It took only a question about some fresh developments with the sports rorts affair for the Prime Minister to note, sourly, that it was back to politics as usual. He was, of course, contrasting this with the semblance of national unity and purpose that he, and premiers and chief ministers, with the tacit support of opposition leaders, had maintained about the coronavirus pandemic over recent months.
But it was ever going to be thus - and this is a good, not a bad thing. Politicians who hold power are ever wont to wonder why the local version of her majesty's loyal opposition must cavil and nitpick about everything, turning everything into politics, just for the purpose of point-scoring or playing the man (or the woman). Isn't government better when everyone is looking for points of agreement rather than points of disagreement and carping criticism?
It's a feeling known to happen to prime ministers. As Paul Keating once noted, they get to the top of the greasy pole by leaking, disloyalty, and backstabbing, making all sorts of indecent or unworthy deals with allies as one organises the numbers for a political assassination. A very short time afterwards, the winner comes to think that he got there by merit and the acclamation of his colleagues, and wonders why new forces are gathering to leak, backstab, set snares and frustrate his capacity to get his own way.
Not that Morrison had not been playing politics over recent months, even as he had to contemplate action that might hitherto have seemed very unlikely or embarrassing - sacrificing a promised federal budget surplus, for example, or going deeply into the black, significantly extending the welfare system and dropping, if only for a short period, the ideological pretence that anyone on welfare benefits is a scrounger and probable fraud, to be driven to the edge of suicide by the setting of pointless tasks and arbitrary and unconscionable penalty games. Much of it was Keynesianism; some of it, by the lights of some of the Coalition ideologues, was rank socialism.
Does anyone share my view, incidentally, that Labor in government now would never have had the guts to blow the figures as thoroughly as did Morrison - if only because the Coalition in opposition would have affected shock and horror on 2008 lines?
No doubt members of the Morrison cabinet, or the national cabinet, were exercising the best judgment they could as they were making decisions about the distribution of borrowed resources. With matters such as school closures in the so-called national cabinet, Morrison learnt fairly quickly that he could neither impose his will, nor a majority decision or some sort of doctrine of collective responsibility on premiers and chief ministers - each, for the purpose of the exercise, sovereigns in their own domain. He had, instead, to make a virtue of seeking broad agreement on principles, but leaving it to individual states and territories to determine how they would apply those principles to their circumstances. His enforced flexibility was not seen as a political defeat, but as a matter of leadership. He was still not without resources in trying to ram his view of the best principles through the system.
In his own cabinet, he and the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, and other senior ministers were making choices, and political choices at that, all of the time. There was no rulebook which set the limits on the amount of debt the Commonwealth was prepared to entertain - but, from the moment they set it, the available resources had to be rationed. Inevitably, this created constituencies of those whose circumstances had been treated sympathetically, and those, such as casuals and those in the arts, culture, and entertainment industries (other than media moguls) who were not. Even within the Coalition, honest minds might differ about who was to be a winner or a loser, and many were subject to all sorts of lobbying and pressure.
On the other side of the political divide were those who would have tackled the crisis in a fundamentally different way, with winners and losers selected by a wholly different method once the size of the bag of loot was settled. Labor and the union movement might have generally endorsed a mostly generous package, giving the Coalition some praise for their consultation, even as they tried to remind a largely indifferent public that the Coalition's approach followed the pattern of Rudd government intervention during the global financial crisis of 2008 - an approach then and even recently attacked by Coalition figures as the height of economic irresponsibility and poor fiscal management. [Does anyone share my view, incidentally, that Labor in government now would never have had the guts to blow the figures as thoroughly as did Morrison - if only because the Coalition in opposition would have affected shock and horror on 2008 lines? It's a bit like the argument that only Richard Nixon, a recognised conservative, could have recognised China without its being a domestic political disaster for him.]
But there was plenty of other politics going on. We are, apparently, in undeclared war against China, in part because its leader does not want to submit to an uninvited Scott Morrison royal commission into his leadership failures. There will be an inquiry, apparently, but it will be under the auspices of the World Health Organisation, and be focused on the science, not the politics. Any number of professional soolers have used the pandemic as yet another reason to attack China, and, perhaps, as evidence of China's malign influence and secret diabolical ambitions to conquer Australia sooner rather than later.
Generally, attitudes to China have not been a function of which party one supports. Sections of big business, particularly in mining, want to promote good business relations. Others feel a necessity to make a choice between China and the United States, believe China is seeking to expand its reach and influence beyond its borders, and deplore the Big Brother total surveillance state and the increasingly belligerent and cranky tones coming from it. Even if the government shares some of the unease, it is far from clear why it chose to play leader of the critics. It has hardly been in our national interest, unless we want to pick a real fight. And if we do, of course, it may be beyond the glib phrases of our ministers to dig ourselves out of the hole.
But the problem is not that anyone, from the Prime Minister down, has a point of view. It is, rather, that policy on matters such as this should be settled after debate - all-in debate, not pre-scripted or controlled by anyone. It's a political matter. It affects Australia's interests, and not only in relation to the sale of minerals and raw materials. The China relationship involves education, tourism, culture and co-operation in an array of international institutions. Policy is also always affected by China's and our relationships with the US, including now, when an unprincipled president is skirmishing with China for electoral purposes. One has to wonder if we are wittingly, or unwittingly, lending ourselves to that cause.
China and Australia may never agree on many things - though I sometimes think there are Australians with as totalitarian an approach to dissent and mass surveillance - but we are not usually spoiling for a fight. Parliament is one - if only one - of the forums in which debate must occur. The more extensive the debate - and, probably, the louder and more raucous - the more likely it is that good policy will emerge.
Dutton fights from the flank
The Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton, was rarely to be found when the discussion was fixing on how a cruise liner entered our borders and spread the coronavirus across the continent - perhaps the most serious breach of quarantine and biosecurity since federation. But that reticence has not prevented him from issuing a non-stop barrage of distraction.
Perhaps the invasion of the Ruby Princess was not, technically, only the fault of Dutton, his departmental secretary, his department and a Border Force once proclaimed to be in charge of keeping our borders safe. Except, of course, when it really matters. [Border Force, defensively, invited people to attack instead the state health authorities, as the people to whom the responsibility had been subcontracted by the federal health department. The Prime Minister's implicit attitude of "look, mistakes were made, not deliberately, but it is better to look forward rather than engage in an orgy of blame" is not, as some seem to think, to protect folk associated with Hillsong. It is because he has been standing alongside federal health department colleagues in daily pandemic briefings, and has at least some sense of loyalty, at least until victory over the virus is declared and questions of accountability, or excuses, can be considered.]
Dutton's silence on border security has been accompanied by a trail of statements in which he furthers his crusade against Australian paedophiles operating abroad, claims the credit for AFP drug "triumphs", and fights the good war - with appropriate dog whistles - against China, including making completely nonsensical seizures of medical goods going there (an infinitesimal fraction of the traffic going the other way, but made to sound as if was like selling wheat to Iraq back in Alexander Downer's day). He has also ramped up the rhetoric on national security crises, designed, as per usual, more to make Labor wriggle uncomfortably and seem "weak" rather than to achieve any urgent national security purpose.
One can expect that Dutton, and Morrison, will play Labor off a break. They always do on national security or border protection matters, in part because Labor fears that it cannot win any such debate in the court of public opinion, and that they must lose if it is even an agenda item. It goes back to a time - almost back to the Petrov days of 1954 - when the Coalition could claim that Labor was intrinsically "weak", "unsound" and, at least to a degree, "compromised" on national security matters, mostly because some trade union leaders made common cause with communist or left-wing leaders - by definition recipients of Moscow gold. Bert Evatt's mismanagement of the Petrov disclosures accentuated the slur, as well as casting serious doubts about his judgment. But it also embittered ASIO and, as the official ASIO history admits, made the organisation an active enemy of Labor - ever keen to leak against it.
That's actually now ancient history, and the modern organisation is differently focused and organised. The overwhelming majority of its staff were either not born at the time of the ending of the Cold War, or so young as to have no memory of it. Prime ministers such as Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard had no particular difficulties in working with the organisation, or in trusting it. Over the past 20 years, however (which embraces the period of Rudd and Gillard), sections of Labor have become uncomfortable with an increasingly illiberal system of coercive powers given to ASIO and others involved in the war against terror, and have allowed people like Dutton and Morrison to conflate the boat people crisis with national security and the war against terror.
Under Shorten, Labor recognised that Coalition gibes about Labor's unwillingness to be tough would hurt it unless and until it completely acquiesced in the Coalition's policy of eternal exile, coercion, and conscious cruelty to people fleeing war and terror and arriving in Australia by boat. Indeed, so as to neutralise the problem altogether, Labor acknowledged that its previous policies had been wrong and had caused needless deaths, because it had not been cruel to be kind.
As it happens, the temperature of the boat people issue has lessened, but that has not been a function of its humiliation so much as a significant decline in nearby refugee supply. But the Coalition can ramp up an issue at will - such as medical evacuations from Nauru, or the need to pre-emptively reopen detention facilities at Christmas Island (the subject of a $100 million stunt by Morrison before the last election). Ministers have even been prepared to verbal ASIO as supporting its position.
Anthony Albanese is just the sort of leftish Labor figure the Coalition has in mind when it alleges Labor doesn't really mean its tough-sounding rhetoric on borders, or its pretence of being gung-ho about only dimly accountable powers over terrorism suspects. For that reason, or in general pursuit of a policy of fighting only on territory regarded as favourable to Labor, Labor is given only to mild criticism of anything put forward, cosmetic proposals for amendments, and appeasement. It has seemed particularly unwilling to make concern about the personality and predilection of Peter Dutton - or even the spectre of his continuing ambitions to knock Morrison out of the ring - a permanent feature of its campaigning approach.
MORE JACK WATERFORD:
We can expect that Labor will be convulsed about the ASIO bill - as Dutton wants and intends. The media has so far emphasised the questioning of 14-year-olds, coercive questioning powers, and a new right to put surveillance equipment in or on the cars or personal possessions of suspected terrorists or spies. As it happens, existing questioning powers are being wound back. They have not been used, in any event, for 10 years. Police have been putting GPS bugs in cars and handbags for ages. And once one agrees about the principle of coercive interrogations, with such (inadequate) safeguards as there are, the idea of dropping an age limit from 16 to 14 (with additional protections) is hardly dramatic. The stage is set for a familiar theatre at which Mark Dreyfus will look worried, express a few concerns, then ultimately throw in the towel. It was ever thus.
But ASIO must be looking with horror to further politicisation of national security. It may want us alert and alarmed, but the whole of the Australian national security establishment is at grave risk if it ends up being conscripted in Donald Trump's campaign for re-election. He has shown no embarrassment in asking for - or demanding - intelligence from his own intelligence agencies supporting his increasingly nutty theories of the world, including ones about the conception, birth and care and maintenance of coronavirus, including pet drugs, bleaches and other regimes. Some agencies - and their agents, it has been suggested, here in Australia - have planted information supporting, without anything significant in the way of evidence - conspiracy theories about China, Wuhan labs, the Democrats, and perhaps the US Congress. The President's daily commentaries - and Twitter statements - often seem detached from reality, not least in insisting that he has been doing a magnificent job in bringing the American pandemic to heel.
The problem is that Trump does not play by the rules, or adhere to promises or conventions. If Australians here - why does one think of Dutton? - pander to him because they (like China) want to see him re-elected, we could seriously shoot ourselves in the foot. If Australian institutions, in the name of some ultimate loyalty to the alliance, lend themselves to sides in US domestic politics, it could be ruinous to our interests, our influence, our economic recovery and our place in the world.
- Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times. firstname.lastname@example.org