Fever Pitch: Who’s an Enemy of the State?

Dec 20, 2020

“The character of our own government at present is imbecility,” said Samuel Johnson to James Boswell.

“An enemy of the state!” screeched the Home Affairs Czar about Adam Bandt’s temerity in attacking increased powers for those looking feverishly everywhere for new reds, yellows, greens and browns under the beds.

Bandt is just another addition to a huge file headed by the names of two children being held on Christmas Island, whose threat to Australia demands their incarceration, together with their parents, a threat so profound and fundamental that it deserves equation with the threat to Nazi Germany of the child depicted in the iconic photo taken in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943.

That’s where we are in Australia here and now. A nation which keeps hundreds of people in indefinite detention for no reason at all, for years on end, because they can be defined as “other” by their skin colour, their place of birth, their ethnicity.

Australia is a pariah nation in so many areas now, regarded with contempt throughout the world for its inhumanity, its support for Trumpism, its denialism of climate change, its willingness to place the interests of a few large donor corporations above the interests of the very land itself, above the consequences of wildfires, of a wrecked Murray-Darling River system, of denuded and clear-felled water catchments, not to mention its boof-headed arrogant approach to international diplomacy.

What does it mean to be “an enemy of the state” in modern-day Australia? To answer that question it is necessary to ask what is in the mind of Morrison government representatives when they speak of “the state”?

Do they mean it in terms of Louis XIV of France, in his famous phrase “L’etat c’est moi” (I am the state), identifying themselves and their views as the embodiment of “the state”, and all views to the contrary as “treason” or some form of sedition?

Such an interpretation certainly fits the way that Trump saw/sees himself, and how the institutional framework of government in the US has come to be increasingly the vehicle of purely personal and partisan purposes rather than operating as intended, as a vehicle to preserve a balance of power between the three tiers of executive, legislative and judicial functions.

A similar development occurred in the dying days of Republican Rome, where institutions became the tools of powerful individuals, ultimately producing extreme violence, civil wars and the collapse of all the institutions – assemblies, senate, consuls, tribunes, military appointments – into the hands of one man, the “divine Augustus”, with no accountability to anyone.

Political hubris is clearly a major characteristic of the current Australian government, which has successfully fallen well below the standards of accountability – however low those standards already were – that applied to ministerial conduct before 2013, even during the Howard years. Rorts of all kinds are now normalised, and rarely raise an eyebrow in the inept mainstream media, let alone any real interest in the Albanese Labor lot. Much of this ground has been covered by many writers, from the sports rorts to land deals to water rorts to the robodebt fiasco to the scandals in federally controlled aged care, to mention some. The Labor Party, to its shame, has given its approval to climate-change denier Matthias Cormann’s publicly-funded attempt to head the OECD, leaving it to the British Labour Party and others to oppose him.

The Australian reality is that the current government is leading this country over a cliff, supported by a mainstream media scared witless, running like rabbits back to the good old days of mouthing platitudes in support of the Domino Theory, gung ho for any war in the offing from Vietnam in the 1960s, to Bush’s “shock and awe”, and now gung ho for a revival of the Yellow Peril.

It now remains to be seen what will be left at the bottom of the cliff. Whatever the carnage it certainly won’t be anything for which the Morrison government will admit responsibility or have a sense of accountability. It is already obvious that they see the events of 2020 as an opportunity to create higher levels of socio-economic inequality by smashing the principle of the minimum wage and shifting more wealth to the wealthy.

The enduring image of Morrison’s “l’etat c’est moi”, at least for me, was his jaw-thrusting epistle in April to stranded international students to “go home”, saying sarcastically that “they’re obviously not held here compulsorily” and that they wouldn’t be getting any support if “they’re not in a position to support themselves”, knowing full well that there was no way they could return home unless they swam.

It is hard to know where Australia goes from here. The federal political system is in disarray, both major parties seemingly completely stuck in a time warp, essentially lacking all capacity to understand the issues confronting the nation, and therefore unable to provide effective or competent leadership.

In one sense the federal system is becoming increasingly otiose and irrelevant, but it still controls the purse strings. The current circumstances bring to mind Barbara Tuchman’s essays in The March of Folly, especially those on how the British lost America.

She quotes Edmund Burke from a speech he gave to the British Parliament in 1774 in support of a motion to repeal the tea duty being imposed on the American colonies. Never, he said , “have the servants of the state looked at the whole of your complicated interests in one connected view… They never had any system of right or wrong but only invented occasionally some miserable tale for the day in order meanly to sneak out of difficulties into which they had proudly strutted… They tell you that your dignity is tied to it… a terrible encumbrance to you for it has of late been ever at war with your interest, your equity and every idea of your policy”. Burke’s pleas for sanity fell on deaf ears.

After the war was won by the Americans, one of the American negotiating the peace, John Adams, wrote of the British, “The pride and vanity of that nation is a disease; it is a delirium; it has been flattered and inflamed so long by themselves and others that it perverts everything”.

There is a strong possibility, of course, that Australia’s fall into the abyss will be much more damaging than Britain’s loss of America, not only because Britain still retained control of a far flung empire and was a world leader in industrial technology for decades into the future after 1783, but because Australia faces serious threats on many fronts, social, economic and environmental, which are being ignored by the political class in Canberra.

Accusing its own citizens of being “an enemy of the state” and creating millions of enemies in its own region and around the world on a range of issues suggests that representatives of the Morrison government bear comparison with the ministers of George III in 1774, who dismissed Edmund Burke with a shrug and a joke. “The character of our own government at present is imbecility” said Samuel Johnson to James Boswell

The bellowing of the Home Affairs minister, akin to Trump’s bellicose attacks on all those he doesn’t like, from the New York Times (enemy of the people) to Hillary Clinton (lock her up), stands in stark contrast to the inability of his department to do anything constructive during any real threat to Australia, whether it be the bushfire emergency or the coronavirus emergency, but instead – like Trump – exerts all manner of cruelty and inhumanity towards the most vulnerable, including children.

Australians like Adam Bandt and the Chinese-Australians gratuitously attacked by Eric Abetz aren’t “enemies of the state”, and nor are those people who this government likes to lock up for years on end, but any solutions to the “state of mindlessness” which dominates the crazy Versailles Canberra bubble can only occur through alternative channels, such as State governments filling the void, as happened during the coronavirus.

There seems nothing else on offer.

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