evidence put forward to substantiate it.

On Insiders last Sunday Attorney-General Christian Porter waxed lyrical about the threat and why it had to be thwarted before the next big exercise in our democratic processes: the five byelections on super Saturday at the end of July. He said democracy is weakened by foreigners creating a sense of division or dysfunction and you can do this “very easily by placing opinions and trying to effect opinions and just causing general chaos in the context of elections”. The trouble is, in an open democracy such as Australia, limiting free speech and the contestability of ideas is to destroy the very essence of our polity.

Analysis by the advocacy group GetUp! says this is exactly what the government is doing, even in this amended legislation. Its national director, Paul Oosting, says the suggestion that it is about reducing offshore influence in our political system “is a farce”. At its core, he says, this legislation is an attempt to protect the Turnbull government from criticism from its own citizens. Very broad definitions of national security, sabotage and espionage catch in their net demonstrations, sit-ins, whistleblowers and investigative journalists. All are liable to new fines or jail terms.

Oosting says if a person discloses evidence of government illegality to the media, and that information is considered to “prejudice Australia’s economic or political relations”, that person, the reporter and publisher could face 25 years in prison. He is calling for a “drastic redrafting” and cannot understand why the Labor Opposition, despite some resistance, hasn’t taken a stronger line in defence of our historic civil liberties.

But the alarums of GetUp! and other civil libertarians have failed to resonate in the contemporary context of international terrorism and the disruptive rivalries between the world’s two economic superpowers, the United States and China. The arrival of the mercurial Donald Trump and the president “for life”, Xi Jinping, has certainly disturbed the world order. Turnbull’s “dangerous times” – although a completely inadequate explanation for his draconian agenda – is something Labor is not prepared to dispute.

And that is particularly because Bill Shorten is alert to Turnbull’s use of the issue as a political wedge. One Labor wag says the Liberals have brought in more security bills since 2013 than they have had people charged under them. As long as the national conversation is around security, so the government theory goes, Labor is on the back foot. But if 33 Newspolls are any guide, it isn’t working. Shorten is in lock step with his opponents.

On the day the government announced its revamped bills, after bipartisan committee work, Shorten was quick to claim Labor and the Liberals were “in this together”. He praised the work of his shadow attorney-general, Mark Dreyfus, for the “critical and constructive role over the last few years in improving the government’s national security legislation”.

The five byelections will be a litmus test of the voters’ mood. Turnbull is sure to fire the election starter’s gun if the Liberals win the three seats they are contesting. That would defy history, but be all the more tempting for it. Of course, if the Liberals do poorly, it will be his leadership under pressure. Still, Labor has no illusions of holding on to Braddon in Tasmania and Longman in Queensland. Just where that would leave Shorten’s leadership is prompting growing media speculation and hyperventilation.

On cue last Saturday, The Sydney Morning Herald ran a colour piece on Shorten’s 2013 leadership rival Anthony Albanese. It helpfully chronicled the fact Shorten is the “most unpopular Opposition leader since Newspoll began in 1985”. The headline over a picture of “Albo” was “Who, Me?” One Labor apparatchik says the timing was straight out of the Kevin Rudd playbook, from when he undermined Julia Gillard. No one doubts the hardworking Albanese is ready to serve, but the caucus is in no mood to revisit the chaos of the Rudd–Gillard–Rudd years.

The piece prompted leadership questions to Shorten in two major television interviews earlier this week – on The Project, with wife, Chloe, and on Q&A. He came prepared. He said that, according to the opinion polls, he would have won an election any weekend over the past two years. And he said he’s delivered on his three objectives since becoming leader: unite the party, be an effective Opposition and develop a strong policy alternative. Labor’s own polling finds it is in a firm position to pick up 20 seats if an election is held any time soon. Unfortunately for Shorten, one senior source says, Longman and Braddon may not be among them.

On the other side of politics, former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce made another spectacular appearance in the media this week. He tweeted a confrontation with a picture agency photographer who was snapping him, his partner, Vikki Campion, and their baby, Sebastian, as they left church. An angry Joyce ran across the road and, according to the photographer, shaped up to punch him.

Next morning Joyce appeared on national television. He went on Sunrise to call for a new “tort of privacy” to offer people like his partner protection on a public street. The hypocrisy of it was apparently lost on him. He recently lobbied state Nationals to vote against a law to stop protesters harassing vulnerable women as they approached abortion clinics. And yet here he was claiming his privacy was being breached after selling it the week before for $150,000.

For his party colleagues, it was more evidence Joyce had lost the plot and any chance of reviving his leadership credentials. His behaviour convinced them he didn’t have the party or the government’s best interests at heart.

It was the sort of interference on which Malcolm Turnbull hadn’t counted.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 16, 2018 as "Election time funds and games". Subscribe here.

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