Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly

Plot twist
Suddenly it’s the Opposition leader under pressure

Supplied by ABC News

There has been, in the past 24 hours, an interesting reversal. It’s been widely noted that Malcolm Turnbull has, for some weeks now, been desperately desiring the year to end. Right at this moment, however, it may be Bill Shorten who is wishing the final days of parliament away, dreaming of the minute MPs up stumps and clear out for Christmas.

The citizenship circus is an element. The Coalition has already suffered for it, and in recent days it has come to seem as though they might have bled that wound dry. Labor, on the other hand, by holding out for so long, hoping to put pressure on the prime minister – and there was plenty of pressure, though not enough to bring down the government – may have trapped itself in a situation in which its MPs are scuppered, with few or no Coalition culprits. This seems unlikely, on the odds, but we’ll have a better sense in the next 24 hours. Such are the risks of brinkmanship.

Marriage equality is another, though mostly because of what it hasn’t been: a destructive mess of Coalition infighting that might distract from the success of the marriage bill itself, or from Labor woes. There were more signs today that all conservative amendments would be knocked down.

And it is unquestionably Labor woes that are the main game for the government right now, with citizenship having to make space for Malcolm Turnbull’s attempts to turn the Sam Dastyari affair into the scandal of the century. The prime minister has looked remarkably energised by this potential to go on the attack, understandably thrilled by the chance to give his back foot a rest.

The two Labor problems work well for the government as a pair, too. First, because Turnbull has found a way to connect them directly, arguing that Shorten was up-in-arms about dual citizens sitting in parliament but seems to have no problem with Dastyari, who “sold Australia out”, staying in the Senate. Second, because both play into the government’s frame on Shorten, which it has been returning to in recent days. Last week Scott Morrison described him as “shifty as”. Barnaby Joyce said last night, “Watch this guy, he’s shifty, you can’t trust him.”

Today, the government found a way to turn Dastyari into the main story: announcing a ban on foreign donations, a register to make foreign influence transparent, and criminalisation of types of participation in covert foreign influence.

Two observations. The first is that I’m not wild about a government announcing serious policy with the aim of going after political opponents. Attorney-General George Brandis made this explicitly about Dastyari: “In my view, the conduct alleged against him does not reach the threshold of the existing laws of treason and espionage, but that is why we are introducing – because of the gap in those laws, a new offence of unlawful foreign interference.” The legislation is also likely to hinder the actions of GetUp!, the activist organisation the government hates, and which has attracted donations from overseas.

On the other hand, poor motivations do not automatically make the laws themselves a bad idea. I am all for banning foreign donations to political parties, and it is long past time this was done. (I should note Labor already backed such a ban.) There are also legitimate points to be made about limiting the influence of foreign money via third parties, whether they are businesses or activist groups. You may take a positive view of current activist efforts, but that does not mean the principle is wrong.

Nevertheless, there should be careful attention paid by all MPs to the precise form of final legislation.

It is very good that the government has announced policy in this area. It is clear to everyone that China is working hard to wield influence in this country and in others. The recent spectacle of Russian interference with American democracy shows China is not alone. This is a significant matter, of growing importance, and the government was right to act. And, of course, it gave the prime minister ample excuse to talk excitedly about Dastyari.

But we must hope, too, that this is not the limit of the government’s attention to donations. Fairfax’s Adam Gartrell put this best today: “‘Only Australians, Australian businesses, Australian organisations should be able to influence Australian elections via political donations,’ says Mathias Cormann. I’d ask: Why should anyone with money be able to influence Australian elections?”

The final point I’d make is that there is every danger of Turnbull overbalancing on this, as he does on so much else. Labor had a bit of fun in question time, pointing out that one photo distributed by the Coalition of Shorten with Huang Xiangmo, the man at the centre of the Dastyari matter, had had Turnbull cropped out. This doesn’t make Labor look any better, but it does make the Coalition look worse, and is one small pointer to how any door in Australian politics can be opened by enough money.

So Shorten may be having a rough week. He may also be growing less confident about Labor’s chances in Bennelong, telling caucus [$] the party is “behind”. On the other hand, it was just last night that the government lost a vote on the floor of the House of Representatives. That’s not really significant, but it was pretty embarrassing. So perhaps Turnbull’s luck has changed, or perhaps this is just politics as cartoon lightning bolt, sharply turning in one direction and then the other. Malcolm, Bill, let me save you the trouble of counting: it’s 20 sleeps to go.

In other news


The new Grotesque

How the Monthly changed its typeface

Patrick Witton

“The skill in designing a typeface is twofold: making a statement with the shape of the letters without detracting from the words that they create. As Simon Garfield writes in his comprehensive paean Just My Type (set in Sabon MT ), a typeface ‘should merely pull you in; once it has created the desired atmosphere it does well to slink away, like the host at a party’.” read on


2023: A Trilogy

The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu (aka the KLF) redefine the book launch

Jenny Valentish

“Twenty-three is a number of significance to conspiracy theorists, from its associations with the Knights Templar to its role in mathematics. The KLF have used it throughout their work, most likely as a nod to its appearance in Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s The Illuminatus! Trilogy. Their own book is multi-stranded metafiction that nods to Wilson/Shea’s work. In one sense it’s a psychogeographical tale of the KLF tracing their old haunts, but the characters – among them graphic novelist Alan Moore, writer–director Ken Campbell and artist Banksy – are not cast in their real-life roles here. This is a parallel universe in which Cauty and Drummond themselves are undertakers, not pop stars.” READ ON


Title fight

The people of the Pilbara take on Australia's greatest philanthropist

Paul Cleary

‘‘The lesson of Mabo is that success requires great determination and leadership. It took Eddie Koiki Mabo and his team a full ten years to defeat the Queensland government’s attempt to acquire islands in the Torres Strait without paying any compensation to the traditional owners. Mabo’s fight resulted in the High Court’s recognition of native title and its overturning of the doctrine of terra nullius, or the land belonging to no one. Now, a struggle in the Pilbara that also spans a decade, which also involves the refusal to pay compensation, is applying the lessons of Mabo and showing what the law of native title can mean in practice when communities resist, persevere and astutely pursue their rights.” (September 2017) READ ON


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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