Attorney-General Philip Ruddock is Mr Unflappable. He’s the never ruffled and always quietly spoken back bone of the Howard Government, uttering words like those he used yesterday with the most reassuring of deadpan faces.
When stopping illegal entrants swimming ashore was the foundation of a Coalition election victory, Ruddock was there at John Howard’s side as Immigration Minister. Civil libertarians could rant and rail but there was no wavering from the custodian of Australian sovereignty.
Protecting the national borders came before any concern for the rights of so-called refugees and despite the horror stories of injustice to individuals, the Ruddock strategy of offshore detention centres achieved its purpose. The public approved, the Coalition won its election, the flood of boat people reduced to a trickle and a grateful Prime Minister moved the key politician in his administration onto the next hard task where delicate, but forceful, handling would be needed if it was to play a key role in the next election.
This time around, Philip Ruddock as Attorney-General has a much broader brief in making a concern about national security a positive for the Howard Government.
The targets this time are not queue jumping foreigners but foreign terrorists. Mr Ruddock has guided through changes to the law which give security organisations and the federal police quite draconian powers with barely a whimper of protest from the general public. There is something about his crisply articulate explanations that conveys that these are indeed extraordinary times that call for extraordinary measures. He does not need to say trust me; his very demeanour extracts the trust that John Howard is now set upon making a cornerstone of his last re-election bid.
Yesterday’s press conference with Messrs Howard and Ruddock in jointly starring roles was to announce the speeding up of the introduction of “a major upgrade in Australia’s border control system”. What that actually means was not exactly stated, being one of those “matters about which we are not able to speak”.
Which probably means that the computer systems are being altered to make Muslims, or at least those with names normally given to Muslims, subject to greater scrutiny than before. It is a fine line, you see, between pandering to the concerns of people about terrorism and being accused of tampering with religious freedom.
Which is why Mr Howard will be so grateful that he has a Philip Ruddock in charge. I can think of no-one else in his Cabinet with the skills to handle the task.