The Politics    Friday, August 28, 2015

Sometimes it’s hard not to be a cynic

By Sean Kelly

Tony Abbott with Border Force chief Roman Quaedvlieg. Source
What Australian Border Force and ‘Gayby Baby’ have in common

When the police decide to crack down on speeding, you often hear about it in advance: “Speeding blitz planned for this weekend” go the headlines. Especially on long weekends, Australians know full well that double demerits will be heading their way for any infringements, and that the cops are likely to be out in force.

If the police actually wanted to catch people – for the purpose of revenue-raising, for example – this would be a terrible strategy. They’d be much better off taking people by surprise. But, by giving advance warning, they achieve a much more important purpose than raking in some extra bucks for Treasury: preventing people speeding and driving when drunk, and therefore preventing accidents.

It comes down to that favourite technique of first-year arts lecturers everywhere, the Panopticon effect. The Panopticon, as many of you no doubt remember, is a type of prison designed so that the watchman can observe all inmates without any of the inmates being certain, at any one moment, that they’re being observed. Voila: everyone behaves well, even while not being watched, because of the ever-present possibility that they might be being watched.

With speeding, this makes sense: speeding, like an inmate behaving badly, is something you choose to do in a moment. It is therefore preventable. But what if you were trying to catch people who had already committed a crime – say you wanted to crack down on people whose cars were not road-worthy and hadn’t been for some time. If you announced in advance that this weekend you’d be targeting non-roadworthy cars, then everyone who had heard your announcement and had a non-roadworthy car would, very sensibly, choose to stay home that weekend.   

This afternoon a press conference was due to be held at which the Australian Border Force would announce they were conducting joint operations with Victoria Police in the Melbourne CBD this weekend.

“ABF officers will be positioned at various locations around the CBD speaking with any individual we cross paths with,” an earlier press release told us.

“You need to be aware of the conditions of your visa; if you commit visa fraud you should know it’s only a matter of time before you’re caught out.”

This sounds to me a lot like police announcing they’re going to target non-roadworthy cars. If you happen to have already committed visa fraud, then the simple response to an announcement that the police are going to be looking for visa fraudsters in the Melbourne CBD this weekend would be to stay well away from the CBD.

Which of course prompts the next question: why on Earth would you announce this? Unless, say, the politicians who run the show wanted you to, for the sake of the political capital they might make out of the fact that pesky foreigners who don’t play by the rules are about to get what’s coming to them.

A lot of people will, I suspect, make the connection between this and Laura Tingle’s discovery that: “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.” And they are probably right.

This isn’t the only occasion this week we’ve seen a politician tell us they’re doing something for one reason only to very clearly be doing it for another.

Earlier this week Adrian Piccoli, NSW Education Minister, personally stepped in to stop a planned screening, across several public schools, of a documentary about children of gay parents.

Piccoli said it had nothing to do with the film’s content, sending a ministerial memorandum to school principals: “Gayby Baby must not be shown in school time so that it does not impact on the delivery of the planned lessons”.
I was discussing this with a friend yesterday. My friend, now a successful young lawyer, briefly reminisced about her own school movie experiences – including watching that timeless educational classic Beaches during school hours. I was educated across a range of public and private schools and I reckon I was shown videos that had absolutely nothing to do with the school curriculum in every single one of them.

So why not a broader ban? If Piccoli was urgently concerned about using every drop of class time as efficiently as possible, then he could easily have issued a comprehensive directive, targeting the screening of all not-strictly-curricular films during class hours, without mentioning any specific film. He could have reminded teachers to stop having idle conversations with students during class hours unless said conversations were strictly related to the course they were at that exact moment engaged in teaching.

But instead he chose to target a specific movie, in an action which started a brief culture war.

To sum up: two events this week, both almost certainly undertaken for a purpose other than the one publicly stated, with the result of each being to magnify difference and division in our community.

I’ve been told that cynicism is not an attractive trait, but sometimes our politicians make it hard to avoid.  

Shortly after the scheduled time of the press conference announcing Operation Fortitude (for that was its ridiculous name), a different kind of announcement came: Operation Fortitude had been cancelled.

Let's hope Adrian Piccoli follows suit.


Today’s links

  • Laura Tingle and Barrie Cassidy both despair over Australia’s reform efforts. Tingle has some interesting electoral analysis too. Liam Hogan says “reform” is now “a banner-phrase of nothing”.
  • Bob Hawke has said Labor should not oppose the China Free Trade Agreement. Mr Hawke has close commercial ties to China.
  • Chris Merritt on Dyson Heydon’s latest woes.
  • Very sad immigration news. The Guardian reports: “Up to 200 bodies have been discovered floating off the coast of one of Libya’s main people-smuggling hubs on Thursday, in the latest tragedy of the European migration crisis.” The New York Times reports: “The decomposing bodies of as many as 50 people assumed to be migrants being smuggled across Europe were found in a truck abandoned on a highway east of Vienna on Thursday, the police said.”
  • Repellently cynical ways that people make money, one and two.
  • Why you shouldn’t rely on all of those “A new study has found…” articles.
  • US President Obama is about to visit the Alaskan Arctic, where thousands of walruses are crowding ashore due to the melting of Arctic sea ice due to climate change.
  • A rare interview with our Chief of Army, Angus Campbell.
  • The Donald proves his hair is not a toupee

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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