Thursday, 25 June 2015

The War on Dissent


It seems like only yesterday Tony Abbott invoked "Team Australia" to help build a more inclusive society. The PM could barely go a doorstop without mentioning the turgid phrase in a direct or awkwardly oblique way. This rote repetition stemmed from (surprise surprise) an Abbott Government bungle: the aborted amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act that managed to offend almost everyone. From terrorism to tax, "Team Australia" became Coalition de rigueur, reassuring everyone that the Coalition was out to help not vilify them. Of course it couldn't last.

As Abbott's approval ratings plummeted toward the end of 2014, the pugilist PM reverted to his usual state of promoting panic. By the time of his infamous six-flag terror crackdown announcement, "Team Australia" was dead, buried and cremated: "I’ve often heard Western leaders describe Islam as a ‘religion of peace’," six-flag Abbott stated, "I wish more Muslim leaders would say that more often, and mean it." Team Australia: time of death, 23rd February 2015, 11am.

Since then, things have only gotten worse. Unable or unwilling to offer an actual agenda for the nation, Abbott has set about stoking public fear of terrorism through his mastery of the three-word slogan. Those who dare question Abbott's thirst for executive power (the ABC, "left-wing" media, the opposition, lawyers etc) are essentially committing treason, giving aid and comfort to the enemy in a time of war.

Contrary views are not to be tolerated; political discussion is to be kept to a minimum and within the strict boundaries defined by the executive. Take the grilling the ABC has faced (and is facing) after Zaky Mallah's appearance on Q&A. Abbott likened it to a "betrayal" of the country: "frankly heads should roll over this," he said. A depressingly amusing comment, given the barbarism Abbott so opportunistically opposes.

Unfortunately the only betrayal here is Abbott's, of Australia's liberal-democratic traditions. Of habeas corpus and of the rule of law, of the separation of powers and of representative democracy. It's strange how conservatives almost exclusively fetishise the "law", but have the least respect for it. The Liberal Party has almost no respect for liberty.

The Australian Citizenship Amendment (Allegiance to Australia) Bill 2015 is not Orwellian satire, it's a real bill introduced to parliament by the Coalition. It's a bill that invests unparalleled power in a single minister to revoke the citizenship of an Australian citizen.

Former cop turned Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said the bill "formally removes a person from the Australian community when they themselves have breached their allegiance to Australia." Sounding like McCarthy during the Red Scare, Dutton stated that all citizens owed an allegiance to their state or sovereign: "Australian citizenship involves a commitment to Australia - it should not be taken lightly." This sort of vague, almost jingoistic language runs counter to the ideals of a pluralist liberal and democratic nation, the sort Australia aspires to be.

Abbott and his criminally incurious ministers have adopted the absolutism of the enemy, dividing the country into a Bush-esque "us and them". The terrorists are "evil", people smugglers are "evil", the ABC is "evil"; only the Coalition government will keep you safe from evil. It's like a six-year-old's binary conception of the world, except emanating from a man who is allegedly the leader of a modern nation-state.

The two-party political system has failed us again, with the parliamentary Labor Party largely endorsing the new citizenship (or more correctly anti-citizenship) legislation, eager not to be wedged on "national security" issues. Afraid of being portrayed by the Coalition (and Murdoch press) as "soft on terror", Labor is repeating the same mistakes they made with immigration policy moving inexorably to the right for no electoral benefit. This puts every Australian at risk as the executive seeks more and more power with fewer and fewer checks and balances.

But it's too late now. The naked partisan, trying to bolster his flagging approval ratings (with flags), has had his way. It's very difficult to go back from here. To get some idea of how bad it is, we need only look at the Daily Telegraph's treatment of shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus. Dreyfus dared to question the unprecedented power granted to a minister to strip citizenship, arguing foreign fighters should be allowed to return to Australia to face trial (something Coalition cabinet ministers also suggested). You know, so the rule of law can do its thing. The Telegraph, far and away Australia's worst newspaper, launched attack after attack after attack on Dreyfus, labelling him "soft" on border security etc. Mature debate on such a serious topic is the fevered dream of a madman.

We are now in a legalised state of "love it or fuck off"; our elected representatives telling us to be loyal or else. If one person doesn't like the cut of your jib, you're potentially stripped of your citizenship, even if you've lived here all of your life and are as connected to your other passport as <zinger>OS X Yosemite is to WiFi </zinger>.

The state determining what is and what is not suitable behaviour for citizens is dangerous at any time, let alone with an incurious zealot in charge. Remember well the halcyon days of the previous Labor government when the then-Immigration Minister Brendan O'Connor formed the view that he had "too much power" under the law. I doubt we'll ever hear those words spoken by a minster of the Crown again.

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