Analysis for Crikey [$].
Malcolm Turnbull’s visit to the Middle East and his upcoming meeting at the White House are both significant when it comes to his recent efforts to balance the expectations of both the hawks and doves in the voting community.
The Political Weekly: There’s nothing quite so pathetic as a self-deluded has-been politician, desperately trying to squawk their way back into the political spotlight, but in so doing only reinforcing the reason they were relegated to feather duster status in the first place.
Of the many words that could describe Tony Abbott and his Government, “bumbling”, “incoherent” and “embattled” readily spring to mind. Yet in recent days, the most apt description of all would have to be “desperate”.
Like a cat struggling to avoid a bath, Tony Abbott has been scrabbling for purchase; desperately latching on to anything within reach in the hope of escaping his dire situation.
Abbott knows he’s in for a beating at the Canning by-election in a few weeks. Voters are likely to accept Labor’s invitation to send the PM a message, knowing there’s no associated risk of throwing out the Government altogether.
With the vote said to be close at the commencement of the by-election campaign, and the Liberal candidate placed sixth on the ballot paper, there’s a chance Labor may even win the seat. But whatever the magnitude of the final swing against the Government – and there will be one – Abbott’s opponents will ensure the PM is held responsible for the outcome.
Abbott could almost be forgiven at this point for wondering what on earth he has to do to win favour with Australian voters. He repudiated the unpopular 2014 federal budget and followed it up with an expensive do-no-harm budget in 2015. He stopped the boats (arriving), and demonised asylum seekers enough to get majority community support for offshore detention.
And then there’s the succession of flag-based announcements that he made to heighten voter awareness of the terrorist threat the Government is apparently protecting them from.
And yet voters have not responded according to plan, consistently indicating to opinion pollsters that they remain steadfastly ungrateful for the PM’s beneficence.
Similarly, Government parliamentarians are not feeling particularly grateful, especially those defending marginal seats. Coalition MPs are becoming increasingly anxious about the ineffectiveness of the “budget, boats and terrorism” strategy. And since the non-leadership spill in February, the Prime Minister has in turn become increasingly anxious about their anxiety.
The Canning by-election threatens to bring this simmering restiveness to a boil.
Abbott is said to have once told country independent MP Tony Windsor that he’d do anything to become PM, other than sell his arse. Yet now that he’s Prime Minister, it appears Abbott will do anything to save his arse.
That apparently includes bombing Syria, because there’s nothing like a bit of military action to warm the hearts of voters. The emergence of news that the PM’s office actually asked Washington to ask us to join the air raids, and that Australia’s involvement would add little to the exercise, confirms this latest sortie in Abbott’s war on terrorism is little more than a desperate grab for patriotic votes.
The involvement of Border Force officers in last week’s aborted Operation Fortitude could easily be seen in the same vein, despite the PM’s protestations of “nope, nope, nope” when asked if he knew about the exercise, and Minister Dutton’s denial that he or his office had sighted the offending media release.
If the initiative had proceeded, the working and middle class voters of Canning may well have approved of visa-rorters being summarily dealt with by jackbooted customs officers.
Despite beating the drums of war in the air over Syria, the PM is also waving cash under the noses of voters just in case the flags don’t work. Or at least the Treasurer is, with Joe Hockey raising the prospect of tax cuts, apparently coincidentally with the by-election.
Troublesome details, such as how the tax cuts will be funded, will not be known before the Canning poll, which renders Hockey’s proposal another likely act of last resort, simply aimed at winning over voters.
Regrettably for Hockey, once the Canning outcome is known and Government MPs call for retribution, it appears the PM is prepared to put even the Treasurer’s job on the line to save his own.
In a last ditch attempt to head off any leadership manoeuvring by Malcolm Turnbull or Julie Bishop in the lead up to the Canning decision, the PM’s office leaked a suggestion to the media that the ministry could be reshuffled at the end of the year. This tactic was aimed at dousing talk of another spill, hopefully due to ambitious MPs assuming they had a better chance of promotion under Abbott than his competitors.
According to media reports, the PM is considering giving the Treasury portfolio to Scott Morrison, who is increasingly seen as the heir apparent by the dominant conservative faction in the Liberal Party. The idea of dumping Hockey for Morrison was leaked to the media on Friday, and the news was followed by a hatchet job on the Treasurer on Sunday in the PM’s favourite tabloid.
If Morrison were to accept the role, he would essentially be siding with Abbott and no longer available to team up with Turnbull or Bishop in any leadership contest. Conservative Liberals would stick with Abbott and Morrison, ensuring that neither Turnbull nor Bishop had enough votes to prevail.
To gauge how such a change would go down with voters, the prospect of Hockey being dumped for Morrison has been leaked again to the media today, this time with a suggestion that a double dissolution election could be held in March. This move is the political equivalent of Abbott putting all his money on black; it’s a high stakes gamble by a luckless man who has everything to lose.
If he can survive the aftermath of the Canning by-election, the PM has just over a year until he faces the voters again. Even though the latest date on which the federal election can be held is January 14, 2017, the deadline is mid-December in a practical sense because elections are never held during the summer holidays.
Poorly polling governments such as this one have been known to turn their fates around in the final 12 months of an electoral term. But looking at the PM’s track record to date, it is difficult to say whether he has the political smarts or capacity to do so.
The increasingly desperate ploys being used by Abbott only reinforce that perception. The more he clutches desperately at ways to bring voters back to the Government, the more Abbott appears unfit to lead it.
The Political Weekly: Terror and lies lay at the heart of federal politics this week, as the Government pressed home its advantage on national security issues and Labor leader Bill Shorten made a surprising and potentially lethal admission.
The Political Weekly: The Opposition has the week from Hell while the PM looks to turn back the Turnbulls.
The Political Weekly: Gamesmanship on terror, half-baked slogans and a rookie PR blunder.
The Political Weekly: Overnight sensations, sloppy rhetoric and a spectacular own goal. Analysis of the week in politics.
We already know Prime Minister Tony Abbott is not one for subtlety. And that desperate times call for desperate measures. But the PM’s declaration last weekend of a “war on doubt” took unashamed manipulation of the Australian public to a whole new level.
According to our Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, this is likely to be the week in which Australia formally decides to re-engage in the War on Terror.
With the Prime Minister still transiting home from his first mission to the UN Security Council, it was left to Bishop to flag during a weekend television interview that a series of meetings this week would determine whether (or more likely, when) Australia would join the US-led air strikes over Iraq.
Bishop advised that a final decision would be taken by the Cabinet “presumably during the course of this week”, following a meeting of the National Security Committee.
It’s not known whether these discussions will canvass the ramifications of Australia’s willingness to use military force against an extremist group that brandishes elements of Islam to justify its barbaric actions.
It would be fair to say Muslims have had an uncomfortable existence in Australia since the influx of asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran began in 1999. A general antipathy towards people from the Middle East was exacerbated by the Tampa incident in August 2001 and then the Al Qaeda attacks in September of the same year.
Not long after, then defence minister Peter Reith made the first connection in Australians’ minds between boat-borne asylum seekers and terrorists, saying in a television interview “security and border protection go hand in hand”.
By the time of the federal election, the Howard government was shamelessly hinting that asylum seekers could be terrorists trying to slip into Australia through the back door.
Since that time, it has been in successive governments’ interests to maintain voters’ perception that asylum seekers, and particularly those of the Muslim faith, are a “threat” to our nation’s security and “our way of life”. A para-military edifice has been constructed around Australia’s border “protection” regime to simultaneously heighten our anxiety about apparent hordes of maybe-terrorists lingering off our northern shores, while giving assurance that Operation Sovereign Borders will protect us from those same barbarians.
It’s the classic political sleight of hand: create a problem and then provide the solution in order to look like a hero.
This tactic has inflicted a high price in terms of Australia’s social cohesion. The irresponsible branding of asylum seekers as potential jihadists has so infected our collective psyche that we now feel threatenedby the mere presence of Middle Eastern men or Islamic accoutrements like the Burqa.
It’s hardly surprising then that some young Muslims have felt marginalised and been drawn to the siren call of extremists offering a community in which to belong.
Whether Australia is responsible or not for the eventual rise of Islamic State, along with the other prosecutors of the War on Terror, it is responsible at least in part for the radicalisation of its local Muslim population.
No matter how warranted this latest military intervention into Iraq is, there is a responsibility incumbent on all concerned to ensure the “campaign for the campaign” does not exacerbate the isolation already being felt by Australian Muslims or antagonise any antipathy towards them.
It’s one thing for the Government to describe the need for enhanced security measures in terms of the increased threat from which they’re designed to protect us; it’s quite another to create unnecessary anxiety to pressure the community into acquiescence. The latter course simply provides a platform for bigotry and hate-mongering such as that expressed by the Liberals’ Cory Bernardi and Palmer United Party’s Jacqui Lambie.
It doesn’t help either to simply dismiss the Government’s talk of heightened threat levels as a mere shadow under the bed, or nothing more than an attempted deflection from its other woes. This does nothing to placate those members of the community who feel real anxiety about the threat of terrorism, or validate the good intentions of the vast majority of Australian Muslims.
Similarly, hyperbole should have no place in this discussion. It serves no good purpose for the Greens’ Leader Christine Milne to say Tony Abbott’s decision to go to war in Iraq is “tearing apart the fabric of Australian society” and that some parts of Australia are racist and should just give Muslims “a fair go”.
In essence, Milne is no less exploitative of the issue than the Government, by being divisive in the name of inclusiveness.
Any discussion of those exploiting the current terror threat debate would not be complete without a mention of the media.
In the true spirit of the “if it bleeds, it leads” edict, Australia’s media has had a field day reporting the latest campaign in the War on Terror with must-buy front pages and click-worthy headlines. In the rush to secure an exclusive, the print media in particular has presented readers with factually anorexic stories and unedifying headlines such as “Police Kill Abbott Jihadi” and “Jihad Joey”. Another newspaper identified the wrong man altogether on its front page as an alleged terrorist.
When it comes to exploitation of the terrorism threat, nobody’s hands are clean: not those of politicians, the media, or even our own.
Home-grown extremism is a multifaceted and complex issue, fraught with the vagaries of the human condition. It’s a diabolical problem that cannot easily be addressed.
Yet like most incendiary situations, the first step is clear: we need to take the heat out of it. The main players need to resist the temptation to exploit the terror threat discussion by exaggerating, scoring political points, sensationalising or using stereotypes.
This would make a strong first step towards repairing the damage caused by more than a decade of having demonised Australian Muslims. By putting social cohesion first, we could do more for national security than fighting a foreign war ever could.