It's hard to get a fix on the overall state of Australian political debate. Contributions vary from excellent to terrible, and the overall quality waxes and wanes. Two recent case studies on major policy issues show more waning than waxing – one from Immigration Department secretary Mike Pezzullo and another from Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne.
Let's take the former first.
In a speech last month to the Trans-Tasman Business Circle (an organisation claiming to help its "clients to build their strategic relationships, business insights and profile"), Pezzullo tries to put the case for the proposed department of home affairs. While some may raise an eyebrow at an official spruiking government policy, the more important beef with the speech is its vacuity and its failure to take into account usually accepted axioms relevant to the structure of the machinery of government. Indeed, in not making out a case in these terms, Pezzullo confirms the strong suspicion that there isn't one.
His speech is chock-a-block full of alarming claims about "a dark universe" of "terror, crime ... and evil" where you can "jump on" a "web market for murder" and "contract a fly-in assassin", presumably if you don't care about getting nicked via the surveillance state ever ready to trace web use. The "home is no longer sealed off from the outside", says Pezzullo, and "accordingly, we need to rethink the structure of government" to "focus effort ... ensure unity of purpose and clarity of direction". Thus, we must have "a single accountable minister ... at the apex of the entire security apparatus, supported by a department of state", whose dominant functions, strangely enough, are immigration and customs, and which will not include "the entire security apparatus".
To compensate for these vaulting leaps of illogic, Pezzullo drags unlikely players to his side: rock band AC/DC, university professor and writer J. R. R. Tolkien, and political philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke – uncomfortable companions, to be sure. It's fortunate they will likely remain unaware of the causes to which they've been haplessly conscripted.
Pezzullo's reporting is at its ripest when he commends a woman who wore flat shoes to this year's AFL grand final, lest, she said, "I needed to run, in case there was a terror attack". Pezzullo says: "I applaud her judgment. I applaud her risk savviness ... and congratulate her on that great attitude." Lesson: devotess of high-heeled shoes should not wear them to football matches until Pezzullo's "dark universe" lightens up a bit.
People can swallow this guff if they wish – it's still more or less a free country – but if they do a generous supply of Mylanta should be kept at hand, and perhaps a tequila or two.
What are a few pertinent facts Pezzullo did not include in what he calls "the context"?
First, notwithstanding terrible 21st century wars in places like Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen, deaths as a consequence of these conflicts have been far fewer than those in the second half of the 20th century in places like Congo, Vietnam, Korea, Sudan, Nigeria, Soviet Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Algeria. While all ages have their quota of barbarians, in a global sense it may be that Pezzullo's forces of "evil" have been less ferocious in the recent past.
Second, in the last 15 years, murder rates in China, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Britain, Italy, Spain, Germany, the United States and Australia have fallen. There was a small increase in Pakistan.
Third, in Australia, about 40 per cent of murders are "domestic", of which 60 per cent are inflicted by "intimate partners".
Fourth, since the advent of modern terrorism in Australia with the Hilton Hotel bombings in 1972, 16 people have been killed in terrorist incidents. That includes five perpetrators and a few deaths, like the Queanbeyan murder this year, that are dubious as acts of political terrorism.
Fifth, Pezzullo's claim that the "home is no longer sealed off from the outside" implies that it once was. That's nonsense. Houses may now be safer from assault from outside than they ever were. But political terrorists are not so much interested in killing people in their homes; they prefer public places where more carnage can be caused and where there can be more public reaction and recognition by, for example, driving trucks into pedestrians. The main danger for people in their houses possibly comes from their inhabitants; for example, in the last 50 years, thousands of women in Australia were murdered in their homes by their partners.
Sixth, from 1975 to 2015 in the US, 3024 Americans were killed by foreign-born terrorists – 2983 in the September 2001 attacks. Since 2001, there have been about six a year, although eight (at the time of writing) recently in New York. Be this as it may, Business Insider calculates that the lifetime odds of an American being killed by murder is one in 250, and as a result of all forms of terrorism one in 46,000.
Seventh, in living memory, no one has been killed or injured as a result of political violence at football matches in Australia.
Citizens should expect federal and state governments, and their police and security organisations, to do their best to protect them from acts of political terrorism. In doing so, the risks should be assessed carefully and policies, resources and practices attuned accordingly, and the causes of political violence should be dispassionately assessed and treated, including by adjusting foreign policy.
Government authorities should try to reassure citizens whose anxieties have been inflamed by graphic media displays of terrorist atrocities by realistically explaining the risks to which we are exposed and the things they are doing to protect us. Pezzullo's speech doesn't do that. He's happier with forebodings about the "dark universe", the "web market for murder", "contract fly-in assassins" and the "risk savviness" of wearing flat-soled shoes to football matches. He prefers lurid, alarmist and unhelpful language that doesn't realistically explain the dangers of political terrorism or the greater perils of, for example, women being murdered in their homes. If Pezzullo's hyperbole reflects the thinking behind the proposed department of home affairs, then the project should be brought to a halt, right now.
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But let's leave Pezzullo and turn to Pyne.
In September, Insight Economics, a public-policy consulting firm, released a report on the Commonwealth's decision to select French company DCNS as Australia's partner in designing and building 12 new submarines. The report was presented at the National Press Club by Dr Michael Keating, an Insight director and former Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary, and the Australian National University's Professor Hugh White, a former Defence Department deputy secretary and probably the country's best defence and intelligence policy analyst.
The report, a serious document prepared by people with standing and authority, is critical of the government's decision. It says:
- The costs of the new submarine are "excessive" (at about $3 billion a boat versus $1 billion or less for most diesel-electric submarines) and these costs are likely to blow out.
- The risks associated with the project are "extremely high". For example, delays in delivery (on experience almost a certainty) could result in a gap in naval capability, because the Collins boats are due to be progressively withdrawn from 2026 to 2033. The first new submarine is planned to be available by 2033, by which time the Collins boats will be nudging 40 years of age. Noting these exigencies, Insight suggests filling any capability gap caused by the late delivery of the French submarines by buying six smaller off-the-shelf submarines plus a servicing tender boat for an estimated $10 billion, rather than spending $15 billion on a "life-of-type extension" of the Collins.
- The process of deciding on the means of obtaining the new submarines was inadequate in that "there was no competitive process whereby two or three contenders would vie ... to produce a project-definition study and ... then offer a fixed-price contract". There was no off-the-shelf option used as a benchmark and "there was very little cabinet consideration" of the proposal.
Pyne responded to the report via an article in The Australian newspaper punctuated with gratuitous slurs – "so-called analysis", "armchair critics" and the "so-called report" – that discredit the minister and not his critics.
Worse, Pyne failed to engage in a meaningful way with the concerns Insight Economics raises. He sees errors in its report that don't exist and makes some himself. For example:
- Pyne says the report's authors made no request to him, his office or his department to discuss their concerns: that's untrue. In November 2016, the authors sent Pyne a short paper explaining their misgivings and offered to travel to Adelaide to discuss them with him. They were brushed off. Further, in March 2017, some of those responsible for the paper had a two-hour meeting with high-level defence officials.
- Pyne says upgrades to the Collins-class submarine mentioned in the 2016 defence white paper were called "life-of-type extensions": That's untrue. While the white paper referred to "appropriate investments" in "enhancements, obsolescence management and sustainment" in the Collins fleet, it made no mention of "life-of-type extensions", which are another matter altogether with a possible price tag of $15 billion. See paragraph 4.31 of the white paper.
- Finally, Pyne says that by the 2030s, "we will have our new future submarine fleet delivered". This also is untrue. Even on the government's current optimistic schedule, the delivery of the 12 new submarines will extend from 2033-34 to 2050.
Insight Economics asked The Australian if it be could be given space to respond to Pyne's article. The request was rejected. Instead, the newspaper let loose its correspondent Greg Sheridan to tip a further bucket on the Insight report. Happily, the Sheridan spray is more or less incoherent. As there's no space here to go through it in detail, let a small example suffice. Sheridan says: "If [the submarines] don't get built here, they won't get built. This is the political reality. It is impossible to sustain upwards of $100 billion of naval expenditure across numerous political cycles if most of the money is going overseas."
Goodness only knows where Sheridan gets the "upwards of $100 billion" figure. Pyne talks about "up to $50 billion". But if Sheridan's "logic" is applied to the F-35 planes, which may cost upwards of $25 billion, then we won't see them and we should never have seen the F-111s, both of these aircraft being built overseas.
To give The Australian its due, it did publish alongside the Pyne article one from former Labor minister Grahame Richardson. After referring to Pyne as the "minister for pork barrelling", he said: "If these well-qualified gentlemen [Keating and White] tell us it would cost less than $10 billion to buy off-the-shelf submarines with a 30-year life expectancy, or $15 billion to extend the life of the Collins-class subs, surely we can't be so stupid as to refuse to examine their claims." Pyne gives no indication he will do so.
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So what of Pezzullo and Pyne's efforts? To be blunt, they're piss poor. And in a sense they're worse because there are reasons to believe they can do better. They're by many levels superior to the likes of Pauline Hanson and Tony Abbott. Yet they've placed themselves disconcertingly close to Hanson and Abbott's ugly debating society. For reasons of self-regard and the public interest, they should try harder to avoid those pits when they're dealing with the as-yet-unjustified decision to create a department of home affairs and provide 12 new submarines. These are major matters that should be explained to the community rationally, openly and with respect.
Instead, Pyne has responded to a serious-minded, privately sponsored report with abuse and denigration. Such habits drown public debate, foster disillusion and disengagement, and debase the country's democratic life. It's an unholy and all-too-common stew that's further curdled when a public servant provides an unbalanced and inadequate explanation of a major machinery of government change, thereby creating the impression that government decisions on the department of home affairs were based on deeply flawed advice.
Paddy Gourley is a former public servant, whose career included senior roles in the Defence Department. email@example.com