The current Australian values and new immigration visa debates, blusteringly initiated by Malcolm Turnbull and his would-be successor Peter Dutton, represent one of the lowest points in recent Australian political history. Are these panicking populists capable of dragging the country any lower? Very likely they will try, because the politics they have now so fully embraced can take them nowhere else.
Given its affluence, its established institutions of representative government and the rule of law, its educated population, and its relatively secure prospects in its region and globally, we should expect Australia to be a progressive, genuinely egalitarian, friendly country that is also a good global citizen (to borrow Gareth Evans’ terms).
But it’s not. Consider just two of many recent examples of the decent into a blatant disrespect for the truth and the ramping up of paranoid jingoism that are now tainting Australian political life.
First example: The Immigration Minister’s intervention in the Good Friday incident in the detention centre on Manus Island.
On the evening of Good Friday, PNG troops angrily (some reports say drunkenly) fired shots into the centre, endangering the lives of the asylum seekers and staff present at the time. A wild set of claims soon emerged about who, or what, was the catalyst for the incident. Reports from Papua New Guinea have been cool, balanced and cautious. From the Australian end they have become increasingly hysterical.
Peter Dutton jumped into the fray, claiming some inmates had lured a five-year old local boy into the centre. The implication – though Dutton did not spell this out – was that there was something nefarious, perhaps to do with pedophilia, about the child’s presence in the centre. So, by Dutton’s logic, the troops’ behaviour is understandable – maybe even reasonable.
The senior police commander on Manus contradicted Dutton, pointing out that the child in question was in fact 10 years old. The boy had had been begging for food at the centre’s entrance, evoking the pity of inmates. He was invited into the centre and handed some fruit in a plastic bag. He left the centre almost immediately, accompanied by security staff. Moreover, this incident happened a week before the Good Friday fracas.
Dutton has since claimed that his version of the event was based on reliable advice and that he is aware of certain facts to which the rest of us are not privy. Nonetheless local PNG advice is adamant that Dutton has got it wrong. Unless he can come up with incontrovertible evidence that the police chief and other local observers are wrong, Dutton is open to the accusation that he deliberately put out a misleading account of the cause of the Good Friday violence. He will be branded a liar.
Yet can we really be surprised about how this latest case is being handled by the Minister? There is in fact a consistency in the way Dutton conducts the Immigration portfolio (and Scott Morrison before him). Sleights of hand, dissembling, accusations that critics are perverting the truth, blaming past Labor governments, denying any mistakes by the Ministers, blocking media access to the relevant information, and then just moving on without apology or regret for any damage to innocent bystanders that has been done.
If Dutton has misled the Australian public about this latest Manus Island disturbance he should resign immediately, or be sacked.
Second example: The Prime Minister’s cancelling of 457 skilled worker visas and his dramatic evocation of “Australian values” as the new criteria by which people’s eligibility for citizenship in this country will be judged.
Malcolm Turnbull’s foray into eliminating the 457 (skilled workers’) visas and his heightened advocacy of “Australia values” raises (yet again!) three related questions.
First, is this further evidence that he has abandoned his previous liberal views on immigration and multiculturalism to appease those right wing Liberal supporters in danger of seduction by Pauline Hanson’s Siren singing? Second, is this evidence that Turnbull bends with whatever political wind is blowing at the time – that he has never been a principled liberal, ever? Third, by espousing slogans that appeal to their ideologically fixated minds, is he simply keeping at bay the right wing extremists in his ranks, so he can cling on to the prime ministership no matter what the cost?
Turnbull’s reforms to the 457 visa rules and his lengthening of the time it will take for people to qualify for citizenship are rather a storm in a teacup. They will not greatly alter the status quo and universities have already won special concessions for research scholars and scientists. There will be others. It was nearly all sound and fury signifying nothing much really.
It is the Australian values saga that is most troubling. Here we see the kind of dog whistling of which Dutton is a master. It smacks of jingoism bordering on racism. It is harking back to a 1950s notion of what constitutes Australia’s identity. It flies in the face of the multiculturalism we have been nurturing in this country since the time of the Whitlam and Fraser governments. Worst of all, in the interstices of Turnbull’s Aussie values outburst there is a nasty echo of One Nation’s “Muslims out” mentality.
Oh Australia! We can do so much better than this. We can be so much better than this.
Given that we are a lucky country economically, we should be making our country the Scandinavia of the southern hemisphere. On the evidence above, and ever so much more, we are instead turning into something like the South Africa of the apartheid years. How much lower are we going to go?
Dr Allan Patience is a principal fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences in the University of Melbourne.