Sean Kelly
Red flags and crossing the line

“If we’d gone into battle earlier, seriously and united, we might have got somewhere. We were too slow to recognise the threat. Too late, and probably too polite, in pushing back.”

Given the task of this column is to summarise the week in politics, it would be fair to assume the above quote is about Australia’s slow surrender to the forces of racism. Unless, of course, you think it’s about the parlous state of our climate debate and the growing sense the sceptics, by defeating meaningful action, have won.

In fact, it comes from a 2015 speech by veteran reporter Laurie Oakes about a new set of anti-terrorism laws that had the potential to catch journalists in their clutches. The media had become complacent, said Oakes, because the threat wasn’t obvious, “cloaked by the need to counter terrorism”.

This is a remarkable statement. Even journalists, whose job is holding the government to account, failed to see the existential threat they were facing, or regarded it as too insignificant to act.

What hope is there for the rest of us?

I will come back to journalists, who are right now facing a similar threat once again. But this week offered other urgent reminders that we are all but boiling lobsters.

Decades ago, American novelist Saul Bellow, lamenting the rush of the world, wrote, “There is simply too much to think about.” It was true then – it is more true now. The world is cluttered. Deciding what deserves our attention is a daily task, and a difficult one.

Understandably, we look for short cuts – red lines or red flags. Clear signs that something has gone awry. They horrify us, but they can also bring, at times, a kind of shamed relief. This time it’s clear, we say to ourselves. This outrage I will pay attention to.

One such red flag went up on Tuesday when Fraser Anning, a senator from Katter’s Australian Party, delivered his maiden speech to the Senate. It was horrifying. Anning called for a return to the White Australia policy. Muslims, he singled out, should be banned from coming here. The Australian people should be allowed a vote on all this. That popular vote would, Anning told the Senate, be a “final solution”.

Later, Anning said the phrase had been taken out of context. Judge him by the context, then. The context was a senator making clear to people of a particular religion that their presence in Australia was not wanted. A popular vote was the solution, he said, echoing other words of the past, to “the immigration problem”. That is the context in which, in the chamber of our national democracy, a representative invoked the Holocaust.

The words Anning used are meaningful and they are awful. But consider the limits of our moral imagination. It is clear to anyone paying attention that our politics has been creeping – even charging – towards this moment. A ban on Muslim immigration is precisely what Pauline Hanson called for in her maiden speech, two years ago. Government MPs congratulated her, hugged her, called her party “sophisticated”.

On Wednesday, parliament turned on Anning. Memorable speeches were delivered. A near-facsimile of Bob Hawke’s 1988 motion supporting a non-discriminatory immigration policy was passed. The parliament’s response was spot-on, and we should recognise good moments when they come.

But let’s not celebrate too hard. When Hawke’s motion passed, it was in response to John Howard’s complaints about Asian immigration. Three decades later, our parliament needs an actual reference to genocide before it responds with any force. It was “important always to call out racism”, Malcolm Turnbull told us. Those are words to live by, but they are certainly not words our prime minister lives by.

This points to another problem. We are only able to see the danger posed by such views because we have lived through such horrors before. Even then we will not acknowledge the dangerous parallels with historical prejudice until the speaker helpfully labels them for us. So, what about a disaster we have not yet lived through?

Turnbull achieved a political victory this week, steering his national energy guarantee through his party room and isolating Tony Abbott. The policy may still fall – and bring the prime minister down with it – if the small number of Coalition MPs threatening to cross the floor does so and Labor votes the same way.

But even if Turnbull succeeds in passing his legislation in its current form, what will he have achieved? A policy that will do almost nothing to cut emissions and will actually prevent us fulfilling our Paris commitments.

There should be plenty of spurs to our imagination. Scientists recently warned of a domino effect, in which the impacts of climate change start feeding each other, a process we would not be able to stop. What red line are we waiting for? A severe drought? We are in the midst of one. This week New South Wales declared its earliest total fire bans. “Too little, too late” could become our national motto.

In Oakes’s 2015 speech, he referred to new laws allowing law enforcement agencies access to metadata – who you’ve called, websites you’ve visited. Turnbull, when he was communications minister, had said journalists could always get around such laws by using encrypted messaging apps, such as WhatsApp, Wickr and Signal.

At the time, Turnbull was right. But as of this week, his government is coming after those apps, too. The legislation is not as drastic as some first feared, but the fact remains that it will enable agencies to access messages sent over encrypted services.

The responsible minister, Angus Taylor, has tried to reassure the public by saying the laws will only be used to target serious crimes, such as terrorism and paedophilia, those that attract prison sentences of more than three years. It’s a line that sounds good – until you’re told that the government has also passed laws that could see journalists imprisoned for more than three years.

Somehow, slowly, we have stumbled into a situation where journalists could have their phones hacked by our own intelligence agencies in order to discover confidential sources. So much for whistleblowers. So much for journalism. The journalists’ union told me it is concerned. But whether the media fights back properly, or is once again too slow to respond with anything other than meek politeness, is yet to be seen.

Dylan Welch, a crime and national security reporter in the ABC Investigations unit, says he uses encryption on a daily basis, often dozens of times a day, because it is “fundamental to my ability to promise a source confidentiality”.

Welch grasps the government’s side of the case: “Any crook worth his salt now uses encrypted comms to communicate, as do most terrorist organisations.” But he insists the risk of abuse, in which journalists and whistleblowers are pursued, is real. “There is a history around the world of governments using national security legislation to punish whistleblowers, and while that may not be the intent of this legislation, my view would be it could be the outcome,” he says.

The minister says there are adequate judicial protections in place, and that the laws are not targeted at journalists. But anyone doubting the government’s willingness to go after whistleblowers needn’t go any further than the recent case of Bernard Collaery and the Timor-Leste bugging scandal. Collaery is not even a whistleblower; he is the lawyer for a whistleblower. This week, NSW Labor spoke out against his prosecution. Federal Labor has yet to follow. Neither the federal government nor the Opposition have given us reason to trust them on such matters.

At the end of his speech in 2015, Laurie Oakes said it wasn’t solely the job of governments to protect press freedom. The press had to prove the freedom was deserved, by earning respect. “That obviously involves lifting our game,” he said.

Let me suggest one such way the press might lift its game – stopping its unthinking amplification of awful views for no other reason than to create outrage, something that so often happens without serious journalistic interrogation. News can be entertaining, but entertainment is not its sole purpose. Perhaps Pauline Hanson should not have been given a guernsey on Dancing with the Stars all those years ago – but she certainly should not have been given a regular platform to bleat her views on Sunrise. Unbelievably, Q&A this week – though before Anning’s speech – announced plans to host both Hanson and Bob Katter, who has since described Anning’s “final solution” speech as “solid gold”. In a subsequent tweet, the program insisted these MPs had the “right to be heard”, as though their voices had recently been silenced. The ABC’s adoption of the far right’s own rhetorical trickery is shameful.

The press, like parliament, was almost unanimous in its condemnation of Anning. Good. But if that does nothing other than provide permission for many outlets to keep on doing what they have been doing for a long time, then the outrage will have proved hollow. The line that everybody keeps on talking about drawing should have been drawn well before this week.

The same is true of our treatment of refugees in offshore detention. BuzzFeed News this week reported that at least six children who have been sent to Nauru are suffering from a rare psychological malaise that renders them mute, then unconscious, “like going into hibernation”. It is called “resignation syndrome”.

This is, sadly, both a direct result of our national failure to respond to unacceptable situations until it is too late, and an accurate description of it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 18, 2018 as "Anning the flames". Subscribe here.

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