JACK WATERFORD. Dutton fights from the flank  

The Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton, was rarely to be found when the discussion was fixing on how a cruise liner entered our borders and spread Coronavirus and Covid-19 across the continent – perhaps the most serious breach of quarantine and biosecurity since federation.  But that reticence has not stopped a non-stop barrage of distraction.

Perhaps the invasion of the Ruby Princess was not, technically, only the fault of Dutton, his departmental secretary, his department and a Border Force, once proclaimed to be in charge of keeping our borders safe. Except, of course, when it really matters.

(Border Force, defensively,  invited people to attack instead the state health authorities, as the people to whom the responsibility had been subcontracted by the federal health department. The prime minister’s implicit attitude of “look mistakes were made, not deliberately, but it is better to look forward rather than engage in an orgy of blame” is not, as some seem to think, to protect folk associated with Hillsong. It has been because he has been standing alongside Federal health department colleagues in daily pandemic briefings, and has at least some sense of loyalty, at least until victory over the virus is declared and questions of accountability, or excuses, can be considered.

But Dutton’s silence on border security has not stopped a trail of statements on his crusade against Australian paedophiles operating abroad, claiming the credit for AFP drug “triumphs”, fighting the good war, with appropriate dog whistles against China, including making completely nonsensical seizures of medical goods going there — an infinitesimal fraction of the traffic going the other way, but made to sound as if was like selling wheat to Iraq back in Alexander Downer’s day. Or in ramping up national security crises, designed, as per usual, more to make Labor wriggle uncomfortably and seem “weak” rather than to achieve any urgent national security purpose.

One can expect that Dutton, and Morrison, will play Labor off a break. They always do on national security or border protection matters, in part because Labor fears that it cannot win any such debate in the court of public opinion, and that they must lose if it is even an agenda item. It goes back to a time — almost back to the Petrov days of 1954 — when the coalition could claim that Labor was intrinsically “weak”, “unsound” and at least to a degree “compromised” on national security matters —  mostly because some trade union leaders made common cause with communist or left-wing leaders — by definition recipients of Moscow gold. Bert Evatt’s mismanagement of the Petrov disclosures accentuated the slur, as well as casting serious doubts about his judgment. But it also embittered ASIO and, as the official ASIO history admits, made the organisation an active enemy of Labor — ever keen to leak against it.

That’s actually now ancient history, and the modern organisation is differently focused and organised. The overwhelming majority of its staff were either not born at the time of the ending of the Cold War, or so young as to have no memory of it. Prime ministers such as Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard had no particular difficulties in working with the organisation, or in trusting it. Over the past 20 years however (which embraces the period of Rudd and Gillard) sections of Labor have become uncomfortable with an increasingly illiberal system of coercive powers given to ASIO and others involved in the war against terror, and have allowed people like Dutton and Morrison to conflate the boat people crisis with national security and the war against terror.

Under Shorten, Labor recognised that coalition gibes about Labor’s unwillingness to be tough would hurt it unless and until it completely acquiesced in the coalition’s policy of eternal exile, coercion, and conscious cruelty to people fleeing war and terror and arriving in Australia by boat. Indeed, so as to neutralise the problem altogether, Labor acknowledged that its previous policies had been wrong and had caused needless deaths, because it had not been cruel to be kind.

As it happens, the temperature of the boat people issue has lessened, but that has not been a function of its humiliation so much as a significant decline in nearby refugee supply. But the coalition can ramp up an issue at will — such as about medical evacuations from Nauru, or the need to pre-emptively re-open detention facilities at Christmas Island — the subject of a $100 million stunt by Morrison before the last election. Ministers have even been prepared to verbal ASIO as supporting its position.

Anthony Albanese is just the sort of leftish Labor figure that the coalition has in mind when they allege that Labor doesn’t really mean its tough-sounding rhetoric on borders, or its pretence of being gung-ho about only dimly accountable powers over terrorism suspects.  For that reason, or in general pursuit of a policy of fighting only on territory regarded as favourable to Labor, Labor is given only to mild criticism of anything put forward, cosmetic proposals for amendments, and appeasement. It has seemed particularly unwilling to make concern about the personality and predilection of Peter Dutton — or even the spectre of his continuing ambitions to knock Morrison out of the ring — a permanent feature of its campaigning approach.

We can expect that Labor will be convulsed about the ASIO Bill — as Dutton wants and intends. The media has so far emphasised the questioning of 14-year-olds, coercive questioning powers, and a new right to put surveillance equipment in or on the cars or personal possessions of suspected terrorists or spies. As it happens, existing questioning powers are being wound back. They have not been used, in any event, for 10 years. Police have been putting GPS bugs in cars and handbags for ages. And once one agrees about the principle of coercive interrogations, with such (inadequate) safeguards as there are, the idea of dropping an age limit from 16 to 14 (with additional protections) is hardly dramatic. The stage is set for a familiar theatre at which Mark Dreyfus will look worried, express a few concerns, then ultimately throws in the towel. It was ever thus.

But ASIO must be looking with horror to further politicisation of national security. It may want us alert and alarmed. But the whole of the Australian national security establishment is at grave risk if it ends up being conscripted in Donald Trump’s campaign for re-election. He has shown no embarrassment in asking for — or demanding intelligence from his own intelligence agencies supporting his increasingly nutty theories of the world, including ones about the conception, birth and care and maintenance of coronavirus, including pet drugs, bleaches and other regimes. Some agencies — and their agents, it has been suggested, here in Australia — have planted information supporting, without anything significant in the way of evidence — conspiracy theories about China, Wuhan labs, the Democrats, and perhaps the US Congress. The president’s daily commentaries — and twitter statements — often seem detached from reality, not least in insisting that he has been doing a magnificent job in bringing the American pandemic to heel.

The problem is that Trump does not play by the rules, or adhere to promises or conventions. If Australians here — why does one think of Dutton? — pander to him because they (like China) want to see him re-elected, we could seriously shoot ourselves in the foot. If Australian institutions, in the name of some ultimate loyalty to the alliance  — lend themselves to sides in US domestic politics, it could be ruinous to our interests, our influence, or economic recovery and our place in the world.

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John Waterford AM, better known as Jack Waterford, is an Australian journalist and commentator.

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