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A prime minister in trouble

The government is beginning to look very ragged on national security.

Today was a more dangerous day for the government than it might at first appear.

All day, government was peppered with questions – from the media, then the Opposition – about whether or not government officials have paid people smugglers to steer their human cargo back to Indonesia.

All day, the government refused to answer those questions.

Now there are several potential problems with paying people smugglers, which aren’t my focus today, but which it’s worth briefly listing: a) paying people we believe are criminals is hypocritical at best; b) it may be illegal; c) it provides a cash incentive to people smugglers to keep coming to Australia. (Waleed Aly has an entertaining video summary here.)

A Coalition government has two traditional strengths. The first is the economy. There are lots of signs that the economy might not be performing very well. There’s also a bit of a problem with the increasingly shamefaced Joe Hockey being the nation’s premier economic salesman. And today comes news that even the mooted budget poll bounce might have been a short-lived illusion.

The other strength is national security. This is so much the case that some commentators have speculated that the PM’s refusal to answer questions on paying people smugglers is simply a political tactic to keep the story in the news. (I don’t think so, but it’s not impossible.) As long as boats and national security are the subject, goes the theory, the Coalition is winning.

But there’s a dangerous pattern developing for the government in national security. A tendency for its left hand to be entirely unsure what its right hand is up to. A habit of the PM having information that his ministers – including his deputy – don’t.

The most recent example of this pattern is the fact that Immigration Minister Peter Dutton and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop both denied that Australia was paying people smugglers when they were asked last week, before their leader started refusing to answer the question. By today, they too had got the memo and refused to repeat their denials. 

Obviously, if the payment occurred as a part of operations Dutton oversees, then he should have known. That means that he lied, or that he has been kept out of the loop by his own department, or that he has been kept out of the loop on matters handled by agencies not directly under his control, or on events that occurred under the previous minister, Scott Morrison. None of those are good options.

Then we come to the bigger fish, deputy Liberal leader Bishop. It seems more and more likely, from the intelligence-agency-inflected language employed by ministers today, that the scenario floated in some media outlets today is accurate: that ASIS made the payment. If that is the case, then either Bishop lied, or she was kept out of the loop by her own agency (she has responsibility for ASIS) and the PM was kept in the loop and did not inform her.

That suggests either incompetence on Bishop’s part or deep, dysfunctional mistrust at the highest levels of government.

If this were the only example it would be worrying. But in recent weeks we have had two other prominent cases.

The last time parliament sat, Bishop was forced to correct herself after she had wrongly told parliament that letters between the Sydney siege gunman and the attorney-general’s department had been provided to an inquiry into the siege. This came after the government had spent days attempting to monster the opposition for daring to bring the letter up.

The other thing that happened the last time parliament sat was the leak of what amounted to a transcript of a cabinet meeting on a question of national security, the proposal to strip citizens of their citizenship should the minister for immigration suspect them of terrorism. The leak was a problem. But more concerning in the context of this week’s controversy is the fact that the PM tried to bring on a debate within cabinet without informing his deputy leader, and to get approval for laws without adequate cabinet consideration.

That’s three pretty big slip-ups in a month, all suggestive of similar systemic problems.

The government is already looking ragged on the economy. Now it’s beginning to look pretty fumbling on national security.

What’s left? Well the final thing the government would probably point to is unity. And it’s true that the troops have been well behaved since the February near-spill. But if this is indeed the second time in a month that Julie Bishop has been left out of the information circuit on important matters of national security then the government’s kumbaya attitude, too, can’t be far from fracturing.

The government might be congratulating itself for another day talking about boats. But in politics the daily battle can blind you to the bigger issues. The PM needs to stand back and see the patterns forming. I have no doubt Julie Bishop has already.

 

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About the author Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly was an adviser to prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. He is the Monthly’s politics editor.

@mrseankelly
 
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