The Politics    Friday, November 17, 2023

Fear and voting

By Jonathan Green

Peter Dutton and Clare O’Neil are seen passing each other in the House of Reps. O’Neil is facing the camera, while Dutton’s back is turned.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton and Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil during a division during Question Time yesterday, November 16, 2023. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

The major parties’ unity ticket on moral panic this week is a chilling prelude to the populist obscenities to come during the next federal election campaign

It’s fair to assume that the German language has a word for the precise emotional state that lies somewhere between shame and abject resignation. We need one in Australian English to convey the feeling that rises to lodge in the craw at the end of a political week such as this one. A week that played as a rolling caricature of so much that is ailing in our politics and in broader public life. Its climax came late last night as the major parties combined on the floor of the Senate to wave through franticly prepared legislation placing harsh and possibly punitive restrictions on at least 80 people released from immigration detention after last week’s High Court decision in the NZYQ case. The Migration Amendment (bridging visa conditions) Bill 2023 spent 31 minutes in the Senate between introduction and affirmation, having already breezed through a suddenly bipartisan lower house – a house suddenly bending over backwards to accommodate Coalition amendments. As Michelle Grattan observed, we have not seen such legislative haste since Scott Morrison’s energised response to the “needles in strawberries” crisis of September 2018. This time, though, the consequences amount to more than mouldering mountains of rotting fruit, though that image of noisome decay is metaphorically apt.

What emerged last night is a piece of law fitted for no higher purpose than quelling cynically opportunist, race-whispering moral panic. Law that cocks a snoot at the separation of powers, and at the idea of natural and evenly applied justice. Law that is the end point of substituting principle and political courage for the constant timid supplications of a political class desperate to seek approval above all else. Pity is that the week just passed will likely be a prelude to many weeks to come, as we tumble through the remainder of this term towards the bonfire of populist obscenities that will form the campaign for the next federal election.

We’ll get to the political actors, but let’s pause to consider the role of media in all of this, media that probably had a duty to rise above its habitual stenography of the loudest voice and point out various truths, including that the release of detainees was the specific doing of the High Court and could not be undone on political whim or by legislative act. That the court was acting in response to a situation created by the overreach of then home affairs minister Peter Dutton. That people who commit crimes, some of them grievous, are released from custody into the community in a pretty constant flow, without the necessity of legislative responses to soothe community anxiety.

Instead we were left with Dutton’s amplified repetition of what Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil described as a “consistent falsehood”: the idea that the government had the option of re-detaining people freed by the court. This was a legal reality elided for political gain by the opposition (never mind the Coalition’s historic culpability) but also in much of the week’s reporting, which posed the freeing of detainees as a simple political issue and happily transcribed the opposition’s accusatory talking points.

As The Shot’s Ronni Salt argued: “The opposition knows that no matter what they say, however ludicrous and outrageous, it will be blasted in the headlines and discussed and regurgitated … It’s hard for most of our political journalists to understand that in 2023, the deliberate feeding out of lies to have them reported on is the entire point of the exercise.”

None of which would matter so much if the nation’s moral core wasn’t located somewhere above the fold on the front page of The Daily Telegraph, but the recent course of events offered further proof of that, sadly, it is.

More than 80 people who were illegally detained have been released into the community. Some had committed crimes, some of them terrible, but all had served the sentences associated with those wrongdoings. If they were Australian citizens, not refugees and illegal immigrants trapped in the howling nowhere of either ungranted asylum or statelessness, they would simply be released.

As Greg Barns SC wrote on behalf of the Australian Lawyers Alliance, a structure exists for monitoring the behaviour of offenders post-custody: it’s called parole. “It is discriminatory to introduce laws for this cohort that make it a criminal offence to breach visa conditions,” said Barns.

Instead our government, acting in fear of our response and purportedly for our safety, and desperate to still the insatiable demands of the opposition, will electronically detain and curfew the people released. Peter Dutton, unsatiated, continues to raise the stakes: he would have locked them all up in “preventative detention”. The High Court has just undone his last attempt at that, will no one ask him how?

In some other fantasy kingdom, a government might have drawn a line in the sand, stared down the scaremongers, spoke a little truth to the liars and trusted in existing structures to protect community safety. It might also have pointed out, with far greater force, that this difficult situation was the making, entirely, of its chief accuser, and that further we will shortly pay the price for those overreaching acts of ministerial fiat in a slew of compensation cases.

But in this reality kingdom, the politics of immigration and asylum are charged with appeals to that dark truth at the core of so much Australian politics: we are an anxious postcolonial people whose racialised fear of the other is a pressure point all too easy to finger for political gain.

The referendum vote in October was all the proof you need of that, and if you wanted an example of how deeply that 60 per cent majority lesson has been taken to heart by both the major parties in our political “contest”, and how much it will inform the play of affairs before and during the next election, you only needed to read what the Senate enacted at 10.40 last night.

Jonathan Green

Jonathan Green is a writer and ABC broadcaster.

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