The Politics    Thursday, August 20, 2015

Splitting the difference

By Sean Kelly

The PM speaks very differently to different groups

I am all for ministers standing up to answer questions, especially in this government’s particular preferred area of secrecy: immigration. And there were some significant issues swirling around in Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s portfolio today, including allegations about a Nauru detention centre guard perjuring himself (see the links section). But Dutton, when he stood up today to hold a press conference, didn’t seem very interested in answering those.

Instead, he wanted to tell us that the government’s legislation on stripping dual nationals suspected of terrorism of their Australian citizenship was shortly due in parliament. It’s important legislation, certainly, but the timing is the sort of thing that would normally be announced via press release, if at all.

Then Philip Ruddock and Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, both special envoys for the prime minister on the matter of citizenship, standing with Dutton, got to speak about the consultations they’d been doing around the country on the matter for which they are envoys. They talked about the precise geographical areas they would be consulting in – again, not the sort of thing you might expect a press conference to focus on.

None of this seems particularly newsworthy, does it? So why are they standing up, in a week when there is plenty of other news for press gallery journalists (not to mention the public) to digest? Why not hold the press conference closer to the date of the introduction of the legislation?

I suspect the answer might lie in this fact. Laura Tingle wrote last week: “A meeting of the National Security Committee of the cabinet has … recently asked for a list of national-security-related things that could be announced weekly between now and the election.”

This is, of course, no way to run a government, and the PM and his colleagues have used a lot of breath over the past few years telling voters exactly that about the previous Labor government.

That said, this trend for “announceables” is not going away any time soon, nor is it new. Governments typically find every way they can to emphasise their big policy programs, and some of those are inevitably contrived. But there is something particularly unedifying about national security strategy – and public discussion thereof – being, in fact, a media strategy.

Of course, Ruddock and Fierravanti-Wells were never likely to have anything hugely substantive to say for the reason that it was never entirely clear why they were given these roles in the first place (beyond the politics of compensating MPs who felt hardly done by, Ruddock having then recently been sacked as chief government whip).

You can see this in Fierravanti-Wells’ comments:

There is strong support for mechanisms for removing suspending of privileges of Australian citizens from people who – citizens from people who would stand against Australia. So there is a trend emerging from the responses right across the spectrum that Australian citizenship is very important, it’s to be valued and anybody who does something to put that in jeopardy should have some sanction against them.

That might sound sensible enough until you recognise that what the senator is in effect saying is simply that she’s talked to community members and they support the principle that the Abbott government has already decided they are enacting in legislation.

So what, then, was the value of those consultations?

Apparently the consultations are also there to look at the Australian citizenship pledge. Why this is necessary, other than to give the prime minister something else to talk about in the national-security-citizenship-culture-wars space, has never been adequately explained.

On the less divisive side, Tony Abbott today reversed himself on Indigenous consultation on Indigenous constitutional recognition. There will now be Indigenous-only conferences. This is a good thing: white people conferring “recognition” on Indigenous people is of little use if it’s not the type of recognition Indigenous people want. (Waleed Aly is good on this point.)

It’s a pity the PM chose to stick with his Andrew Bolt-style rhetoric on Australia being one blank mass of people, talking about his preference for a “we the people” approach rather than a “them and us” process, as though Indigenous people lived broadly similar lives to non-Indigenous people. Some do, of course. But if you are born Aboriginal in this country you are far more likely to be gaoled, die in gaol, commit suicide, or die young in some other preventable manner. Getting recognition right means recognising those facts.

It’s an interesting contrast. On Indigenous matters, the PM – who in many ways has more awareness of Indigenous culture than perhaps any previous prime minister, and will shortly spend another week in remote Indigenous communities – wants to minimise the differences between cultures.

But when it comes to “citizenship”, and groups Ruddock today described as “newer Australians”, and particularly Islamic communities (don’t forget Abbott earlier this year told Islamic leaders they needed to do more to discourage extremism), the PM wants to emphasise those differences.

Now that’s something I’d like to hear explained at a press conference.


Today’s links

  • There are allegations a former Liberal state director embezzled $1.5 million of party funds.
  • Michelle Grattan: This is not a well-functioning cabinet. Niki Savva on the decisions facing possible challengers to Abbott. Savva agrees with others that a Canning loss will be the end of Abbott. And more leaked talking points.
  • The Liberal and Labor figures embarrassed by Kathy Jackson. Bill Shorten says he will not oppose the Trade Union Royal Commission continuing in the event that Dyson Heydon is replaced. Josh Frydenberg believes Heydon will stay in his job.
  • Nicole Hasham reports: “Australian-paid guard at Nauru is accused of falsely claiming an asylum seeker violently assaulted him then perjuring himself in court, before confessing to the lie in a secret recording made by a colleague.”
  • Suspected would-be terrorists have been stopped from leaving the country. A Syrian scholar has been beheaded by ISIS because he refused to lead them to antiquities that had been hidden for safekeeping.
  • Julie Bishop appears to support same-sex marriage.
  • The US Army will allow women to serve as Navy SEALS.
  • A video explaining why people die early in each country

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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