MUNGO MacCALLUM. Greek Wisdom.

Jul 25, 2017

The Greeks said it succinctly: the system of tyranny is only as good as the worst man who can become a tyrant. Step forward, Peter Craig Dutton, Master of the Universe. 

Well perhaps not yet, but he’s getting there, he’s working on it. We are told by his acquaintances (his friends are harder to find) that Dutton is effective, focused, energetic and determined. Some also describe him as a good and decent man.

The latter is at least debatable, but what is beyond argument is that Dutton is ruthless, authoritarian and totally ambitious. This may be a recipe for gaining power, but it is not a safe place from which to wield it.

He already has a history of overreach, of ignoring the accepted standards when and where it suits him. This is more than making silly jokes about the water lapping over Pacific islands in international forums or even verballing Manus Island asylum seekers as paedophiles; it goes to a mind set in which anything goes if it pursues his demands, the end always justifies the means. Which means that promoting him way beyond his talents and abilities is a reckless and dangerous move from our normally cautious Prime Minister.

So that being the case, there must be a compelling, even irresistible, reason for Malcolm Turnbull to invent a new super department in what he boasts is the biggest change to the security system in forty years and use it to enthrone the former Queensland narc not only as his Home Affairs supremo but as a leadership contender, a candidate for the neo-conservatives when and if they finally despair of their former hero, Tony Abbott.

But as far as we know there isn’t; the announcement came after just about everyone who was consulted (and there weren’t very many even of these) advised against it. Turnbull’s sole justification seems to be that we, or at least he, cannot stand still; like sharks, we have to keep moving to survive.

The proposal for an over-riding super-ministry has been canvassed many times and has been kyboshed by two Prime Ministers – Kevin Rudd and even Tony Abbott, no bleeding hearts when it comes to security matters. But Turnbull insists that it now urgent, so urgent that absolutely no details of just what the move will actually entail have actually been worked out.

There have been constant reminders of the threat of terrorist attacks in Australia, and of the rare instances when they have occurred. In what can now be seen as an overture the main theme, Turnbull mentioned Man Haron Monis and the Martin Place siege while posing with  a totalitarian backdrop of what appeared to be a couple of sinister looking commandos in gas masks beside an armoured naval vessel; it is not entirely clear how they would have been useful in the Lindt Café, but presumably it was about enhancing the breathless air of crisis he was bolstering.

Indeed, nothing about the ballyhoo is very clear. Even The Australian’s Greg Sheridan, who loves a good security beat up, was sceptical. Sheridan’s obsessions can be erratic, but the man knows his spooks; he has spent most of his working life immersing himself in their company. So when he says that all the major agencies as well as most of the cabinet were against  the inauguration of Dutton’s empire, we can take his word for it.

Of course there may be some self-interest involved; some will not relish their previously well defined ponds being subsumed into a greater and more amorphous lake. But the argument that separate ministers with responsibilities that  co-operate independently will provide a better result than monocultural group think is hard to counter, the more so if the minister is Dutton, a bully who has shown little interest in alternative points of view.

Another objection is that Dutton is apparently to remain as Immigration Minister as well; if he is fully occupied with security, he will hardly find the time for such trivial pursuits. But in practice there will be no real change: ever since he has assumed his border security uniform Dutton and his equally belligerent departmental head, Michael Pezzullo have regarded immigration as something of a sideline, an issue to be resisted, obviously, but hardly relevant to the real war.

They inveigh ceaselessly against asylum seekers who arrive by boat as Illegal (they are not) but are happy to ignore the real illegals, the tens of thousands of those who overstay their visas and simply disappear into society – much as the boat people did before they were incarcerated in their off-shore prison camps. The real economic and social issues about immigration will just have to continue to muddle along on their own.

So there is no convincing explanation of why Turnbull has done what he has done: bluster about agility and innovation and spurious comparisons with other regimes in other countries can be dismissed as the waffle they are. Which leaves us to the cynical but inevitable conclusion that it is a captain’s pick, a move to ensure Dutton remains onside as our current leader’s chief protector and enforcer against the right wing warriors in the party room and outside it.

This is certainly the overwhelming view of the commentariat. There has been almost universal puzzlement, criticism and rejection, even by those, like Sheridan, who are happy to push the security barrow to its limits and beyond when it suits them.

And the threatening cloud of Peter Dutton, rising ever larger in the political sky, does not reassure the doubters. The public is not, to put it mildly, ready for Dutton; his polling figures are abysmal. The idea of him advancing still further seems absurd. But then, the idea of the Turnbull – the apostle of the sensible centre – conferring such overweening authority on a right wing zealot who would not hesitate to topple him if the occasion arose seems pretty silly also.

The Greeks had something to say about that too: those whom the Gods seek to destroy they first make mad. But that advice may be too late for Malcolm Turnbull. And there is no point in trying to explain it to Peter Two Planks Dutton. It is all Greek to him.

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