Illustration: Rocco Fazzari.
Tony Abbott told us in March that “the point of being prime minister is that you've got to be a national leader, not just a tribal chief.” It hadn’t happened on election day. But has he made the transformation this week?
Several commentators have told us so. And every patriotic Australian, regardless of how we happen to vote, must want the nation’s leader to transcend politics and govern for the success of the country as a whole. Is that what happened this week?
Abbott has worked exceptionally hard in responding to the attack on MH17, as he should. The government effort so far has been exemplary. As part of it, Abbott declared a national day of mourning for the victims this week.
It wasn’t all about him; he gave a fine eulogy at the all-faith service in Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral but it was a national, civic and bipartisan event, not a political one.
And he abandoned an ideological indulgence, his promised change to the Racial Discrimination Act. The reason? “I don’t want to do anything that puts our national unity at risk at this time,” he said at his Tuesday press conference. This involved some political cost.
He instead announced a suite of policies to counter terrorism, a fight that demands national cohesion: “The highest priority of government is the safety of our community and I want to ensure the Australian people that we will leave no stone unturned to ensure that our community is as safe as it can be.”
He promised to provide confidential intelligence briefings to the opposition, keeping it bipartisan. This does indeed look like a picture of a national leader, not a tribal chief. Unfortunately, it’s not the full picture.
Three telltale signs suggest that we still have a tribal chief running the country. While Abbott’s conduct over MH17 is impeccable, the counterterrorism exercise this week displayed underlying tribalism that jeopardises the project.
First was the internal animosity, the personal distrust at the heart of the government. The National Security Committee of the cabinet agreed to the counterterrorism measures on Monday. They were to be presented to a meeting of the full cabinet on Tuesday.
But cabinet ministers were surprised to wake up on Tuesday morning and find that the prime minister’s office had leaked to The Daily Telegraph one of the most controversial elements - the decision to force telecommunications companies to keep records of customers’ phone and internet activities for two years so they could be used to seek out terrorist threats.
This is the so-called metadata, the records of the “who, where, when and how” of communications without including the “what”. It’s what Abbott has called “the front of the envelope” information, as distinct from the content of the letter.
A number of ministers were concerned that the leak was premature. The NSC decision was only an “in-principle” one. There was no detail. This would soon become glaringly obvious to the entire country as the Prime Minister and his Attorney-General, George Brandis, took to the airwaves to explain their plans only to contradict each other.
But no minister was more surprised, or more dismayed, than Malcolm Turnbull. The Communications Minister is not a member of the NSC; no communications minister ever has been. But the NSC routinely brings into its deliberations ministers whose portfolios might be affected by matters on the agenda. Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, for instance, is a frequent participant.
Turnbull spoke out in the cabinet meeting to point out the lack of detail for the telecommunications industry and the public, the uncertainty that would be created, and the room for confusion. He was the only cabinet minister to register any unhappiness. But, as one of his cabinet colleagues remarked, “It’s not just one person, it’s Malcolm.”
“Malcolm’s agenda,” said another cabinet minister, “is to get himself onto the NSC. That’s what it was really about.” Turnbull would, no doubt, welcome the invitation. He is not a man who holds his own opinions in low esteem.
He might even have something useful to offer. It’s an era where “cyber warfare is the current battlefield, not in some future time but right now, today” in the words of US Marine Corps General Richard Simcock when he spoke to reporters in Canberra in June.
But to Turnbull it appeared to be a calculated effort by the Prime Minister’s office to humiliate him. A decision in his portfolio had been made, and announced by leak, without any hint to the minister. That made it a fait accompli.
It was not the first time that Turnbull felt himself to be the victim of paranoid pathology in the Prime Minister’s office. The government announced last month that it had made appointments to the ABC and SBS nominations committee, the four-member body that recommends directors for the public broadcasters.
The announcement was news to Turnbull, the minister who oversees both organisations. There were two tribal appointments to the panel, the conservative commentator Janet Albrechtsen and former Liberal deputy leader Neil Brown. The process was too tribal to include Turnbull.
Technically, Turnbull did not need to be consulted on either matter. But the decision to exclude the most popular member of the government, and one of its most articulate performers, was petty politics. It was also counterproductive.
The idea of requiring the telecoms firms to keep the data is not revolutionary. The police and intelligence agencies have been routinely searching mobile phone and computer metadata since the technologies first came into use. This is status quo.
The independent senator for South Australia, Nick Xenophon, raised privacy concerns about this in May last year. “Is it the case under the Australian legislation,” Xenophon asked the Federal Police commissioner Tony Negus in a Senate committee hearing, “that, in order to obtain the phone records and the phone data and also presumably the Facebook and Google data of a person, you do not actually need to get a warrant?”
Negus replied: “Non-content data - that is correct. We do not need a warrant.” The police and intelligence agencies need internal authorisation from senior managers to get access to the data, and they check about 300,000 records a year, but no warrant.
So what’s new? Some phone companies no longer keep all the records the agencies need. They’re starting to switch their billing systems to charge customers for blocks of time instead of numbers of calls. The government simply wants them to continue with the old practice. “We’re shoring up the status quo,” as one senior official put it. The telecoms firms are unhappy because it will cost them money, not because it involves any new privacy breach.
If this had been clearly grasped and properly explained from the outset, the government would not have descended into the debacle of the week. Its counterterrorism announcement created confusion and fear and controversy where none need have existed.
The leaked decision precluded any work on the detail; the exclusion of Turnbull shut out the government’s most expert communications spokesman. It was boneheaded management based on the pettiest of tribal division.
The second telltale sign was Abbott’s decision to name the Muslim community in his appeal for national unity. “When it comes to counterterrorism everyone needs to be part of ‘Team Australia’” said Abbott. Yet he singled out the Muslim community. We are “determined to engage in ever closer consultation with communities including the Australian Muslim community.”
Muslim Australians were, understandably, angry. It was tantamount to naming them as a terrorist threat. Some are. But that’s why the wider Muslim community is a vital resource for managing them. If Abbott wants their co-operation, why gratuitously antagonise them? This, again, is not the act of a national leader.
And his magnanimous act in abandoning his planned revision to the Racial Discrimination Act? It was a dead letter in any case. It was adamantly opposed by every ethnic group in the land. It divided the Liberal party room and the Abbott cabinet. It was opposed by an astonishing 88 per cent of the public. It had no chance of getting through the Senate.
Well-connected ethnic communities had been authoritatively assured for over two months now that the change to 18C would be dumped. It was just a matter of finding the opportunity that involved the least loss of face, they were told.
The third telltale sign was the priority the government put on winning bipartisan support for the counterterrorism measures. While it said it was happy to extend classified briefings to the opposition, Labor soon got the impression that it was a low priority.
Abbott made the announcement on Tuesday. The government arranged for intelligence chiefs to give the media a background briefing on Tuesday afternoon. They gave the media a second briefing on Wednesday. On Friday the government sent senior officials of ASIO and the federal police into a press conference to try to clarify the confusions about retaining metadata. Only on Friday afternoon was Labor afforded a briefing. A government serious about winning bipartisan support, and serious about getting its measures through Parliament, would have brought Labor into the room at the very outset. Certainly before leaking it to a newspaper.
But Labor can at least take some consolation that its exclusion was bipartisan. These three telltales show us that Abbott has not yet got, in his own definition, “the point of being prime minister.”
Peter Hartcher is the political editor.