The Politics    Thursday, December 7, 2023

The farce estate

By Rachel Withers

Image of Mark Dreyfus

Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus speaks during a press conference at Parliament House yesterday, December 6, 2023. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

The Mark Dreyfus episode sums up everything that is wrong with our politics and our media

Yesterday morning, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus spoke tersely to a Sky News reporter who had just asked an “absurd” question. The young woman had asked whether government ministers, who were there to take questions about new preventive detention laws, “owe an apology” to those “subjected to misdeeds” by former detainees released under a High Court ruling – a ludicrous suggestion, straight from the Coalition talking points. Dreyfus, who has explained this situation at least a dozen times now, seemed pretty fed up. “I want to suggest to you that that question is an absurd question,” he replied. “You are asking a cabinet minister, three ministers of the Crown, to apologise for upholding the law.” Dreyfus pointed out – again – that their release was not the government’s choice. “Do not interrupt,” he snapped, pointing his finger, when the reporter tried to do so. Dreyfus’s tone was not great. He should not have lost his cool – if we can even call it that (He has since apologised to the reporter.) But the idea that the government must keep explaining this, that the opposition doesn’t have to deal in facts, that Dreyfus was being asked to apologise for offences committed by people with the legal right to be free (minutes before he was due to pay tribute to his late colleague in the House, a month after losing his own wife to cancer) really is “absurd” – as is the line now being pushed by the Coalition that this makes Dreyfus some kind of sexist bully

Without context, it may seem somewhat hypocritical to be defending Dreyfus for this tone. One journalist commented amid the pile-on: “If a senior Coalition MP spoke to a younger reporter like this, there would be a riot.” Never mind that a senior Coalition MP would never have spent weeks facing questions as disingenuous as this one, from a mainstream media hellbent on making a scandal of the detainee release; never mind that such MPs speak tersely to journalists all the time. In any case, there was, at that very moment, a riot brewing in the offices of News Corp, which has spent today hammering the attorney-general for losing his cool. But context matters. Facts matter. There are questions to be asked about how prepared Labor was for this inevitable circus, and why the government was caught on the backfoot. But the fact is, it is simply not possible for the government to overrule the High Court. Despite the opposition’s continued squawking, the new preventative detention regime still won’t put most of this cohort back behind bars. The Coalition is asking for something impossible, illegal and immoral. And asking the government to apologise for not doing so is absurd.

It may seem strange to spend all these column inches on what should have been a non-incident. This is merely a News Corp beat-up of a tired and grieving man who shouldn’t have pointed his finger, but did. But in many ways, this incident distils everything that has been going on, and everything that is wrong with our politics and our media. For weeks, the government has been hammered about a situation that it had little to no control over, by opponents who know this, and who hadn’t found a solution when they were in government either. For days, the media has been going feral at Labor over offences that have been committed by the former detainees, conveniently ignoring the fact that offenders released from our criminal justice system reoffend all the time, and to treat these people differently (they cannot be deported) is immoral. Today, Dreyfus is receiving the full wrath of the media over an incident that has been stripped of its context – many mainstream outlets have been treating his moment of frustration as worse than the misinformation the Coalition has been spreading.

I don’t know if that young reporter understands that Dreyfus can’t just legislate the former detainees back behind bars, or that it is ridiculous to repeatedly ask him to apologise for other people’s crimes. But Peter Dutton does. Sussan Ley does. Dan Tehan does. And it’s all of this nonsense that has stopped us from having a serious conversation about this matter, about whether we actually want to be the sort of country that locks people up indefinitely. It is the same reason we can’t have serious conversations about the Stage Three tax cuts, which are being kept in place not because they are a good idea (they’re not), but because the Coalition and breakfast TV hosts will blow a fuse if they are repealed. It is why we can’t do anything about inequality, because a broken promise is apparently worse than a broken policy.

It is ironic that this Dreyfus exchange was going on while MPs from across the political spectrum were paying tribute to Peta Murphy in the House, praising her desire to do politics differently, and for politicians to be better “custodians” of Australia’s national conversation. As I wrote yesterday, it’s not clear what the point of saying this was, if the opposition was just going to turn around and do politics exactly as it has long been done – or worse. Mark Dreyfus has since apologised to that reporter for losing his cool. It’s unclear when the Coalition are going to apologise for losing theirs.

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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