The Abbott government’s reputation as the leakiest in recent history — the cabinet leaks, the National Security Committee leaks, two-person meetings leak — has been consolidated by the deeply damaging, forensically detailed revelations of the cabinet split on stripping Australian citizens suspected of terrorism of their citizenship.

The split was initially reported last Tuesday by Kieran Gilbert at Sky, before Peter Hartcher reported a more detailed version at lunchtime that day. On the weekend, Laurie Oakes provided more detail, while Hartcher provided a long, blow-by-blow account that read as though someone had recorded or taken copious notes on the entire exchange. Thus, we learnt of Malcolm Turnbull’s concerns about stripping potential dual citizens, as well as actual dual citizens, of citizenship, and of the objections of a broader group — including even Barnaby Joyce — about having such power in the hands of the Immigration Minister (does anyone even within the government think such a power should be exercised by a bungler like Peter Dutton?). And, of course, there were the concerns about the process by which such a significant issue, and a discussion paper, had come before cabinet.

What’s now clear is that Abbott had tried to sneak a significant and divisive policy change through on the sly, with no cabinet submission — which would have required co-ordination comment from departments, an assessment of the regulatory impact of the proposal and briefings for ministers — and the discussion paper kept as secret as possible. It was, in short, another captain’s pick, complete with detailed briefing of The Daily Telegraph before the matter was even discussed with cabinet.

“Here we go again,” Turnbull was reported by Hartcher as saying.

This is extraordinarily damaging stuff. All cabinets leak, but rarely has there been a leak of such detail. And you can tell how damaging it was because today, Abbott’s two senior News Corp amanuenses opened fire on those who had opposed the proposal. Having gone to the media, Abbott’s foes would now themselves be attacked in the media.  The Telegraph’s Simon Benson warned that “rebel senior ministers”, a “ginger group”, faced backbench demands to pull their heads in, with Benson ardently defending the proposal. Benson only named Turnbull, Bishop and Brandis, all known as moderates (despite Brandis’ conversion to national security hardliner), even though other ministers like Christopher Pyne and Kevin Andrews, as well as Joyce, weighed in to criticise the proposal.

At The Australian, Dennis Shanahan attacked the unidentified source of the leak for badly damaging the government and dismissed Brandis as “the bald eagle leader” of the objectors. Possibly Shanners thinks Brandis should wear a wig in cabinet, but what that has to do with the citizenship issue isn’t clear (and Labor’s Mark Dreyfus, Shanahan said, was the “harpy legal eagle”, whatever that is).

It was Pyne who was reported to have expressed the most trenchant and important objection: this was about Australia trying to wash its hands of terrorists, not deal effectively with them by prosecuting them and jailing them.

While Abbott and his media cheerleaders try to portray stripping potential dual citizens of their sole citizenship as about being tough on terrorists, in fact it’s the opposite. It’s about dumping terrorists — or more correctly people who satisfy Peter Dutton’s idea of what constitutes a terrorist — onto other countries. This proposal is Australia in effect saying to the world “these people aren’t even your citizens, but we’re going to dump them on you anyway”. As Dutton himself was forced to admit last week, if other countries got in first and stripped people with both Australian citizenship and that of another country, we’d be forced to take them in.

And by creating a disincentive to returning home to Australia, it also increases the chances people who might be disillusioned about joining Islamic State and who want to return to a normal life simply stay where they are, bolstering IS’s troop numbers. It’s another example of the peculiarly Australian approach to the War on Terror of not merely stimulating terrorist recruitment, but stimulating terrorist retention.

Which of course leaves The Daily Telegraph as a defender of being soft on terrorism, but that’s only a problem if you actually believe the point of any of this was to ever win the War on Terror, rather than perpetuate it.

Peter Fray

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