It’s becoming increasingly difficult to count, and accurately analyse, the ways in which the Abbott government is stuffing up or contradicting itself, because there are just too many damn examples.
In just the last day we’ve had Julie Bishop describing her own Prime Minister’s comments about aid to Indonesia as “unhelpful” — although she charitably allowed he had not intended them to be so. That wasn’t very long after Bishop had pointedly “applauded” “members of our Muslim community here in Australia who are taking a stand against extremism” in Question Time on Monday, only a couple of hours after Tony Abbott had attacked the Muslim community for failing to criticise extremism “and mean it” (code for, it doesn’t matter if Muslims condemn violence, they don’t really believe it). By the way, in April, Bishop is to visit Iran — a country at least one Abbott acolyte, Tasmanian Andrew Nikolic, wants the West to attack.
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In a coordinated, well-functioning government, this might be passed off as a deliberate good cop-bad cop strategy, but no one thinks Bishop isn’t carving out her own leadership position in virtually open contradiction to the Prime Minister’s expressed views and the preferred tactics of Bishop’s bete noire, Peta Credlin. Malcolm Turnbull emerged ahead of Bishop in the recent leadership spat. Now, it seems, Bishop is moving to recover lost ground against her colleague and one-time leader in the republican movement.
But Bishop has a new rival in the outsourcing of foreign policy: yesterday New Zealand Prime Minister John Key announced the Kiwis would be joining Australian soldiers in Iraq on a “training mission” for Iraqi troops (you know, the ones we and the Brits and the US and other Western countries spent a solid chunk of US$2 trillion training over the last decade). Today the government is insisting no decision has been taken, which will presumably alarm our ANZAC ally who may arrive in Baghdad only to discover they’re on their own. Then again, just two days after dismissing a report that he’d wanted his own 3500-strong unilateral Iraq invasion force as “fanciful”, revealing that we’re off to Iraq again wouldn’t be the best look for Abbott.
But this is a government that specialises in contradictions, and there are so many we’re simply becoming numb to them.
This morning, the Prime Minister was in Sydney with the Treasurer — on a parliamentary sitting day, your taxpayer dollars at work — to continue the “bash foreigners” dimension of Abbott’s recovery strategy. They’ve released an “options paper” proposing more regulatory and financial hurdles to foreign investment — this time, punitive multi-thousand dollar fees for foreign buyers of residential property and fees of up to $100,000 to purchase an Australian company. The fees are ostensibly to fund Foreign Investment Review Board consideration of investment proposals, but in reality to appeal to swinging voters in Sydney convinced that evil furreners are keeping them out of the housing market — though it’s probably less appealing to Australians who benefit from any higher prices the limited amount of foreign investment that goes into existing housing stock might cause.
All this from the Prime Minister whose first words after his election were that Australia was “open for business”, and who boasts of his record on deregulation.
Yesterday, George Brandis decided Gillian Triggs was no longer good enough to be president of the Human Rights Commission, but mysteriously — and entirely unrelated to his wanting her to quit — thought she’d be great for a senior international legal role for the government.
Tony Abbott himself, presumably to head off the acid question “what did he know and when did he know it” for a matter that potentially might end up in court, told Parliament yesterday “I do not claim to be across what may or may not have been canvassed between the President of the Human Rights Commission and the Attorney or indeed any other member of this government.” That is, a Prime Minister whose office has been constantly, indeed relentlessly, criticised by backbenchers for being so obsessed with control that it interferes with even the smallest details, says he knew nothing of his Attorney-General’s plan to effect the removal of a statutory office holder savaged repeatedly by Abbott himself.
Abbott savaged Gillian Triggs again yesterday, declaring that the Australian people had lost confidence in her, an odd thing to say about the head of an institution that most Australians probably don’t know exists. He had to do something, however, to distract from the remarkably serious evidence emerging from Estimates about the behaviour of Attorney-General’s Department Secretary Chris Moraitis and George Brandis. The distraction worked to an extent, with some journalists preoccupied with how the Triggs’s position was now “untenable”, rather than a potential criminal investigation against two of the most senior legal officers in the country.
A time-honoured technique for stifling embarrassing revelations in Estimates is for the chair, and government senators, to provide distractions. The efforts of Legal and Constitutional Affairs chair Ian Macdonald to do so, however, were singularly inept. He repeatedly tried to shut down Sarah Hanson-Young, in particular, and demanded that she and Penny Wong apologise for various slights toward him or they wouldn’t be allowed to ask questions. The embarrassing-uncle-at-Christmas-lunch act ramped up a notch when he asked Triggs to repeat the same evidence about what she’d asked Moraitis about in advance of their meeting, several times over, before trying to dictate to her what she should say.
Macdonald’s Glimmer Twin on this occasion was Nationals senator Barry O’Sullivan, who harangued Triggs at length as part of an effort to discredit her evidence at a previous Estimates hearing. It was O’Sullivan, the rather burly former Queensland copper, who whined “I thought you might like to hear a man’s voice,” after an extended period of questioning by committee colleagues like Wong and Hanson-Young. The two men, the lumpenprostatariat of Queensland conservatism, failed the most basic task of government senators at Estimates: running interference when highly damaging evidence is emerging, except to the extent of embarrassing themselves.
Still, imagine how bad things would be if good government hadn’t started the other week.