As the Coalition government hurtles towards electoral oblivion this year, it has begun the process of spasmodic policy-making which defines a desperate political situation. Almost every move made from here on out is an indicator of either a last-ditch effort to claw back in the polls, to leave behind a ticking time-bomb for the incoming Labor government, or to leave some mark upon Australian society that may better engender its people to conservative politics in the future.
That last type of move, an attempt to mark Australian society, was made as part of the broader culture and history wars that was launched by John Howard. This week’s prime minister, Scott Morrison1, recently announced the expenditure of $6.7 million to resurrect a replica of Captain Cook’s Endeavour for the purpose of circumnavigating Australia in celebration of the 250th anniversary of Cook’s first voyage to Australia.
First of all, given the two centuries in which European heroism has been celebrated and given room to dominate the public consciousness of Australians, it is firstly questionable whether now is the time to be again celebrating a European explorer. The main reason being that we, as a people, no longer identify as European. Even white Australians of British descent overwhelmingly identify as Australian as confirmed by decades of censuses. If anybody should be celebrated, it's an Australian. However a secondary, and I’m sure obvious reason for questioning the decision of Cook as a figure for reverence is because he’s white. At the very least, an explorer of Australian birth should have been selected, or preferably a black Australian of equal achievement. That, in the lead up to Australia Day, the prime minister would worship at the altar of European heroism is disgracefully unpatriotic. We are antipodeans of a desert continent with our own vernacular and destiny, not pasty poms on a wet, hilly island.
Let’s be clear here, though. We know why this happened; why Cook in particular was chosen. Aside from the self-evident retrograde attitude, and the fact that Cook himself was not the first to circumnavigate Australia (that was Matthew Flinders), he was chosen in spite of all this because he stands as the historical champion of a dead Australia that the Australian Right is seeking desperately to revive. Identification with Englishmen and British history guarantees the longevity of the monarchy in this country, and of the deference to established norms of casual racism towards ethnic minorities, in particular the indigenous races. The hope and belief in the Anglo-Saxon race as the tamers and cowboys of this wild land directly contradicts the traditional view of indigenous communities of humans as custodians and embryonic entities within the land. This is why they didn’t erect fences, exhaust resource stockpiles, or hunt species into extinction. That, however, is another whole can of worms.
The Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison, and maybe one day soon, Dutton government, has been using as its last tool in its arsenal as it now finds itself exhausted of political capital, desperate dogma. In addition to the Cook matter, the federal Home Affairs department has declared its intention to ramp up its war with local councils across the country who refuse to acknowledge Australia Day by threatening to curtail their delegated powers in areas such as citizenship. Let’s keep in mind that these councils are freely elected and that if their constituents are in disagreement with the way their local council chooses to deal with the thorny matter of Australia Day, they have the power to vote them out. Instead, Queenslander Peter Dutton has used his royal prerogative from the throne in Canberra to disempower elected councils in Melbourne to appease the retrograde and petty commentators and Sydney-siders who constitute the rabid base of the Liberal party.
Continuing on with the matter of citizenship, is the use of power granted the executive previously2 in order to strip the citizenship of Australians suspected of engaging in foreign wars, in particular those fighting with Daesh (Islamic State). In effect, once the war in the middle-east is over, we’ve declared we will shirk any responsibility for the judicial consequences for these alleged criminals. Instead, they will be rendered stateless and the responsibility of the already over-stretched United Nations, or else they’ll find themselves heading ‘home’ to a country where they may still have vague familial connection, a country which is then forced to take responsibility for something Australia refused to. Though the law prohibits the rendering of people stateless by international convention, the Home Affairs department has already done so. International law was broken to win a few votes. The government’s official message is that this is justified as some kind of retribution, that it is okay to take away these people’s passports and deny their citizenship on the basis of alleged crimes. Retribution should never form the motivation of customs and border protection. When and if these people attempt to return home they should be welcomed back and promptly put on trial for their crimes so that justice may be served. This is a clear attempt, using the little power left to the government, to win some votes from the low-information swinging constituents and to rally the right-wing media to the government’s side.
All of what has been mentioned so far has limited consequences, but still yet consequences. Like their disgraceful marriage law postal survey, the dog whistling of “white is right” through Cook, hardline border policies, and racial insensitivity around Australia Day, make it more acceptable and normalised to subtly push a message of intolerance and even outright hate towards ethnic minorities, and in particular towards indigenous peoples. It makes a mockery of the rule of law and of liberal democracy.
If you’re looking for broader and more impactful consequences of the desperation which has led this Liberal government to use its limited power to propagate its dogma for political purposes, you need only to look to the shiny jewel that was until recently Liberal heartland in the federal division of Wentworth. That a by-election there could somehow be contrived to have real impacts on foreign affairs in the middle-east is something of which only either idiotic or desperate governments could be capable. They did just that, by assuming that the disproportionately large Jewish community in Wentworth would somehow all automatically be Zionists who would consider Israel the prime motivating factor in the casting of their vote. The loss of Wentworth in spite of the Morrison government’s announcement of its intention to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is clear evidence of the aforesaid stupidity and/or desperation of the government. The consequence was an immediate souring of relations with most Muslim-majority countries, in particular Indonesia who is a significant trading partner. When the Morrison government later walked-back its statement saying that it would be only recognising West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel whilst withholding recognition of the East as capital of Palestine, it managed a truly noteworthy feat: of pissing off every single party to the debate. Israel rejected the half-hearted recognition, Palestine expressed disappointment, and Indonesia put trade talks on hold whilst expressing its own concerns to Australian diplomats. These are real and dangerous consequences of a desperate and dogmatic government.
Where the dogma comes in is from the position of Israel as a darling of the Western Right owing to the coalescence of leftist groups around Palestine due to the various breaches of international law committed by Israel in its ongoing efforts to colonise Palestine. This is further complicated by the dimension of religion and scripture. Christians believe and hope for a day of Judgement, the end of the world, which can be brought about only by the building of the Third Temple on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. By recognising Israel’s capital as Jerusalem, Christians see this as a path forward to the rebuilding of the Temple there and the bringing about of Revelations. Prime Minister Scott Morrison is a devout evangelical Christian so I would not discount the notion that this religious dogma may have partly played a role in his calculations on this move.
Next, on a less-heated topic, I would mention also the office of Governor-General ('GG'), which has an upcoming vacancy. GGs generally serve for around five years, though there is no set limit as they "serve at the pleasure of Her Majesty." That said, in practice, the Prime Minister appoints a new one every five years, with the current GG's term due to expire early this year just before the next election is due. Logically, the opposition leader Bill Shorten wrote to the PM asking that the term be temporarily extended past the election so that the new appointment may be made by whoever wins the next election. One wouldn't want to spend five years under a GG appointed by the previous government, considering that the GG still has the same powers he did when the elected Whitlam government was dismissed and a fresh election called in spite of Whitlam having the confidence of the House of Representatives. That another future GG may exercise those powers again isn't entirely out of the question, but the remote likelihood is mostly nullified if the appointee to the office is appointed by the prime minister incumbent for the GG's term of office.
It is clear that Bill Shorten will be the next prime minister of Australia3 and so he should be able to enjoy the confidence of the GG, whoever that may be. That confidence is eroded when a lame duck prime minister (Morrison) makes a last minute appointment on his way out the door, which is exactly what he's done, when he announced David Hurley, the current Governor of New South Wales4 as his appointee to succeed the current GG. This appointment was made unilaterally without any consultation with the Opposition (as is usually done) and Hurley himself made no attempt to qualify his acceptance of the position on Labor's consent, nor even to attempt to offer some confidence that he will be an impartial GG. Further, the announcement was made, with Hurley present at the press conference, which was purposefully scheduled during Bill Shorten's opening speech to the Labor National Conference, a triennial event used to serve as a circuit breaker and a reinvigoration for the Labor party heading into an election. Morrison's use, and Hurley's consent to be used, calls into question the impartiality of Hurley as well as the motives of Morrison. It is impartiality which is the one attribute of a GG which is of greatest importance, alongside an apolitical disposition. This entire conundrum with the GG is one that would be resolved with any model for a republic, but I'll leave that for another time.
The prime consequence of the GG matter is to undermine the future Labor government, and it is not the only means by which the current government is doing so. The final matter to be mentioned is the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO), which can be considered a sort of mini-budget. Like a budget, it is often extremely political and has its numbers manipulated to make things appear rosier than they actually are, with GDP played up, unemployment figures played down, and wages growth ignored altogether. The greater the manipulation, the harder it becomes in the next budget or MYEFO to keep up the charade, especially if there is an economic downturn or unexpected change in economic conditions which underpin the manipulations. This is the other, more significant way in which the government seeks to leave a turd on the desk for Bill when he gets into office. Any budget hereafter will inevitably have to show something nearer reality than fantasy and will provide ammunition for a future Liberal opposition to say "Ha! We told you Labor can't manage the economy!" The real victim here, however, is not Bill Shorten. The Labor party cooked the books when it was in office as well, and has made many decisions that put party before country too. The real victim here is the general public.
Whether it is on the matter of social cohesion, economic certainty, democratic legitimacy, everything goes out the window when you have a desperate and dogmatic government like the one we have today. The only thing curtailing them is that they've lost control of the Parliament, but that doesn't change the immeasurable damage they have and can continue to cause through control of the executive which can only be changed with a fresh election. One can hope the cross-bench in the House of Representatives may use their power to bring about an early election, but that seems doubtful at this point. It seems more likely we will endure months still of posturing and time-wasting by a dying government. Even Liberals are saying Scott's time is up and he needs to put the public out of its misery.
- I refuse to use his moniker ‘Scomo’ as it unfairly humanises the monster who, as Immigration Minister, oversaw the militarisation of customs agencies and the persecution of refugees in violation of international law. I am also not petty enough to use the deserved derivation ‘Scumo.’
- When the government was still barely in control of the parliament.
- Assuming there isn't another coup in the Liberal party, bringing a certain Queensland policeman into the Lodge. Dutton is certainly desperate for that prime ministerial boost in his marginal division.
- New South Wales, of course, because the Liberal party has in recent times pretty much become the Go Sydney and Fuck Melbourne party. Just look at the pathetic infrastructure spending in Victoria by the current government.