MUNGO MacCALLUM. Turnbull’s lunge to the populist right.

And this is the big glitch in last week’s announcements – there was a lot of sound and fury, but it was hard to see just what, if anything, will really change – except, perhaps, the squalid dynamics within the Liberal Party. At least Tony Abbott has given the changes a cautious tick. But he has not, and never will, endorse the core values of his leader. He has his own announceables to ponder. 

No shortage of announceables for Malcolm Turnbull last week – he announced as if his life depended on it.

Which, in political terms, it well may – it was obviously no coincidence that the spate of proclamations just happened to coincide with the eve of the latest Newspoll.

And with Tony “No Snipes” Abbott taking the opportunity to all but accuse the prime minister of deliberately leaking an unfavourable survey in Abbott’s home turf of Warringah, something red meat had to be thrown to the seething neocons and their media propagandists before the figures went in.

The serious message, of course, was a subsonic dog whistle: fervently nationalistic with just the right undertones of xenophobia, racism and anti-Muslim jingoism to give it the frisson that just might satisfy the Abbott forces – until next time. Hence the guff about the uniquely Australian values of free speech, the rule of law and gender equality, the values that have been the keystones to secular, liberal democracy in every culture for at least the last century.

These are of course, trumpeted by every government that claims to follow them and by many others that don’t, and are wheeled out in one form or another by every political leader in need of a lift in the polls. They are obviously desirable, but there is nothing particularly Australian about them, in spite of Turnbull’s insistence that it is they, and they alone, that have made this country the most successful immigrant – and multicultural – society in the world – which immediately begged the question, then what is all the fuss about?

Surely, if it ain’t broke, then don’t fix it.   But the substance was never the problem. What was needed was a determined, if largely rhetorical, lunge to the populist right, and its success can be measured in the envious, if still restrained, applause of Pauline Hanson and Cory Bernardi, who said it was all their idea.

So Turnbull produced his double-barrelled shot gun: first limit guest workers – well, at least some portion of what used to be the 457 visa instituted by John Howard and since then both espoused and reviled by Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull, and Bill Shorten whenever and wherever it has suited their political convenience.

Like so many ideas, the 457 regime was basically a good one: there were, and still are, shortages of some categories of workers within the Australian economy, and it made no sense to fill the gaps from overseas when the situation became worrying. But, like so many ideas, the 457 visa succumbed to the Australian genius for rorting.

Unscrupulous recruiters and employers found that it was a lot easier to grab a bunch of eager immigrants who saw a job in the promised land as a safe route to permanency residence than find and train often reluctant local staff to keep their numbers up. And having collected their factory fodder, many bosses proceeded to exploit the foreign workers ruthlessly – low, and at some times non-existent wages, appalling conditions, often enforced, it was regularly reported, by the threat of instant deportation if the wage slaves complained.

This was the real issue over 457, not the simple formula of Australians first; and it is the issue that has been largely ignored by Turnbull’s so-called reforms. These are not completely useless: they will weed out some of the more absurd groups that had been included as eligible under the old rules and they will attempt to upgrade the qualifications of those who get through the net.

But once again, it is clear that no one has really thought through the detail: there will be many cases – recently graduated academics, rural health workers and even riders willing to do 3am track work for racehorse trainers – where the exclusions will have unintended and possibly damaging consequences. And it turns out that less that ten per cent of those who used to be part of the 457 system will be affected at all. The new rules may yet need severe tweaking.

But the point is that they will keep the bloody outsiders in their place: we will decide, etc. And that is the Australian value Turnbull is most keen on. The second blast makes this abundantly clear – the toughening up of Australian citizenship is openly about keeping out those bloody jihadis.

This is spelled out in the possible examples of the new values-added quiz applicants will have to master. The three questions unveiled in the media were related to child marriage, genital mutilation and wife beating. While the last is a problem for the wider community, the first two are aimed squarely at Muslims. Of course, all are illegal in Australian law, and any half-smart aspirant to citizenship would know enough to instantly disown them – as they would no doubt disown serial killing, gang rape and dealing ice.

There will be other, more practical, hindrances to an easy path to becoming a dinky-di Australian, through compulsory English language test, and tightening checks on criminal – or even unAustralian — behaviour. But the one Turnbull and his menacing enforcer, Peter Dutton, want to talk about are Australian values.

Now that the initial announcements have been promulgated, it would be nice if they could produce an assay: if the new citizens are to be evaluated, surely we, the older ones, should be told just what those values are. Perhaps Turnbull and Dutton – hell, the whole ministry, the whole party room – could be persuaded to join in a rousing chorus of “Football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars,” a ditty which seemed to encapsulate the real and enduring culture of the land down under. Or perhaps not – the Holden cars would have to be scrapped for a start.

And this is the big glitch in last week’s announcements – there was a lot of sound and fury, but it was hard to see just what, if anything, will really change – except, perhaps, the squalid dynamics within the Liberal Party. At least Tony Abbott has given the changes a cautious tick. But he has not, and never will, endorse the core values of his leader. He has his own announceables to ponder.


Mungo MacCallum is a veteran political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy.

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3 Responses to MUNGO MacCALLUM. Turnbull’s lunge to the populist right.

  1. Avatar Phil says:

    You say of Abbott that he would never “endorse the core values of his leader”.

    Mungo, what are these core values you refer to? As far as I can see, Turnbull has no core values – his values are like iron filings subject to a magnet moving in the winds of political opportunity.

    Turnbull stands only for money – his money.

  2. Avatar Jaquix says:

    Seems to me real reform would have abolished categories, but strengthened the lax advertising regime employers ignore to get workers they can exploit. But Turnbull just window dressing. And lack of consultation now showing up the weaknesses in their annouuncements. You couldnt call it a policy. Pandering to One Nation voters more than Abbott IMO.

  3. Avatar Dr John CARMODY says:

    But it didn’t seem to improve the outcome of the “Newspoll”.
    What’s left for MBT to try?

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