Malcolm Turnbull began last week with the regular ritual of re-announcing that, yet again, he had solved the gas crisis.
That is, he had another chat with the some of the moguls who assure him that of course they could deliver the product wherever he wanted, if the price was right.
This may not be much comfort to the consumers who have suffered so long for his neglect, but that wasn’t the point: it could be given a new place on the list of Things I Have Done – or rather, things I have promised, which is not quite the same, but will have to do for the moment.
But the big one was the other talkfest, a surprisingly (and for some time depressingly) brief meeting of COAG to curtail a few more civil liberties. Turnbull plans to further suspend habeas for 10 year olds suspected of watching bad things on the internet and bump up the system of facial recognition.
This, he insists, is not about some kind of mass surveillance – well, not yet, anyway. That would require further actions by government, so watch this space. However it will transcend simple terrorism, which was, as always, the excuse to foreshadow yet further authoritarian measures.
In the meantime it can and will be used for other “serious” crimes (meaning those that can attract prison sentences of three years or more) and it could easily be included not just in airports, but also in sporting venues, shopping malls – there are really no limits.
But fear not; your firm but friendly government will have to let you know when the next tranche is ready to put on the table. After all, there is plenty of time between now and the next election. Remember, set and forget is not an option.
The ugliest thing about this attack on the open society we are supposedly defending is that it has passed with almost no serious debate. The Greens and some of the crossbenchers have their misgivings, but the major parties rush to form Siamese twins as soon as the dreaded words national security, the safety of ordinary hard working Australians, the threat to our sovereign and sacred borders – any of the threadbare slogans on offer – are uttered.
Bill Shorten and the Labor Party have decided, for their own pragmatic (read: opportunist and unprincipled) reason that there are no votes in safeguarding our democratic traditions. It is more productive and a lot easier to go along with whatever Turnbull and his gang of enforcers propose.
Perhaps there will finally be a limit – even the usually compliant Kim Beazley broke ranks in 2001 when John Howard suggested that all the agencies on watch should be absolved from any crimes they could commit, up to and including murder. But as Turnbull continues to test the boundaries, there is no sign of resistance Shorten. There are rumblings in the left of the party, but that is all. And Shorten jumps on them as fast and as hard as possible to forestall the wedging gleefully our Lord Protector, Peter Dutton, continually anticipates.
So our bipartisan capitulation to the fear of terrorists has become the default option – this is one we prefer to set and forget. And this was obviously the message the premiers and chief ministers received during their softening up dinner at The Lodge and which they faithfully regurgitated in the short time they were confined in their confab and which they repeated parrot fashion to the press conference that followed. Nothing to see here, move along please – until next time, which has now become inevitable.
Last week’s charade was certainly the first COAG devoted principally to terrorism; there was a mention of other stuff, mainly energy, but Turnbull was not interested – been there, done that.
For our Prime Minister was hailed by his supporters as an unalloyed triumph, another sign that he could negotiate his way through anything – well, at least through anything Tony Abbott and his right wing zealots would agree to. With the states and the Labor opposition available to have their tummies tickled on cue, a man would be mad not to have an encore or two ready in case things get tricky.
It may or may not affect the opinion polls – the public has become a little bored and cynical about the constant attempt to scare them into submission. But the good new is that the public seems content to stay on board as the toboggan picks up speed down the slippery slope of totalitarianism.
As with Labor and the premiers, the voters might – and we only say might – reach breaking point. But even if they do, the damage has been done. Although the draconian measures which have been incrementally implemented over the years have invariably been justified as a reaction to the extraordinary, unprecedented, utterly unique circumstances in which, through no fault of our own, we find ourselves, you can bet they will never be repealed if those circumstances change.
The cops and the spooks like their new toys too much to give them away, and in spite of Turnbull’s paeans to his team as the party of freedom for the individual and a opponent of government intervention, he, like virtually all politicians, enjoys power and control. He is not going to willingly relinquish the tools he has fought to acquire and the dissident civil libertarians can cop it sweet – if they have not already been arrested without charge for being suspected of thought crime.
Victoria’s premier Daniel Andrews, generally seen as man of the left, absolutely agrees: leaders do not have the luxury of arguing abut civil liberties, he avers, and the security agencies must be given all the resources that they need – or that they say they need, which is apparently the same thing.
We wait with some apprehension for the enforcers to demand compulsory tattoos for all citizens, 24/7 surveillance anklets, the total elimination of bail, the abolition of trial by jury and of course lots and lots of new prisons (we can call them detention centres – that has a ring to it) to incarcerate anyone suspected of doing anything.
Welcome to Malcolm Turnbull’s brave new world.
Mungo MacCallum is Mungo MacCallum.