We need to talk about Bill: Shorten’s unpopularity could still lose Labor the unlosable election

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg opened the federal election campaign proudly spruiking Frydenberg’s “back in the black” Budget. It was a disingenuous start to the campaign.

There is nothing in the black about Frydenberg’s first and very possibly last budget. More murky grey. The much vaunted surplus – intended to reinforce the mythology of the Liberals’ superiority over Labor as economic managers – is in fact a predicted surplus of $7 billion in 2019-20, which means it is not a fact at all.

The intention of the Government’s sophistry is to ensure that the binary of Liberal/surplus dominates the campaign.

The bogus nature of the Coalition’s budget was implicitly understood by the electorate. One powerful reason for this – something either not understood or simply ignored by the Government – is that despite giddy claims of a strong economy most Australians feel as if they are in the middle of a recession.

Negligible wages growth, job insecurity, underemployment, the rising cost of living at odds with official inflation data, crippling household debt, looming mortgage shock, a discernible gap between the richest and poorest and lacklustre consumer confidence combine to create a bleak reality far removed from the Government’s upbeat “back in the black” mantra.

In his Budget reply, Opposition leader Bill Shorten, delivering one of his best parliamentary performances, forcefully challenged the Government’s rosy view of the economy. He questioned the Budget’s optimistic assumptions, he identified some of Frydenberg’s conjuring tricks (most notably the sleight of hand involved in using the $3.4 billion underspend in the National Disability Insurance Scheme in the current financial year and a $3 billion reduction in NDIS spending for 2019-20 to pump up the projected surplus. This despite the fact that there is broad stakeholder agreement that the NDIS is dangerously underfunded.

Shorten was also effective in making his case that the Government’s regime of tax-cuts was in the face of a worsening global economic outlook.

“This isn’t a tax plan, it’s a ticking debt bomb,” Shorten said in one of his most devastating pronouncements. Another was: “What we need is a fighting fund for the country, a strong surplus to protect us from international shocks.”

The Budget was designed to put a spring in the Government’s step as it entered the election campaign. Instead, the Budget revealed its feet of clay. No wonder Morrison put off announcing the election for as long as possible.

Labor returns to its roots

Labor entered the campaign not only buoyed by the Budget’s manifest inadequacies but also Shorten’s Budget reply, which delivered an election manifesto unequalled since the Hawke-Keating years.

While the Liberal party can’t get past the nonsense of “if you have a go, you get a go”, Labor returned to its roots in setting out a vision for Australia that struck a chord with Australians no longer content with having their destinies decided by market.

The Liberal party promise of small government is ideological deadwood.

Australia has never had small government, nor has there ever been a genuine clamour for it. But it has been a clarion call that has historically served the Liberals well. Whatever “small government” has meant to Australians, it seems to have pressed the right buttons.

Labor goes into the election not with the promise of big government – no one would dare – but with a commitment to a big agenda: the revitalisation of TAFE, vocational education and training and apprenticeships; a voice for Indigenous Australians in policy-making (including the promise that the “Father of Reconciliation”, Senator Pat Dodson, will be Minister for Indigenous Affairs in a Shorten government); the ceasing of hostilities between Canberra and the ABC, including a commitment to boost regional broadcasting; and funding boosts for the NDIS, health (including the $2.3 billion expansion of bulk billing and the “biggest cancer-care package in Australian history”), education (including pre-school education) and infrastructure; and renewed commitments to addressing climate change, the introduction of a “living wage” and restoration of penalty rates.

Labor’s agenda is not just about economic management, but about values and a vision for Australia, long missing in Australian public discourse.

After six years of a Coalition government that has never been comfortable with the mantle of government (despite its belief that it is the natural party of government), which has found itself hostage to ideological warfare between the moderate and conservative wings of the party (resulting in three prime ministers in six years), and which has given every appearance – exhausted, frayed and erratic – of a government that has been in power not six years but 16. Add to that one of the weakest ministries since Federation, and a coalition partner comprising an assortment of village idiots, and the Morrison government’s “pro” column is looking pretty depleted.

Not surprisingly, the opinion polls could hardly spell better news for Labor and one does not have to be a one-eyed leftie to judge Scott Morrison a bumbling, inept and shallow prime minister of caricature proportions.

Voters wary of the Bill factor

And yet, with the election in full swing, there is noticeably little appetite for declaring Labor the sure winner. The reason for that reticence can be summed up in two words: Bill Shorten.

The same opinion polls that have consistently put Labor ahead of the Coalition also highlight Shorten’s unpopularity with voters. It’s true that disliking a leader generally does not dissuade Australians from voting for the leader’s party. And yet, Bill Shorten seems to be in a league of his own when it comes to unpopularity. One does not need the pollster’s statistics to know that most Australians have a visceral dislike of Shorten.

It’s difficult to pinpoint why that is, mainly because there are so many possibilities. Bill Shorten is the Charlie Brown of Australian politics: wishy-washy, indecisive, bland, with a penchant for saying the wrong thing. Yet most of us love Charlie Brown – as long as he doesn’t ask us to vote for him – so what is it over and above Shorten’s wishy-washiness that repels voters?

Most Australians cannot move beyond Shorten’s role in the unseating of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard as prime minister. Shorten has made some capital from the inability of Scott Morrison to explain why Malcolm Turnbull is no longer prime minister. Yet Shorten has never explained why he was moved to orchestrate the demise of Rudd and Gillard, let alone why, having deemed Rudd unelectable and/or unworthy of high office mid-way through his first term as prime minister, engineered his triumphant return.

Not to be unkind, but there is a lot more to dislike about Shorten.

His ambivalence on contentious policy issues (Adani, asylum seekers, taxation, Christmas Island) is grating, particularly when taken against his commendable readiness to release contentious policies such as the abolition of negative gearing and franking credits.

His wooden unease in public despite a lifetime in the public eye (“What’s your favourite type of lettuce?”), his inability to think quickly on his feet (from “I don’t know what PM Julia Gillard said, but I agree with her” to this week’s yes/no gaffe on superannuation taxation), his peculiar speechcraft (in which he experiments with various speaking techniques and intonations in a single speech), his tendency to speak to the media in over-rehearsed soundbites (and stumbling when speaking off the cuff) and his ill-advised jogging in the (presumably pre-arranged) media glare, complete with goofy grin, arms in the air triumphantly on crossing the non-existent finish line, and his bouncy exuberance.

Who is Bill Shorten?

Not unreasonably, voters like to think they have a handle on their political leaders when it comes to voting time. After six years as Opposition leader voters think they have at least a partial fix on Shorten: untrustworthy, inauthentic, evasive, awkward and perhaps a little strange. More frustrating, one suspects, is the feeling that if there is more to Shorten it’s many layers below the surface.

After his impressive Budget-reply speech Shorten seems to have reverted to his unpopular self.

Defenders of Bill Shorten point out that Shorten came within one seat of winning government. Others, including this writer, would argue that the 2016 election was Labor’s to win.

Australia cannot afford the return of the Morrison government. It is tired, incompetent and spent, has no long-term vision for Australia, nor a short-term understanding of the economic and social changes facing Australia. It’s also very likely that Morrison will find his leadership challenged, despite claims that the Liberal party has introduced a system to ensure it is more difficult to unseat a prime minister.

But Labor should be under no false illusions; a disaffected electorate will return the Coalition – very possibly as a minority government – if “the Shorten factor” proves too big an obstacle to overcome.

Labor has the agenda and a powerful line-up of shadow ministers to implement it. Australians need to hear more about the former and see more of the latter. As for Bill Shorten: just settle down. This is your race to win. Or lose.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

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Christopher Pyne has announced his retirement from Parliament. Has ‘the fixer’ washed his hands of the broken Liberal party?

In a vapid parliament of mediocre cut-out MPs, Christopher Pyne is one of the few genuine characters in Australian politics. He is not to everyone’s taste. Pyne is “very Adelaide”, in the mould of fellow Liberal Alexander Downer, and is a polarising figure with it: people either love him or loathe him. Julia Gillard famously denounced him as a mincing poodle.

Canberra observer and columnist with The Age and Sydney Morning Herald Tony Wright is already feeling nostalgic: “It is all but impossible to imagine Australia’s Parliament without a Christopher Pyne: if he didn’t exist, you’d have to invent him, but you’d need an uncommon imagination.”

It has been observed that the departing Defence Minister and Leader of the House is sparkling good company, a bon vivant and raconteur par excellence.

And yet, apart from enlivening Canberra and Adelaide dinner parties, and despite having one of the most prominent profiles in Australian politics, Pyne doesn’t have much to show for his 26 years in federal parliament.

His retirement from parliament – which he entered in 1993 as the member for Sturt as a 25-year-old – is significant not because it brings a glittering career to a close, but because it signals the crushing rout that awaits the shambolic Morrison government, very possibly the worst government in modern Australian politics.

Pyne and Defence Industries Minister Steve Ciobo add to the tally of ministers that won’t be contesting the next election, including Minister for Women, Jobs and Industrial Relations Kelly O’Dwyer, Human Services Minister Michael Keenan, Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion and former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. Foreign Minister Marise Payne and former small business minister Craig Laundy are also tipped to quit parliament.

Liberal leadership? No thanks

Whatever the reasons given by the ministers for their imminent retirement from parliament – and despite their loyal if meaningless assurances that the Morrison government will win the next election – each departing minister will have concluded that the prospect of at least six years in opposition was too much to stomach. Not even the prospect of leading what’s left of the parliamentary Liberal party after the next election was enough to stem the flow of departures.

Whoever takes on the Liberal leadership in the first instance will have the important job of steadying and rebuilding what is likely to be a shattered rump. Peter Costello, the loyal deputy leader bitter at being denied the prime ministership by the faltering John Howard, opted not to take on that healing role after the 2007 Ruddslide, instead choosing to quit parliament. The spluttering cascade of leaders began with the hapless Brendan Nelson.

Twelve years later, Julie Bishop has been cast in the Peter Costello role. The time will come when Bishop, the ever-loyal deputy whose one shot at the Lodge was stymied to make way for the bumbling Scott Morrison, will be decried by some, as Costello was, for putting her own disappointment before the wellbeing of the Liberal party. Costello left a leadership vacuum in his wake, as will Bishop.

Christopher Pyne could have filled that vacuum but plainly he has no leadership ambitions. (He ran for the deputy leadership in 2007 in a ballot easily won by Julie Bishop.) But his decision to leave parliament at a time when the Liberal party is facing an existential crisis could deprive him of his most substantial contribution to his party. How the “broad church” responds to the challenge of opposition, particularly in that crucial first term, could well decide the future of the Liberal party.

Return to the centre

The party’s shift to the right has been disastrous. It resulted in six lost years of unstable, indecisive, incoherent and barren government.

Whoever leads the parliamentary Liberal party after May cannot do so on the basis of business-as-usual. He or she has to start the process of reinvigorating the Liberal party, bringing it back to the centre ground and preparing it for government.

The indefatigable Pyne would have been ideal for such a role. As opposition leader he would be relentless – more terrier than poodle – doggedly nipping at the heels of Prime Minister Bill Shorten (get used to it). No one in the Coalition thinks faster on their feet, no one speaks with greater confidence. If Pyne was born to fill one role in federal politics, surely it would be that of an opposition leader nursing a shattered party back to health and holding a government with a thumping majority to account.

Pyne considers himself a leading moderate in the Liberal party but as a self-described “fixer” and an acknowledged tactician of considerable acumen, he has spent the past six years enabling a government beholden to the party’s right wing.

In the course of a 26-year career Pyne meandered his way through a succession of shadow portfolios, parliamentary secretary roles, a stint as Assistant Minister for Health and Ageing in the dying days of the Howard government, and several ministerial portfolios including Minister for Ageing, Minister for Education and Training, Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, Minister for Defence Industry and his current portfolio Minister for Defence.

For an MP who has so little to show for his 26 years in Parliament saving his beloved Liberal party – “I believe in the party and always will” – might have been the challenge of a lifetime.

In choosing to retire Pyne has deliberately absented himself from the question of who will lead the party after May. (For the record, Pyne has stated that he believes the Morrison government will be returned.) His departure, he says, marks a “time to renew” for the Liberal party. It says “not my problem” even more stridently.

The Liberals can look forward to six more years of leadership instability after the May election.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

Scott Morrison’s Jerusalem fiasco lays bare the incompetence of our accidental PM

Scott Morrison may well go down in history as the accidental prime minister but extending the theme to characterise him as accident-prone lets him off the hook far too easily. The biggest revelation of the dysfunctional Morrison government is just how out of his depth its namesake is.

Although one is spoiled for choice when it comes to collating instances of the L-plate PM’s missteps we need look no further than the political and diplomatic mire he has created over the mooted relocation of Australia’s Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

An issue that began as a spectacularly ill-judged and ham-fisted political gambit during the Wentworth by-election – so transparently replete with ulterior motive as to invite guffaws were the matter not so serious – should have been allowed to recede into the mist of the 24-hour news cycle.

Instead, Morrison, more at ease playing daggy dad or unctuous uncle, decided to flick the switch to sombre statesman and make the location of Australia’s Israeli embassy his diplomatic line in the sand.

A more contentious foreign policy stance is hard to imagine. Nor, for Australia, a more irrelevant and unnecessary position.

And yet, suddenly, implausibly, the location of Australia’s Israeli embassy has become a matter of national interest from which the government will not resile.

Australia’s flirtation with a Jerusalem embassy was problematic enough when it was just a specious thought-bubble; now it has taken on the gravitas of a defining foreign policy milestone.

Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has raised the stakes considerably – and gratuitously – with an extraordinary attack on Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, whom he accused of being anti-Semitic. The prompt for the unseemly onslaught followed an approach by Mahathir to Scott Morrison during the ASEAN Summit in Singapore in which he expressed misgivings about Australia’s consideration of a Jerusalem embassy. (Mahathir’s concern was that such a move would heighten terrorist activity in the region.)

Frydenberg’s discourse seemed more like school-yard barbs than the considered reflections of a senior government minister.

“Dr Mahathir does have form, as you know, he’s made a number of derogatory comments in the past about Jews being hook-nosed, he has questioned the number of people that have been killed in the Holocaust and he also saw the banning of Schindler’s List, the movie about the saviour of millions of people by righteous gentiles through that horrible period in world history,” Frydenberg told the ABC.

Frydenberg weighs in with his size-12s

Further wedging the government into an unwinnable corner of its own making, Frydenberg thundered with patriotic indignation: “Australia will make its own decisions based on its national interest.”

As Treasurer Frydenberg would not normally aver on matters of high foreign policy, but as a prominent Jewish MP he clearly felt entitled to brandish his size-12s in such sensitive terrain. Rather than caution his senior minister for his potentially damaging lack of diplomatic finesse, Morrison explained that Frydenberg was simply “filling in the history of [Mahathir’s] record on various issues over time”.

Former Foreign Minister Bob Carr was closer to the mark in his assessment of Frydenberg’s dummy-spit when he tweeted: “I can’t believe Josh Frydenberg has taken it on himself to attack [the] Malaysian PM. Federal Treasurers don’t assail leaders of friendly countries. What got into him?”

Frydenberg petulantly responded to Carr’s criticism by posing what he no doubt thought a clever line of attack: “Does he [Carr] agree with Dr Mahathir that less than six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust? Does he agree with Dr Mahathir that Jews are hook-nosed people? Does he agree with Dr Mahathir that Schindler’s List shouldn’t have been shown in ­Malaysia?”

This is what stands for public discourse in the dying days of the Morrison government.

Former Prime Minister John Howard, who favours the Jerusalem move, has hardly added to the substance of the “debate”.

“I can’t accept that Australian foreign policy, particularly on something as basic as where we put an embassy, should be determined by other countries,” Howard told The Weekend ­Australian.

As if the decision is simply one of choosing a better neighbourhood.

The typically reckless decision by the Trump administration to relocate the US embassy to Jerusalem – thus recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel – was never going to attract Australia’s reproach, deserved though it would have been. On matters concerning Israel Australian foreign policy has always erred on the side of indulgence.

Australia’s idea of principle when it comes to Israel bears an uncanny resemblance to cowardice in the form of abstentions in key United Nations votes. In December last year Australia abstained from a UN vote condemning the US embassy move to Jerusalem (overwhelmingly carried) as it did in 2012 when the UN voted, again overwhelmingly, to grant the Palestinian Authority status as a non-member state.

Not surprisingly, nobody – neither the US or Israel, nor whatever might qualify as the Jewish lobby in Australia – expected, much less sought, Canberra to weigh in on the deeply contentious embassy issue.

Incompetent foreign policy neophyte

The US decision to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem – announced in December 2017 and implemented in May – is a major set-back to the already slim prospect of a two-state solution. Palestine considers East Jerusalem to be the capital of a future Palestinian state. For Trump to describe the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital as “a long overdue step to advance the peace process and to work towards a lasting agreement” is bone-headed sophistry.

Enter newly minted Prime Minister Scott Morrison, facing defeat in the blue-ribbon seat of Wentworth, who places the location of Australia’s Israeli embassy firmly on the political agenda, where it stubbornly remains thanks to a prime minister who seems incapable of killing off the issue.

To argue that the embassy issue is one of national interest is so comprehensively bogus that Australians are entitled to conclude that their prime minister is either an incompetent foreign policy neophyte or just another disingenuous politician. It’s both: too green to discern the dangers of his Jerusalem thought-bubble, too arrogant and politically vulnerable to admit a mistake.

Morrison demonstrated what national interest really looks like when within a week of becoming prime minister he made a point of visiting Indonesia to meet with Indonesian President Joko Widodo. High on his mind was the much anticipated $16 billion free-trade deal with Indonesia.

Not so high was Morrison’s plan to relocate Australia’s Israeli embassy to Jerusalem, because there was no such plan. That was in August. Fast-forward to October and Indonesia, Australia’s closest neighbour with the world’s largest Muslim population is aghast to learn, pretty well at the same time as Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne, defence and security chiefs and senior diplomats that Australia is considering following the Trump line on Jerusalem.

At first blush, the Government is right to assert that Australian foreign policy is for Australia to decide. Except that this is not and never was a serious – let alone credible  – foreign policy position.

The failed gambit was an insult to Jewish voters in Wentworth, who rejected it for the cynical sop that it was; it’s an insult to the people of Australia who have yet to be presented with a coherent reason for such a momentous shift in foreign policy; and it’s an insult to our Muslim-majority neighbours Indonesia and Malaysia rightly aggrieved at Australia’s insensitivity and amateurish diplomacy. It’s no wonder that Australia’s pretensions of being a bona fide member of the Asian community are scoffed at, not least by Malaysia’s Mahathir.

Scott Morrison insists that a decision on Jerusalem will not be made until Christmas. He should give himself an early Christmas present and bring this sorry saga to a close now.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

 

Scott Morrison may be a dud PM but the job has done wonders for his CV

If Scott Morrison is the best the Liberal party can offer the people of Australia perhaps it has simply lost interest and run out of puff as it awaits its looming spell on the opposition benches. More bored church than broad church.

Morrison’s accidental prime-ministership is not entirely without merit. Among the positives for which he deserves kudos: he is no longer Treasurer, he doesn’t wear Speedos to work and, with abundant Christian charity, he brought his predecessor’s death by a thousand cuts to an early close.

While it is true that these highlights have been obscured by the daily spectacle of exploding thought bubbles it is important to see the nascent Morrison government in its proper context: if you think things are bad now…well, they are.

Morrison has approached his prime-ministership with missionary zeal, and history tells us that never ends well.

Still, there is something about Morrison’s unfailingly happy disposition that inspires us all to seek the spirit. Grappa, for example.

Morrison’s career before he entered parliament was not exactly top-shelf – an executive role with the Property Council and various executive positions in tourism-industry bodies culminating in the managing director’s role at Tourism Australia for a couple of years. And yet, here he is, Prime Minister of Australia.

Morrison is Old Testament to the lofty ideal that anyone can aspire to the nation’s leadership.

But did he aspire to the very top job? There have been no playground recollections of Morrison vowing to his schoolmates that one day he would be PM. More is the pity as that may explain why he is so clearly unprepared for the job now that he has it. Never has a new prime minister hit the ground with such a splatt. Even Tony Abbott, demonstrably a woeful prime minister, had things he wanted to do once he got the top job. Mainly breaking promises, but at least he had an agenda.

It’s very possible that Morrison’s first prayer on becoming prime minister was something along the lines of, “Jesus! Now what?”

While policy on the run may complement Morrison’s sporting mien it does not instil confidence in the policy directions being set for the country. There are many examples of Morrison government intemperance: from the half-baked decision to appoint Barnaby Joyce and Tony Abbott as special envoys (for drought and indigenous affairs respectively) to flagging the relocation of Australia’s Tel Aviv embassy to Jerusalem.

‘Bible bashers make the best bastards’

When Morrison decided to enter politics he no doubt did so with ambition to achieve high office…perhaps just not that high. One suspects that being Sports Minister would have been a more than adequate attainment for the Sharks super-fan. It certainly would have been more closely aligned with Morrison’s ministerial and intellectual comfort zones.

His stints as Immigration and Border Protection Minister and Social Services Minister gave rise to speculation that Morrison was a future leader. And so he was, but that doesn’t make the speculation well informed. When all is said and done these ministerial roles basically confirmed two well tested verities: that bible bashers make the best bastards, and that bastards make the best conservative leaders – at least in the eyes of fellow conservatives.

But Morrison is not proving a leader at all. His game plan, such as it is, offers no vision for Australia, nor does his lacklustre ministry (in which Turnbull plotters were, if not rewarded, left unpunished) evoke confidence in its ability to organise a chook raffle much less a vision were one to exist. Instead, his focus has been on perfecting his persona, and even then he can’t decide if he wants to be the nation’s daggy dad or avuncular everyman. More thought has gone into his headwear – baseball cap in, Akubra out – than what’s going on beneath it.

Not since Jim Hacker has someone become prime minister with so little idea of what comes next.

Australians have a right to expect that with high office comes high principle and high aspiration for the greater good. Instead, Australian governance has been reduced to high farce.

The coup against Malcolm Turnbull and the installation of Morrison as his successor has been about power: the exercise of naked power by vengeful forces within the Liberal party to topple a sitting leader with little regard for consequences let alone care for who might assume the mantle of the vanquished. If the best interests of Australia figured at all in these machinations they remain closely guarded.

Scott Morrison is unable to articulate why Turnbull was deposed as prime minister so perhaps it stands to reason that neither is he able to explain why he is prime minister, or even what we can expect from his government now that he is.

Perhaps the joke is on us. It is London to a brick that the Coalition is headed for certain defeat at next year’s federal election – Turnbull was at least a chance – and it may well be that Morrison considers it a sufficient achievement to top his CV with the office of prime minister.

Much more impressive than Managing Director of Tourism Australia.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Twitter @DAngeloFisher

 

 

Alan Tudge talks tosh on ‘broken’ multiculturalism while shameless Malcolm Turnbull hops on the anti-African bandwagon

It may or may not be a coincidence that Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs Minister Alan Tudge chose London – for conservatives, the cradle of Australian society – to mount his case for a more “muscular” multicultural model based on “Australian values”.

It is not the first time that Turnbull Government ministers – and indeed the Prime Minister himself – have called for new migrants to Australia to be assessed against Australian and “Western liberal” values before being granted permanent residency but the stridency has noticeably intensified.

Is it churlish to wonder which values in particular are proving such a stretch for new citizens? Is it a wilful misinterpretation of the full-throated values campaign waged by Malcolm Turnbull, Peter Dutton, Alan Tudge and others to suggest that some migrant groups more than others are proving inimical to the Australian way of life?

Much of the calculated alarmism is shamelessly directed at one group in particular: members of the Sudanese community.

One can only wonder at the “values” that compelled the Prime Minister of Australia – no less – to single out “Sudanese gangs” (and more generally “African gangs”) for terrorising the gentle burghers of Melbourne. This was a needless, hurtful and damaging intervention made for one craven reason alone: to advance the electoral prospects of Victoria’s “law and order” Liberal opposition in this year’s state election.

Turnbull and state opposition leader Matthew Guy think nothing of seeking to shame Melbourne’s Sudanese community but ultimately only bring shame on themselves and their purported values.

There is no pride in the sorry fact that even in 2018 Australia has not moved beyond singling out a particular group of migrants as easy targets. It is one of this country’s most abiding traditions. White Australia is no longer on the statute books but our political leaders – leaders in the loosest sense – retain the habits of the White Australia era: when in doubt, demonise the weakest link in the migrant chain, usually the most recent wave of arrivals.

A ready audience for conservatives’ roiling xenophobia

Proud as we are entitled to be about our multicultural society Australia has an ambivalent record when it comes to migration.

On the one hand it is indisputable that a tradition of migration has created a vibrant and successful multicultural society. But it is equally true that intolerance, scapegoating and vilification lie just beneath the surface of Australia’s fabled “tolerance” of difference. Which is why alarmist hypocrites like Senator Cory Bernardi (savour the surname for a moment) and Pauline Hanson (the less said about her the better) know there is a ready audience for their roiling xenophobia.

Bernardi, who harbours fantasies of an Australian Conservatives prime ministership largely on the back of its “common sense” immigration policy, has branded multiculturalism as “nonsensical”, thinks nothing of hopping on the odious “white flight” bandwagon and, like Tudge et al believes in the primacy of “common values and common language” when deciding who gets to be an Australian citizen.

So what’s wrong with Bernardi’s “common sense” approach to immigration? One should instinctively be wary of conservatives preaching “common sense”, especially when it comes to race, immigration and multiculturalism.

The “common values, common language” mantra might sound perfectly reasonable at first blush but its coded meaning is far more insidious. It is the seemingly benign wish for “common values” that is being used as a blunt pretext to ostracise Sudanese-Australians, Muslim Australians and anyone else who dares to look, sound or behave differently. There is nothing benign about policies designed to exclude.

Tudge’s speech to the Australia-UK Leadership Forum in London is based on the self-serving mythology of a (superior) monolithic, inviolable and unique system of values. Most Australians will instinctively claim an understanding of what constitutes “Australian values”, but basic elements aside, deeper reflection will reveal that it is a much more complex, nuanced and contested proposition to claim the existence of a uniquely Australian set of values.

Which ‘Australian values’ exactly?

Tudge told his no doubt receptive audience that multiculturalism has come to legitimise “practices and behaviours which should be deemed intolerable” and which are the antithesis of Australian values. Not that one needs to look beyond Canberra for this sad state of affairs.

Senator David Leyonhjelm’s libertarian values informed his perceived right to direct what many would consider sexist and misogynistic slurs at senate colleague Sarah Hanson-Young. Some ocker blokes who employ similar language and attitudes to women may be surprised to learn that they are enlightened libertarians. Do these attitudes sit comfortably in the canon of Australian values so dear to Alan Tudge?

And what are we to make of the values of organised white-supremacist, flag-draped thugs who claim to be patriotic Australians when picketing mosques, hectoring women for observing religious or cultural dress codes and placing ‘Keep Australia White’ posters at high schools and universities?

While Turnbull government ministers would claim to condemn such groups, they are simply an extreme manifestation of the concerns that Tudge spoke about in London.

“We place an emphasis on Australian values as the glue that holds the nation together,” he said.

“We do this through requiring people to sign a values statement before coming into Australia, ­satisfy a citizenship test and pledge allegiance before becoming a citizen.

“The weakness of this, however, is that we presently have few mechanisms to assess people against their signed statement.”

Tudge is talking tosh

Tudge ­raised the possibility of a “values test” for those seeking permanent residency.

Such tests would challenge many Australians, especially those belonging to the growing throng of white-supremacist groups.

 

Tudge is talking tosh when he laments that multiculturalism has come to mean a reluctance “to even take a strong position against something as barbaric as female genital mutilation” and a reluctance to promote Australian values.

“We need muscular ongoing promotion of our values: of freedom of speech and worship, equality between sexes, democracy and the rule of law, a fair go for all, the taking of individual ­responsibility,’’ he said.

“We need to be confident enough in these values to call out practices which are contradictory to them, even if those practices are the ‘culture’ of a particular group,” he said.

“Diversity can be great, but not when it includes those who want sharia law and will use violence to achieve their ends.’’

“[T]olerance is generally a good principle, but we should not be tolerant of [female genital mutilation] or child marriage or women being prohibited from learning English, studying, or even driving.”

Still with the sharia law canard? It’s hard to believe these are the words of a senior government minister and not a muscle-bound white-supremacist oaf.

These abhorrent practices need not and should not be tolerated, but the key is not bogus “values assessments”. It is for state and federal law-makers to create and enforce appropriate laws; it is the responsibility of governments to fund information and education programs, support services, and to work closely with community groups to ensure that new arrivals and migrant groups have every assistance to become good and productive citizens.

The inference to be drawn from the “multiculturalism is broken” hysteria is that migrant groups in the past were less inclined to favour their own cultural norms, that they were less insistent on their sons and daughters following the dictates of their mother culture, or that they did not give preference to their own mother tongue. To claim as much is to be peddling fictions. But from these migrant families subsequent generations over time melded the old and the new, they contributed, they prospered and they added their own distinctive thread to the rich tapestry that is Australian multiculturalism.

No doubt the Sudanese community – which seems to be bearing the brunt of the “Australian values” mania – has its own distinct challenges. But the idea that they will not in time overcome those challenges and be seen to have made their own distinct and welcome mark on Australia’s ever-evolving multicultural society is just shameful, ignorant fear-mongering.

We can be certain that African-Australians will shine like every migrant group before them. Their contributions are already being made in the flurry of new restaurants and cafes, in the professions, the arts, community leadership and elite sport. And the best is surely yet to come.

The only question is why are our politicians are making it so hard for them to play their part in Australian society?

The Turnbull government would do well to examine its own values before it belittles the values of our newest Australians.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

 

No time for silence: there is everything to fear in the Liberal proposal to sell the ABC

Some believe that the recent call by the Liberal Party’s Federal Council to privatise the ABC provides no cause for alarm because the policy directive is not binding on the Government.

That’s true; it’s not binding. But there is cause for concern if for no other reason than the privatisation of the ABC has now been placed on the political agenda.

Many of the conservative council delegates – many of them self-regarding Young Liberal blowhards whose conservative fervour has an evangelical absolutism that considers compromise a political weakness – aspire to careers as MPs and some of them will realise that ambition. Today’s soap-box pretenders are tomorrow’s lawmakers.

In the meantime it should not be taken for granted that the machinations of a policy forum such as the Federal Council are without consequence. Ordinarily that may well be the case, but the call to sell the ABC – and likewise the council’s adoption of a motion demanding the relocation of Australia’s Israeli embassy to Jerusalem – reflects the struggle within the Liberal party to reposition the party as a hard-C conservative party.

The so-called broad church is increasingly polarised between two congregations: the moderates and the conservatives, with very little room in between for those who might wish no label at all. Although it is comforting that the Turnbull Government has rejected the council’s call to privatise the ABC (as it has the Trumpian wet-dream of relocating Australia’s embassy to Jerusalem) it is dangerously optimistic to conclude that that is the end of the matter.

The conservative bloodlust for extreme policy outcomes will continue to cast a shadow over the Turnbull Government while it remains in power. While the conservative wing of the Liberal party finds no succour in compromise the “pragmatic” Turnbull Government is not so wedded to policy principle.

We have seen time and again the Government fall into line in the face of conservative recalcitrance on such policy issues as climate change, the Uluru Statement, asylum seeker and immigration policy and same-sex marriage (the battle for which was lost by the conservatives, but now comes the war for “religious freedom”).

Can Australians trust the Turnbull Govt to protect the ABC?

While unlikely to bend on the conservatives’ call to privatise the ABC we cannot dismiss the possibility of the Turnbull Government moving to assuage ABC-haters by instituting further funding cuts or indeed selling off parts of the ABC. A re-elected Turnbull government – no small possibility while the unpopular Bill Shorten remains the alternative PM – will likely have a small majority and therefore be just as beholden to the Liberal party’s conservatives both within the parliamentary party and organisationally.

In the event of a Labor victory it is likely that a Coalition opposition will lurch unblushingly to the right in order to more robustly distinguish itself from a “socialist” Labor government and in repudiation of the “Labor-lite” Turnbull Government.

All of which is to say that the Federal Council’s call to sell the ABC has not fallen on deaf ears and we can expect these calls to grow louder and more unrelenting.

It is reassuring, in the short-term at least, that the Turnbull Government was so swift in dismissing calls for the privatisation of the ABC. But the Government needs to go further. It must take a principled and unambiguous stand on defending the role of public broadcasting, including a statutory framework that places the ABC above the political whims of the government of the day.

With friends like Communications Minister Mitch Fifield the ABC might see little difference between enemies in the Young Liberal movement and the current government. Is it too much to expect that if there must be a minister responsible for the ABC that he or she be a defender of public broadcasting?

It has been disappointing that ABC Managing Director Michelle Guthrie has been so relatively silent in the face of the relentless attacks on the ABC – including more budget cuts and politically charged “efficiency reviews” – by the current government. Criticism of the ABC is not new, and it has come from both sides of the political aisle, but ABC leaders in the past have been more forthright in defending the values and function of the nation’s public broadcaster.

ABC’s ‘strategic silence’ isn’t working

Melbourne ABC broadcaster Jon Faine, who might reasonably be said to embody the values and independence of a model public broadcaster, has been typically outspoken in criticising Guthrie and ABC chairman Justin Milne for not defending the ABC.

Guthrie, he said on his morning program recently, has been “remarkably quiet and reluctant” to take on the government.

“She says, ‘No, the best way to protect the ABC is to work quietly behind the scenes’. And that’s obviously delivered a terrible outcome in the last budget round,” Faine said.

“We [the ABC] are hopeless at telling our own story as an organisation and we have a managing director who has been deliberately and, she says, strategically silent. Well, that’s not worked. We have a chairman of the board who…also thinks it’s strategic to be silent [and] that hasn’t worked.”

The risk of “strategic silence” runs to much more than making the ABC an easy target for budget cuts; it also feeds into the canard that Australia does not need a public broadcaster. In a political environment which has become extremely malleable and open to mistruths that if repeated often enough unchallenged take on the lustre of truth the ABC’s future becomes more than a little problematic.

If ABC-haters are not challenged Australians may simply shrug that maybe there is something to the view that the ABC is bloated and irrelevant. In such a vacuum the time may come when it is not such a stretch to successfully mount the case for selling the ABC or just closing it down.

The journalists’ union, the MEAA, is to be commended for mounting a public case for the ABC and the role of public broadcasting. But it cannot take on this battle alone.

The ABC’s silence is playing into the hands of its most bitter critics. It is time for the ABC, its managing director and its board to gird their loins and speak up for the future of the ABC before it’s too late.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher

A craven Malcolm Turnbull has placed his political survival ahead of marriage equality

It is an article of faith in Australian politics that a referendum question that does not have bipartisan support will fail to secure majority support. The principle is no less relevant in the case of the half-baked postal ballot foisted on Australian voters to decide the issue of same-sex marriage.

There was never any prospect of federal Cabinet agreeing to join the 21st century and unite in support of same-sex marriage, but it is disappointing that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has chosen to all but absent himself from the plebiscite campaign.

Turnbull, whose time in office has been marked by a conspicuous lack of authority, has been particularly craven on same-sex marriage.

Rather than taking a leadership role in advancing the case for what is a fundamental civil right, Turnbull will limit himself to answering journalists’ questions on the subject and urging people to vote in the ballot.

This is nominally the outcome of a Cabinet decision to absolve ministers – whether ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ supporters – from actively participating in the plebiscite campaign unless within their own electorates. While the Cabinet position applies to all ministers, this is a weasely ruse whose primary purpose is to keep Turnbull out of the marriage-equality campaign.

It hardly matters whether this was a gag imposed on Turnbull or a strategy devised by Turnbull himself. The Right don’t want any star power that Turnbull may still retain to be mobilised in favour of same-sex marriage and the last thing Turnbull wants is to further alienate his colleagues on the right by being identified with the ‘Yes’ campaign, especially in the case of a ‘Yes’ vote.

For anyone hoping that the plebiscite would free up the Prime Minister to show his true rainbow colours on same-sex marriage and act as a champion for marriage equality their disappointment will run deep. Turnbull’s advocacy will be especially missed as the more strident activists on the ‘No’ side turn up the volume and produce ever-more offensive arguments on behalf of the status quo.

Marriage equality ‘a fourth-order issue’

Turnbull’s abandonment of the cause of same-sex marriage can be put down to political cowardice. It’s damnable, but it’s what most Australians have come to expect of him. However Turnbull has done much more than squirm himself out of a prominent role in the marriage-equality debate.

He has also deliberately sought to diminish the importance of marriage equality, partly to justify his absence from the fray, but in the process leaving same-sex marriage campaigners to their fate.

Turnbull argues that his first duty is to “run the government” which includes focusing on much more important issues than same-sex marriage such as national security, the economy and energy prices.

“Same-sex marriage is an ­important issue but there are a lot of other much more important ­issues for me to focus on,” he says.

It’s hard to imagine a prime minister being more offensive. Same-sex couples wishing for the right to marry – in many cases their children joining in their fervent hope – have been told by their government that theirs is a fourth- or fifth-order issue.

Let us reflect for a moment on what this means: the Turnbull government refused to budge from its preferred option of a plebiscite to decide on marriage equality – rather than let Parliament do its job – because such an important and fundamental change should be voted on by the Australian public. Now the Prime Minister and his ministers argue that they have more important things to do than to actively participate in the campaign.

While the government “encourages” people to vote in what is a voluntary ballot they have done everything in their power to belittle the process.

One wonders how seriously the plebiscite result will be taken. It is not a wild stretch of the imagination to suggest that the lower the turnout the less likely opponents of same-sex marriage within the government will be to accept a ‘Yes’ outcome, particularly a ‘Yes’ vote that falls just over the line.

PM swaps wedding tux for khaki

Labor leader Bill Shorten has already stated that even in the event of a negative result a Labor government would still legislate for same-sex marriage.

That may explain why Turnbull had ramped up attacks on his opposite number, describing Shorten as “the most dangerous left-wing leader of the Labor Party we have seen in generations”.

While Turnbull focuses on the big issues, he is not exactly doing so with a cool head.

On energy, he has become increasingly shrill. Even as the Finkel report languishes in the PM’s bottom drawer, he has hit out at South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill, describing his energy plans for the state as “dangerous…ideology and idiocy in equal measures”.

On national security, which Turnbull considers his biggest strength, like Coalition leaders before him, the Prime Minister has gratuitously and prematurely aligned Australia with the United States in the event of war with North Korea.

Swapping his wedding tux for khaki, the Prime Minister thundered that “we stand shoulder to shoulder with the United States”.

“The ANZUS treaty means that if America is attacked, we will come to their aid and if Australia is attacked, the Americans will come to ours. We are joined at the hip.”

If this was meant to sound reassuring it was nothing of the kind, showing the sabre-rattling Prime Minister obscenely willing to fan President Donald Trump’s bellicosity in order to portray himself as a war-time leader.

That is, of course, if Australians are still listening to Malcolm Turnbull. Pulling out of the same-sex marriage campaign will leave a sour taste in the mouths of many Australians. They will recognise that taking a discreet position on marriage equality is all about saving his political skin, even if it means jeopardising the cause he once so freely championed.

He must know – and dread – that if the highly compromised postal ballot delivers a ‘No’ result marriage-equality campaigners will lose no time in dubbing Turnbull as the second Prime Minister to break Australia’s heart.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist and commentator. He is a columnist with The New Daily and is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He’s on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

 

Malcolm Turnbull may have survived the Pyne tape affair but the same-sex marriage issue isn’t going away

The Christopher Pyne tape has almost certainly ensured that same-sex marriage will not be legalised in Australia while a Coalition government is in power.

In a less febrile political environment the tape would have been of passing interest only. For the most part Pyne’s speech was more pep talk than manifesto: “We are in the winner’s circle, friends, we are in the winner’s circle.”

But it was Pyne’s hopeful reference to same-sex marriage that alarmed conservatives. One imagines the very mention of same-sex marriage is considered abhorrent by the party’s conservatives. But Pyne went a big step further, telling fellow moderates that progress on same-sex marriage was imminent: “I think it might even be sooner than everyone thinks. And your friends in Canberra are working on that outcome.”

Tony Abbott and his fellow conservatives have always considered the position of holding a plebiscite on same-sex marriage – rather than putting it to a vote of Parliament – to be a clever way of keeping the issue in limbo.

Abbott hit on the plebiscite ruse while he was still Prime Minister, giving no indication of a time-table or even whether a ‘yes’ vote would be considered binding on Coalition MPs. When Malcolm Turnbull toppled Abbott as Prime Minister he agreed to support the plebiscite as a pre-condition to securing support from the right. Turnbull had previously been a critic of the plebiscite option.

It is intriguing to ponder what Pyne meant by his “sooner than everyone thinks” nugget of hope. It could only have meant one of two things: either the Government was confident it could secure the support of enough Senate cross-benchers to successfully resubmit the plebiscite bill (which was defeated last year 33-29), or a bullish Turnbull was confident he had the internal numbers to mount an Angela Merkel-like surprise and allow Parliament to vote on same-sex marriage – a pre-election surprise to catch Labor flat-footed and at last herald the return of the “real Malcolm” in time for the next election.

Building political capital

Either option would have been based on the euphoria of the Turnbull Government’s Gonski 2.0 win in Parliament – and in particular the Senate. This was a government getting things done, proving its mettle as a pragmatic negotiator with the Senate cross-bench. Although the opinion polls didn’t provide the Turnbull government with any pats on the back for its Gonski achievement, Turnbull strategists believed their man was starting to accrue some political capital. A few more wins and Turnbull might have the political wherewithal to force the issue on same-sex marriage.

The leak of the Pyne tape put paid to that happy scenario. As if to illustrate how beholden Turnbull’s prime ministership remains to the fragile factional accord, Turnbull hung Pyne out to dry with a swift repudiation: “Our policy [on same-sex marriage] is clear, we have no plans to change it, full stop.”

Pyne himself was forced to issue a fulsome apology: “My remarks were ill-chosen and unwise and I can see how unhelpful and damaging they have been.”

So whither same-sex marriage in Australia? The political impasse on the issue places Australia at odds with much of the world. As the Pyne tape saga consumed Australian politics, causing hasty retreats on even implied positions, Germany’s parliament voted 393 to 226 to legalise same-sex marriage.

Germany becomes the 23rd country to legalise same-sex marriage. It’s becoming increasingly hard to justify Australia treating same-sex marriage as a domestic political issue rather than a human rights issue. It is ridiculous that two men or two women who can legally marry in the US, the UK, Canada, Germany, France or 18 other countries cannot enjoy the same right in Australia.

Turnbull not the master of his destiny

If Pyne was right that there was a chance that a recalcitrant Australia might at last make a move on same-sex marriage, that prospect, however slim, has been unambiguously ruled out. Which all but rules out same-sex marriage while a Coalition government is in power.

Before the next federal election, scheduled for 2019, the Coalition will have to decide on what position it will take to the electorate on same-sex marriage. The Pyne affair has made it abundantly clear that Turnbull is not the master of his political destiny. Presumably, Turnbull will again be compelled by his conservative faction, and by his Nationals coalition partner, to advocate a plebiscite.

Bear in mind that what Turnbull is being prevented from doing is putting same-sex marriage to a free vote in Parliament. The conservatives don’t want such a vote because Parliament will likely support same-sex marriage. The conservatives wish that the issue would simply disappear, but that much of the politics they have lost. Their second-best option is a plebiscite which they believe they would win. Despite polls showing overwhelming support for same-sex marriage, a no-holds-barred ‘no’ campaign may very well triumph. (And then what? Would a ‘no’ vote suddenly make marriage equality less of a human right?)

Turnbull may have momentarily placated conservative elements in his party room in the wake of the Pyne tape affair, but the issue of same-sex marriage has not gone away.

Turnbull must sooner or later confront the reality that there is a difference between leadership and saving his leadership. Same-sex marriage is an issue capable of splitting the Liberal party, the Coalition and the nation.

The true test of Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership will be not by what machinations he manages to retain his prime ministership, but having retained it, what steps will he take to ensure that Australia takes its place in the world as a nation that says ‘yes’ to marriage for all.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Follow him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

 

Malcolm Turnbull’s get-tough stance on English skills for migrants is just more dog-whistle politics

The Turnbull Government’s insistence on a tougher English-language test for migrants seeking Australian citizenship is at the very least perplexing and at worst alarming.

At first blush it might appear a reasonable requirement of new citizens, but what problem is the Government seeking to remedy? Why does the world’s most successful multicultural society, as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull so often describes Australia, suddenly need to overhaul its citizenship test, headlined by the requirement of English-language skills that many born-and-bred Australians may find challenging?

The absence of a clear explanation for a tougher English-language test can only invite the worst interpretation of the Government’s motives.

When it comes to using (and abusing) English language requirements as a barrier to migration, Australia has form going back to the very beginning of nationhood and the White Australia policy.

The Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 authorised immigration officials to dictate a passage of 50 words to a new arrival, who was required to write down and sign the given passage. The test was usually given in English, but if the migrant passed but was otherwise considered undesirable (that is, non-white), the immigration officer could repeat the test in another European language. This was the infamous Dictation Test.

The Turnbull Government is proposing nothing so blatant or draconian, but the intent would not be entirely unfamiliar to immigration officials enforcing the White Australia policy. Again, in the absence of a cogent explanation as to why Australia needs a tougher English-language test, the only available conclusion is that the Government wishes to filter out a certain group of people.

Those who support the Government’s tough stance on English-language skills say the same thing: “What’s wrong with expecting new citizens to read and write English?”

Of itself, nothing. But the tougher-test school makes various assumptions that simply do not stand up to scrutiny.

The first is that English deficiency has led to problems in the past. Of this there is no evidence; and even if it were to be demonstrated that this has been an issue, presumably it would be no greater than the problem caused by illiteracy levels in the wider Australian community. It would be unfair, not to say discriminatory, to requite new citizens to have higher English-language skills than born-and-bred Australian citizens.

The other assumption is that poor English is an unfailing indicator of character – of someone’s values, work ethic and good citizenship. New arrivals to Australia – or any country for that matter – do so with the intention of building a new and better life, with all the social and economic spin-offs that entails.

More about political optics

English or no English, some new citizens will immerse themselves in their new country, while others will leave it to their children and grandchildren to stake their claims as Australians. (And often there will be conflicts of cultural adjustment between generations, but that is a dynamic all of its own.)

The converse assumption that high English proficiency and a high score in the proposed values test would necessarily point to outstanding citizenship is simply naïve.

Criticism of the Government’s tougher approach to citizenship qualification is not to suggest that simply anyone can make Australia their home. But the Government’s get-tough approach is more about political optics than dealing with real deficiencies in our migration system. The continuation of John Howard’s infamous “we decide” mantra demonises rather than celebrates migrants to Australia; it places a question mark over the head of each person who does not sound or look like the rest of us.

If changes are needed, they should be considered at length, impartially and independently, based on public submissions and informed by Australia’s pre-eminent record as a multicultural society. Migration since the 1950s, a time of record migration to Australia, has not been without occasional social disruption, but on the whole it has delivered the society – and wealth – that most of us celebrate today.

We know what we have come to expect from Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, but surely we should expect better of Malcolm Turnbull. Their gratuitous call for tougher English-language testing is no better than those hurtful cries heard most frequently in the 1950s and 60s, “Why don’t you learn to bloody speak English!”, or more lyrically, “Why you no learna t’speaka da English?” Turnbull and his attack-dog Minister have given renewed license for such calls to be heard again.

My maternal grandparents migrated to Australia from Sicily in the 1950s. My grandfather had a rudimentary education roughly the equivalent of grade 3; my grandmother was illiterate. Neither learned to speak English, other than some basic words essential in the days of pre-self serve: milk, bread, butter, eggs. According to family lore, when my grandmother sat for your citizenship exam the English-language component involved her having to recite five English words; her selection included “Rinso” and “rump steak”.

I never heard either of my grandparents speak a whole sentence of English; they didn’t even qualify for “broken English”. Yet their contribution to Australia is beyond question.

He was always ‘Joe’

My grandfather worked in factories as a labourer for 20 years before he retired. “Giuseppe” was too difficult for his Australian workmates, so he was always Joe. Giuseppe was of a dark hue; in 1920s Australia he would have been classed as a “white alien”. (As in fact was my paternal grandfather when he migrated to Australia in 1925, except he was fair-skinned, reflecting Sicily’s own multicultural/racial history over millennia.)

But Giuseppe knew nothing of Australia’s vexed history of grudging tolerance and outright intolerance; or if he did, he did not let it get in the way of becoming a passionate Australian. His most prized possession was his citizenship certificate and his most abiding loyalty was to the Queen.

My grandmother, Rosa, was fair and blue-eyed. When she worked in her beautiful front garden, passers-by would assume she could speak English and would stop for a chat about the garden. Perhaps gardening is a universal language, because Rosa’s lack of English didn’t stop her from having the most animated conversations with little old ladies who wouldn’t have known Italy from a gum boot.

Despite their English-language “deficiency”, Giuseppe and Rosa bought a house, their five children, most migrating with them as adults, all worked and bought their own homes. Their grandchildren went to public and private schools, some played footy for local clubs, several went to university, and all went on to work in a variety of occupations: journalist, accountant, teacher, public servant and various trades.

So what’s the problem, PM? Loaded calls for tough English-language tests are clearly designed to appeal to a section of the Australian population – and backbench – whose intolerance hardly needs further stoking. The calls are presumably aimed at Muslims – or seen to be aimed at Muslims – buy they are a slap in the face for all migrants who over the decades have come to Australia with only positive ambitions: to rebuild, prosper, enjoy freedoms and to give back as best they can.

For Malcolm Turnbull to say otherwise is to repudiate his own boast that Australia is the most successful multicultural society in the world.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Follow him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

 

Malcolm Turnbull has hit a new low as he announces ‘Australian values’ crackdown on new migrants and foreign workers

Among the very few positive contributions that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has made to public discourse in Australia has been on the subject of multiculturalism, so it is disheartening that he should sink to his most desperate low by demonising the very people he was lauding only weeks ago.

Turnbull has in recent days adopted the xenophobic language of Pauline Hanson and the far-right of his own party. The spurious “abolition” of the 457 skilled migration visa gave Turnbull the opportunity to repeat ad nauseam loaded phrases such as “putting Australian jobs first”, “Australians for Australian jobs” and “Australian values” as well as plenty of gratuitous references to “foreigners”. (When it comes to such Trumpisms, Bill “I make no apology, I’m going to stand up for Australian jobs first and Australians first” Shorten hasn’t got a spindly leg to stand on, so the less we hear from him on this the better.)

The abolition of the 457 visa – in fact no more than a tidying up of the scheme – is a political rather than a policy exercise. The more Turnbull stressed that this was “a careful exercise in policy development” the plainer it became that it was nothing of the kind. To the extent that it was “carefully considered by Cabinet” it was to provide the Government with the opportunity to indulge in some migrant-bashing.

Turnbull has been, to employ his terminology, “manifestly, rigorously, resolutely” shameless in the jingoism he has employed.

“It [457] will be replaced by a new system that will be manifestly, rigorously, resolutely conducted in the national interest to put Australians and Australian jobs first. That’s our commitment: Australian jobs, Australian values,” Turnbull said at his press conference, with Immigration Minister Peter Dutton nodding approvingly by his side.

And in case there was any doubt about the atmospherics of the 457 announcement, Turnbull could not resist this tribute to his former foe, now mentor:

“[W]e should not underestimate either our success as a multicultural society or the fact that our success is built on a foundation of confidence by the Australian people that it is their government and their government alone that determines in the national interest who comes here and the terms on which they come and how long they stay.”

For those who might have been curious as to how low Turnbull was prepared to plumb in order to retain his job, they may need to be patient as it appears Malcolm is still digging.

Nobody realised a crackdown was required

Hot on the heels of the concocted 457 announcement the Prime Minister has announced a crackdown on migration rules and eligibility criteria for prospective citizens. This may come as a surprise to anyone not realising that a crackdown was required.

The shake-up of the migration program includes tougher English-language requirements, an “Australian values” test and proof that applicants have attempted to integrate into Australian society, providing evidence of a job, the enrolment of their children in school, and even membership of community organisations. Migrants who have permanent residence must now wait four years – currently it’s one year – before they can apply for citizenship.

In announcing these tougher measures, Turnbull has provided no evidence of inadequacies in the current migration system that needed to be rectified. He is claiming credit for fixing a system that nobody knew was broken.

The tougher migration regimen being proposed has only one purpose: to pander to the most reactionary elements in the Australian community.

“Membership of the Australian family is a privilege and should be afforded to those who support our values, respect our laws and want to work hard by integrating and contributing to an even better Australia. We must ensure that our citizenship program is conducted in our national interest,” Turnbull said, pressing all the red-neck buttons.

It’s just what supporters of One Nation and fringe ultra-right groups want to hear – or at least, that’s what Coalition strategists are hoping – but precisely how it can be proven that would-be migrants will be true to these motherhood verities is something else again. The fact of the matter is that many Anglo Australians – what Pauline Hanson and her flag-draped supporters might dub “real Australians” – would fail to meet these standards.

Migrants come to Australia to seek a better life for themselves and their children, which by definition means a preparedness to work, to contribute and give-back in myriad ways, to strive for the best possible education for their children, and generally to prosper.

The idea that migrants come to Australia with a view to recasting the nation in their image is a myth as old as the vestiges of White Australia that persist to this day and are now being fanned by Turnbull. One would have to be of a particularly forgiving mind not to conclude that Turnbull’s shameless dog-whistling is aimed at those who believe Muslim migrants are hell bent on turning Australia into a Sharia state.

Turnbull’s sudden conviction that Australia needs tougher migration laws is at odds with his own recent statements on multiculturalism.

‘An example to the world’

In March, the government released its statement on multiculturalism: Multicultural Australia – United, Strong, Successful. What part of “united, strong, successful” is the government seeking to remedy?

In a soaring speech delivered to coincide with the release of the statement, Turnbull was at his most eloquent and statesmanlike. There was no hint that Australia’s multiculturalism was in need of urgent repair. Far from it. He declared with evident pride that Australia’s multicultural society is “the envy of the world” and “an example to the world”.

“We are the most successful multicultural society in the world and it’s a badge we wear with pride,” he said.

“We are proud of the role immigration has played in shaping the Australia we love so much.

“At a time of growing global tensions and rising uncertainty, we remain a steadfast example of a harmonious, egalitarian and enterprising nation, which embraces its diversity.

“We welcome newcomers with open arms and mutual respect because we are confident in our culture, our institutions and our laws. In return, our newest Australians pledge loyalty to Australia and its people, affirm our shared democratic beliefs and agree to respect and uphold our liberties, rights and laws.”

Well, apparently not if we are to believe Turnbull’s most recent statements calling for an Australian values-based migration system.

Even for a government notorious for flitting from one policy position to another, the differences between the sentiments expressed by Turnbull in that March speech and the subsequent narrow-minded, retrograde rhetoric of 1950s Australia weeks later could not be starker.

It is no wonder that voters have turned their backs on this Prime Minister who promised so much and has delivered so little. While many – including this writer – have dared to hope that we may yet get to see the “real Malcolm” it is hard to imagine that after this latest act of base populism and political cowardice that his prime ministership can ever be redeemed.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Follow him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher or correspond via leodangelofisher@gmail.com