Fraser An­ning and draw­ing the line.

The Saturday Paper - - The Week Contents - Sean Kelly

“If we’d gone into bat­tle ear­lier, se­ri­ously and united, we might have got some­where. We were too slow to recognise the threat. Too late, and prob­a­bly too po­lite, in push­ing back.”

Given the task of this col­umn is to sum­marise the week in pol­i­tics, it would be fair to as­sume the above quote is about Aus­tralia’s slow sur­ren­der to the forces of racism. Un­less, of course, you think it’s about the par­lous state of our cli­mate de­bate and the grow­ing sense the scep­tics, by de­feat­ing mean­ing­ful ac­tion, have won.

In fact, it comes from a 2015 speech by vet­eran re­porter Lau­rie Oakes about a new set of anti-ter­ror­ism laws that had the po­ten­tial to catch jour­nal­ists in their clutches. The me­dia had be­come com­pla­cent, said Oakes, be­cause the threat wasn’t ob­vi­ous, “cloaked by the need to counter ter­ror­ism”.

This is a re­mark­able state­ment. Even jour­nal­ists, whose job is hold­ing the govern­ment to ac­count, failed to see the ex­is­ten­tial threat they were fac­ing, or re­garded it as too in­signif­i­cant to act.

What hope is there for the rest of us?

I will come back to jour­nal­ists, who are right now fac­ing a sim­i­lar threat once again. But this week of­fered other ur­gent re­minders that we are all but boil­ing lob­sters.

Decades ago, Amer­i­can nov­el­ist Saul Bel­low, la­ment­ing the rush of the world, wrote, “There is sim­ply too much to think about.” It was true then – it is more true now. The world is clut­tered. De­cid­ing what de­serves our at­ten­tion is a daily task, and a dif­fi­cult one.

Un­der­stand­ably, we look for short cuts – red lines or red flags. Clear signs that some­thing has gone awry. They hor­rify us, but they can also bring, at times, a kind of shamed re­lief. This time it’s clear, we say to our­selves. This out­rage I will pay at­ten­tion to.

One such red flag went up on Tues­day when

Fraser An­ning, a se­na­tor from Kat­ter’s Aus­tralian

Party, de­liv­ered his maiden speech to the Se­nate. It was hor­ri­fy­ing. An­ning called for a re­turn to the White Aus­tralia pol­icy. Mus­lims, he sin­gled out, should be banned from com­ing here. The Aus­tralian peo­ple should be al­lowed a vote on all this. That pop­u­lar vote would, An­ning told the Se­nate, be a “fi­nal so­lu­tion”.

Later, An­ning said the phrase had been taken out of con­text. Judge him by the con­text, then. The con­text was a se­na­tor mak­ing clear to peo­ple of a par­tic­u­lar reli­gion that their pres­ence in Aus­tralia was not wanted. A pop­u­lar vote was the so­lu­tion, he said, echo­ing other words of the past, to “the im­mi­gra­tion prob­lem”. That is the con­text in which, in the cham­ber of our na­tional democ­racy, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive in­voked the Holo­caust.

The words An­ning used are mean­ing­ful and they are aw­ful. But con­sider the lim­its of our moral imagination. It is clear to any­one pay­ing at­ten­tion that our pol­i­tics has been creep­ing – even charg­ing – to­wards this mo­ment. A ban on Mus­lim im­mi­gra­tion is pre­cisely what Pauline Han­son called for in her maiden speech, two years ago. Govern­ment MPs con­grat­u­lated her, hugged her, called her party “so­phis­ti­cated”.

On Wed­nes­day, par­lia­ment turned on An­ning. Mem­o­rable speeches were de­liv­ered. A near-fac­sim­ile of Bob Hawke’s 1988 mo­tion sup­port­ing a nondis­crim­i­na­tory im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy was passed. The par­lia­ment’s re­sponse was spot-on, and we should recognise good mo­ments when they come.

But let’s not cel­e­brate too hard. When Hawke’s mo­tion passed, it was in re­sponse to John Howard’s com­plaints about Asian im­mi­gra­tion. Three decades later, our par­lia­ment needs an ac­tual ref­er­ence to geno­cide be­fore it re­sponds with any force. It was “im­por­tant al­ways to call out racism”, Mal­colm Turn­bull told us. Those are words to live by, but they are cer­tainly not words our prime min­is­ter lives by.

This points to an­other prob­lem. We are only able to see the dan­ger posed by such views be­cause we have lived through such hor­rors be­fore. Even then we will not ac­knowl­edge the dan­ger­ous par­al­lels with his­tor­i­cal prej­u­dice un­til the speaker help­fully la­bels them for us. So, what about a dis­as­ter we have not yet lived through?

Turn­bull achieved a po­lit­i­cal vic­tory this week, steer­ing his na­tional en­ergy guar­an­tee through his party room and iso­lat­ing Tony Ab­bott. The pol­icy may still fall – and bring the prime min­is­ter down with it – if the small num­ber of Coali­tion MPs threat­en­ing to cross the floor does so and La­bor votes the same way.

But even if Turn­bull suc­ceeds in pass­ing his leg­is­la­tion in its cur­rent form, what will he have achieved? A pol­icy that will do al­most noth­ing to cut emis­sions and will ac­tu­ally pre­vent us ful­fill­ing our Paris com­mit­ments.

There should be plenty of spurs to our imagination. Sci­en­tists re­cently warned of a domino ef­fect, in which the im­pacts of cli­mate change start feed­ing each other, a process we would not be able to stop. What red line are we wait­ing for? A se­vere drought? We are in the midst of one. This week New South Wales de­clared its ear­li­est to­tal fire bans. “Too lit­tle, too late” could be­come our na­tional motto.

In Oakes’s 2015 speech, he re­ferred to new laws al­low­ing law en­force­ment agen­cies ac­cess to meta­data – who you’ve called, web­sites you’ve vis­ited. Turn­bull, when he was com­mu­ni­ca­tions min­is­ter, had said jour­nal­ists could al­ways get around such laws by us­ing en­crypted mes­sag­ing apps, such as What­sApp, Wickr and Sig­nal.

At the time, Turn­bull was right. But as of this week, his govern­ment is com­ing af­ter those apps, too.

The leg­is­la­tion is not as dras­tic as some first feared, but the fact re­mains that it will en­able agen­cies to ac­cess mes­sages sent over en­crypted ser­vices.

The re­spon­si­ble min­is­ter, An­gus Tay­lor, has tried to re­as­sure the pub­lic by say­ing the laws will only be used to tar­get se­ri­ous crimes, such as ter­ror­ism and pae­dophilia, those that at­tract prison sen­tences of more than three years. It’s a line that sounds good – un­til you’re told that the govern­ment has also passed laws that could see jour­nal­ists im­pris­oned for more than three years.

Some­how, slowly, we have stum­bled into a sit­u­a­tion where jour­nal­ists could have their phones hacked by our own in­tel­li­gence agen­cies in or­der to dis­cover con­fi­den­tial sources. So much for whistle­blow­ers. So much for jour­nal­ism. The jour­nal­ists’ union told me it is con­cerned. But whether the me­dia fights back prop­erly, or is once again too slow to re­spond with any­thing other than meek po­lite­ness, is yet to be seen.

Dy­lan Welch, a crime and na­tional se­cu­rity re­porter in the ABC In­ves­ti­ga­tions unit, says he uses en­cryp­tion on a daily ba­sis, of­ten dozens of times a day, be­cause it is “fun­da­men­tal to my abil­ity to prom­ise a source con­fi­den­tial­ity”.

Welch grasps the govern­ment’s side of the case: “Any crook worth his salt now uses en­crypted comms to com­mu­ni­cate, as do most ter­ror­ist or­gan­i­sa­tions.”

But he in­sists the risk of abuse, in which jour­nal­ists and whistle­blow­ers are pur­sued, is real. “There is a his­tory around the world of govern­ments us­ing na­tional se­cu­rity leg­is­la­tion to pun­ish whistle­blow­ers, and while that may not be the in­tent of this leg­is­la­tion, my view would be it could be the out­come,” he says.

The min­is­ter says there are ad­e­quate ju­di­cial pro­tec­tions in place, and that the laws are not tar­geted at jour­nal­ists. But any­one doubt­ing the govern­ment’s will­ing­ness to go af­ter whistle­blow­ers needn’t go any fur­ther than the re­cent case of Bernard Col­laery and the Ti­mor-Leste bug­ging scan­dal. Col­laery is not even a whistle­blower; he is the lawyer for a whistle­blower. This week, NSW La­bor spoke out against his pros­e­cu­tion. Fed­eral La­bor has yet to fol­low. Nei­ther the fed­eral govern­ment nor the Op­po­si­tion have given us rea­son to trust them on such mat­ters.

At the end of his speech in 2015, Lau­rie Oakes said it wasn’t solely the job of govern­ments to pro­tect press free­dom. The press had to prove the free­dom was de­served, by earn­ing re­spect. “That ob­vi­ously in­volves lift­ing our game,” he said.

Let me sug­gest one such way the press might lift its game – stop­ping its un­think­ing am­pli­fi­ca­tion of aw­ful views for no other rea­son than to cre­ate out­rage, some­thing that so of­ten hap­pens without se­ri­ous jour­nal­is­tic in­ter­ro­ga­tion. News can be en­ter­tain­ing, but en­ter­tain­ment is not its sole pur­pose. Per­haps Pauline Han­son should not have been given a guernsey on Danc­ing with the Stars all those years ago – but she cer­tainly should not have been given a reg­u­lar plat­form to bleat her views on Sun­rise. Un­be­liev­ably, Q&A this week – though be­fore An­ning ’s speech – an­nounced plans to host both Han­son and Bob Kat­ter, who has since de­scribed An­ning ’s “fi­nal so­lu­tion” speech as “solid gold”. In a sub­se­quent tweet, the pro­gram in­sisted these MPs had the “right to be heard”, as though their voices had re­cently been si­lenced. The ABC’s adop­tion of the far right’s own rhetor­i­cal trick­ery is shame­ful.

The press, like par­lia­ment, was al­most unan­i­mous in its con­dem­na­tion of An­ning. Good. But if that does noth­ing other than pro­vide per­mis­sion for many out­lets to keep on do­ing what they have been do­ing for a long time, then the out­rage will have proved hol­low. The line that ev­ery­body keeps on talk­ing about draw­ing should have been drawn well be­fore this week.

The same is true of our treat­ment of refugees in off­shore de­ten­tion. Buz­zFeed News this week re­ported that at least six chil­dren who have been sent to Nauru are suf­fer­ing from a rare psy­cho­log­i­cal malaise that ren­ders them mute, then un­con­scious, “like go­ing into hi­ber­na­tion”. It is called “res­ig­na­tion syn­drome”.

This is, sadly, both a di­rect re­sult of our na­tional fail­ure to re­spond to un­ac­cept­able sit­u­a­tions un­til it is

• too late, and an ac­cu­rate de­scrip­tion of it.



SEAN KELLY is a po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor and writer, and a for­mer ad­viser to prime min­is­ters Kevin Rudd and Ju­lia Gil­lard.

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