Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Today by Rachel Withers

A tale of two leaders
War games and statements from the heart

Images of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese. Images via ABC News

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese. Images via ABC News

Both major party leaders were in the Northern Territory today, though for very different political purposes. Prime Minister Scott Morrison was in Darwin to announce a $747 million defence package with upgrades to military training bases, to expand Australia’s “war gaming” with the United States. Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese was at Uluru to mark the fourth anniversary of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, as part of Labor’s renewed push for a constitutionally enshrined voice to parliament. The contrasting itineraries spoke to the prime minister and the alternative prime minister’s contrasting priorities, and perhaps it’s no surprise, given Morrison’s “strong man” politicking of late, that there are more respondents in today’s Newspoll survey on “character traits” who think Morrison is a “strong” leader than there are who think Albanese is. But why, one has to ask, does it show voters find Morrison more “caring” than his Labor counterpart, not to mention more likeable, decisive and trustworthy? And what on earth is Labor going to do about it?

The prime minister today visited the Robertson Barracks army base outside of Darwin, “announcing” $747 million in upgrades to it and three other training bases – including new facilities for ADF personnel and US marines, aimed at strengthening ties. “Defence Forces are always ready,” he boasted. “They have access to the best training facilities of anywhere in the world.” Morrison’s march north follows on from a highly militaristic week for the government – from Defence Minister Peter Dutton telling the ABC’s Insiders that the prospect of a battle with China over Taiwan was growing, to Home Affairs Department secretary (and Defence secretary hopeful) Michael Pezzullo’s “drums of war” warning – but Morrison was also careful to emphasise “peace”. “All of our objectives through the activities of our Defence Forces is designed to pursue peace,” he added.

As Labor was quick to note, the funding “boost” – fed in advance to The Australian, and praised at length by foreign editor Greg Sheridan – was simply a rehashed announcement for upgrades that were confirmed two years ago, part of an $8 billion fund dedicated to NT defence infrastructure over the next decade. Shadow defence minister Brendan O’Connor questioned why the PM was “using an NT defence base visit for a photo opp two years after the relevant project was announced”, while Albanese kindly asked that he “stop re-announcing the same things over and over again”. Words of peace and rehashed announcements aside, there’s no doubt Morrison achieved his “strong man” aim today, with multiple News Corp front pages dedicated to the announcement. “Let the war games begin”, The Australian’s read, while the NT News spruiked his “DEFENCE BLITZ”.

Meanwhile, at Uluru, Albanese and Indigenous Affairs spokeswoman Linda Burney continued their comparatively gentle push for a constitutionally enshrined voice to parliament, as requested in the 2017 Uluru statement, while speaking to a range of other issues in Burney’s portfolio. Albanese has spent the week calling – in rather Albanese fashion – for a “fair go” for First Nations people, arguing that constitutional recognition is a “modest and gracious” request that must be met, while noting that work on a referendum would need to start now if it were to be held alongside the next federal election. Albanese and Burney were asked about Labor’s stance on a new class action seeking compensation from the Commonwealth for Stolen Generation survivors from the Territory, with Burney telling reporters that Labor was still committed to such compensation. Labor’s Indigenous-focused expedition has ended on a sombre note, with revelations that two more Indigenous Australians have died in custody, one in New South Wales and one in Victoria. The deaths bring the total number of Aboriginal deaths in custody in the past two months to seven – something Burney called a “national emergency”. Bereaved families have accused Morrison of ignoring the crisis of deaths in custody, with Apryl Day, daughter of Tanya Day, saying it was “disheartening and upsetting” that the PM has had nothing to say to those seeking a meeting with him.

Voters will make what they will of the two leaders’ trips, and draw their own conclusions about the relative importance of “war gaming” and the plight of First Nations people. But it’s genuinely perplexing that Morrison is still seen as the more “caring” of the two – the first Liberal leader to be seen as more caring than their Labor opponent since Abbott vs Rudd in 2013 – even as Labor focuses its attention on social justice, even following months of Morrison’s missteps over the sexism and rape crises engulfing his government. The character of “ScoMo” is apparently significantly more likeable than that of “Albo”, even though Albanese was supposed to make up for his predecessor’s shortcomings in this domain. But it’s the care factor that ought to have Labor strategists truly concerned. “On your side” – the Labor leader’s new favourite catchphrase – isn’t cutting through.

“In 2001, John Howard declared: ‘We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.’ Some of us who supported that statement never imagined where it might take us. Maybe we should have. Because many Australians have taken this affirmation of sovereignty too far.”

The government’s India flight ban prompts some soul-searching from columnist Janet Albrechtsen, who sees a link between Howard’s Tampa rhetoric and the current situation.

“He obsesses on things … That degree of hyperfocus I think is typical.”

Friends say a recent ADHD diagnosis helps explain “why Andrew Laming is a dickhead”, blaming the disorder for his history of harassing, bullying and upskirting constituents.

What Peter Dutton did next
Peter Dutton has long been one of the most controversial ministers in the federal government. Now, at a time of rising global tension, he’s become the minister for Defence. Today, Karen Middleton on Peter Dutton’s new job, and the concerns already being raised in the Defence community.

The cost of digitising the at-risk materials in the National Archives, with Macquarie University history professor Michelle Arrow noting this is “relatively small” compared with the $500 million expansion of the Australian War Memorial.

“Former Labor leader Bill Shorten will use a major speech to call on the federal government to restore trust with the disability sector by dumping several proposed changes to the $25 billion National Disability Insurance Scheme.”

Shorten – who oversaw the initial design of the NDIS – is calling on the government to scrap more of its controversial changes. He’s also promising to return people with “lived disability experience” to the NDIA board under a Labor government.

The list

“Fifty years ago next month, two films that screened at the increasingly prestigious festival in Cannes seemed to herald a kind of revival. Walkabout and Wake in Fright were both shot in Australia’s outback interior, which hadn’t really been seen on the big screen for over a decade … In these new films, the bush was more than a mere location for human drama. It seemed, as countless awestruck reviewers noted then and since, a kind of character all of its own. A menacing one.”

“Since word got out that my husband was considering a vasectomy – and I was planning to write about it – a lot of men have surprised me by eagerly sharing their ‘vasectomemories’. Some told me about their first adventures in pubic hair removal. Others relayed wry comments that their vasectomist had made, looming above the operating table (‘you may feel a small prick’). There were repeat accounts of terrified men in reception rooms, blanched and jittery, awaiting a common fate, and of freezers stocked with bags of frozen peas in preparation for post-op icing.”

“For weeks, speculation has swirled around Lachlan Murdoch’s return to Australia. Plans to launch Fox News here have been breathlessly reported, linked to the local launch of a news streaming service. Other stories have considered whether the Fox co-chair and chief executive, and son of founder Rupert, may have ceded effective control of the company to in-house counsel Viet Dinh, a former assistant attorney-general in the Bush administration and godfather to Lachlan’s eldest son, Kalan. Neither story is true.”

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Monthly Today.



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