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

 

 

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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

Malcolm Turnbull the fair-weather republican: a lack of leadership stalls Australia’s coming of age

Malcolm Turnbull’s dithering on the Australian republic is almost as frustrating as the monarchists’ irrational ties to the British Crown.

Turnbull’s clumsy aside that a postal survey may be in order on the subject is another example of the procrastination which has marked his prime ministership.

Turnbull either believes in the republic or he does not. If he does, he must show leadership on the issue as Paul Keating did before him. Keating needed no postal survey to convince him of the case for a republic, nor did he hide behind the cowardly pretence of waiting for the “right time” before bringing the issue to the fore. If not for Keating’s leadership on the republic there would have been no referendum in 1999, an historic opportunity scuttled by the wrecking-ball politics of the prime minister of the day, John Howard, who cynically (but skilfully) used the issue of the model for choosing a president as a wedge to favour the status quo.

Most Australians will recall Turnbull’s damning epithet for Howard as the prime minister who “broke this nation’s heart”. History will also recall that Turnbull not only forgave Howard’s calumny but came to regard the former prime minister as his greatest mentor.

The argument that the timing of another referendum on the republic should be determined by a groundswell of public sentiment for change is bogus. In the absence of leadership once more placing the republic on the political agenda – at which point Australians will become engaged on the issue – the status quo will simply simmer under the flickering flame of indifference.

Waiting for the Queen to die (begging your pardon Ma’am)

To further assert, as Turnbull has done, that the matter of the republic should not be considered while the Queen remains on the throne is gutless procrastination.

The inference that the Queen would somehow be insulted were the issue to arise once more during her reign is the real insult. As a model constitutional monarch Elizabeth understands that this is an issue for Australians to decide on, irrespective of who the monarch may be. The other inference to be drawn from this weak-kneed proposition – more insulting than the first – is that Charles will be an unpopular monarch and therefore will be a boon to the republican cause.

The argument for a republic has nothing to do with what we may think of the reigning monarch. There is no reason to suppose that Charles won’t in time prove as popular as his mother, and even if that were not to be the case, the allure of William coming to the throne may prove too irresistible for a celebrity-addled populace, ensuring that the “right time” remains ever-elusive.

The principal arguments for a republic are so fundamental that it beggars belief that Australia remains a constitutional monarchy well into the 21st century. The historical, cultural and sentimental ties between the Crown and Australia are simply not what they were.

Australia’s maturity as an independent nation and our irrevocable and ever-deepening composition as a multicultural society demands a system of government that is uniquely and unambiguously Australian and which reflects who we are today and will likely be in the future, not who we used to be.

Much of remaining monarchical sentiment is based on a lazy attachment to the status quo, where change is viewed as something to be avoided, whether because it’s best stick to “the devil you know” or that to do otherwise is just too much bother.

Then there’s the celebrity fandom disguised as loyalty to the Crown. What if becoming a republic stems the tide of royal stories in the Australian media? And won’t Wills and Harry stop visiting if we become a republic? Monarchical sentiment based on royal celebrity reduces Australia to a nation governed not by the Constitution but by New Idea.

Mythology surrounding the role of the Crown

Most frustrating of all in support for constitutional monarchy is the mythology that surrounds the role and influence of the British Crown in Australia.

There is the argument that the current constitutional system with the Queen as titular head of state has “given Australia a very stable and workable system of government” and has “contributed to our country being one of only a handful of nations which has remained fully democratic throughout the 20th century”. (These quotes are from John Howard’s 1999 statement in which he outlined his reasons for voting ‘no’ in the republic referendum. His arguments remain the case against the republic.)

Despite such a seminal role that the monarchy ostensibly plays in bringing stability to Australian democracy, it has never been explained exactly how the monarchy has achieved this.

Further arguments against a republic (again taking from Howard’s statement) include the warning that “some of the checks and balances in our present system would be weakened under a republic” and that “the president could be less secure in his or her position than is the Governor-General”.

The tenure of the Governor-General is in fact absurdly fragile and the very antithesis of order and stability. He or she can be sacked on a prime ministerial whim, without reason or premise, and without recourse to the “Queen of Australia”, who is obliged to follow the advice of her Australian prime minister, regardless of how egregious his or her actions in dismissing the viceroy might be.

One of the more ridiculous arguments used by monarchists

Which brings us to one of the more ridiculous arguments used by Australian monarchists for preserving the status quo: the Queen is actually powerless and doesn’t have much to do with Australia. This from fervent monarchist Howard:

“The Queen is Queen of Australia. However, under our present constitution, the Governor-General is effectively Australia’s head of state. The only constitutional duty performed by the Queen relates to the appointment of the Governor-General which must be done on the recommendation of the Prime Minister of the day.”

Having explained that the monarch is little more than a token symbol one might wonder how the monarchy has proven so effective in safeguarding Australian democracy.

Australian monarchists also disclaim the idea that Australia needs to be a republic in order to ensure that the head of state is an Australian. Here the purportedly loyal subjects of the Queen bend over backwards to explain that Elizabeth isn’t really the head of state at all, that the Governor-General is the effective head of state, and that since 1965 he or she has been an Australian. Take it away Johnny:

“It is inconceivable that any future occupant of that office would be other than an Australian,” Howard explains.

“Executive political authority is vested in the Prime Minister and other members of the Cabinet who must always come from the majority party in the House of Representatives.

“The Governor-General…exercises the reserve powers of the crown, completely free of any interference from anyone. His powers flow from the Australian Constitution. They do not flow from the Queen. He acts in accordance with the Constitution of Australia. Although he is the Queen’s representative, he does not take instructions from her.”

So again the argument for remaining a monarchy is that the monarch has been so comprehensively sidelined that – wink, wink – we are already a republic in all but name.

One might think this would prompt monarchists to ask the obvious question: ‘Why remain a monarchy when the monarch has so little function or purpose in Australia?’ But apparently not.

Junior Minister Alex Hawke, in response to the latest Keating-inspired stab at igniting debate on the republic, predictably insisted that, “Constitutional monarchy continues to serve Australia well as does our Queen”.

Arguments for a republic, he continued, “always fail to outline any improvement to our structure of government that would benefit Australians”. Hawke may be right. The structure of government might not change at all – given that, as monarchists have argued so comprehensively, Australia is already a de facto republic, but for the incongruity of kinda-sorta having the Queen of England as our head of state.

As for the “improvement” that Hawke seeks: that would be Australia finally growing up.

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

 

What has ‘religious freedom’ got to do with same-sex marriage? Absolutely nothing

One of the cornerstone arguments to emerge in the same-sex marriage debate is that a ‘Yes’ vote for marriage equality will erode religious freedom. Such cant lays bare the irrelevance of institutional religion in a secular society in which rule of law, not arcane theology, safeguards the rights of all citizens.

Traditional churches are blind to the irony that in demanding the protection of religious freedom they are striking at the freedom of gay and lesbian Australians to marry.

It never ceases to amaze that the pious can be so arrogant. The defenders of the marriage status quo – led by the Australian Christian Lobby – place religious privilege and religious doctrine above the human rights of a group of Australians who for no rational reason are excluded from the institution of marriage.

What is marriage equality but the right to dignity? The right to express love and commitment in a culturally recognised form that is currently only open to one section of the population – at least in Australia?

Churches protest that same-sex marriage offends the sanctity of marriage. There is nothing inherently sacred about marriage, save for the commitment that two people make to each other. Churches are demanding a ‘No’ vote based on an idea of marriage that does not exist in practice. They defend “traditional” marriage as if this is a flawless institution that has retained its perfection over centuries.

Marriage between a man and a woman, including those solemnised in a church, are no more or less prone to the vicissitudes of human relationships. Yet based on their idealised view of marriage churches argue that same-sex marriage would be an affront. It is the churches, not those who advocate marriage equality, that offend the norms, expectations and entitlements of a 21st century society.

Traditional marriage has earned itself no right to exclusivity. The proposition that Australian should vote ‘No’ because the Bible defines marriage as the union between a man and a woman is too ridiculous for words. Such nonsense has no place in a secular society. There is no religious ground that supersedes basic human and civil rights.

Homosexual Australians seeking marriage equality make no claim that they can do better at marriage than their hapless heterosexual brothers and sisters. They simply ask for the same right to have their love solemnised. Whether being married brings them weeks or a lifetime of happiness is not anyone’s business, just as it is not in the case of traditional marriage.

Religious freedom, or religious zealotry?

Religious institutions behave as if marriage is their proprietary product. It is not. But churches are doing more than advocating a ‘No’ vote. They are already preparing to assert their right to “religious freedom” in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote.

Not only will they demand the right to refuse to conduct same-sex weddings, they will demand the right not to employ anyone from a same-sex union in their schools, child-care centres, hospitals, aged-care facilities and any other organisation under their aegis. Or indeed anyone who simply supports same-sex marriage.

In an astonishing example of religious zealotry going well beyond the ambit of religious freedom, this week a Presbyterian church in the Victorian regional city of Ballarat refused to marry a couple because they had dared to express support for same-sex marriage on Facebook.

Days after the post, the minister of Ebenezer St John’s summoned the young couple – the bride is 26, the groom 25 – to inform them that he could not marry them, nor would they be permitted to hold their ceremony at the church.

In a letter to the bride published by Fairfax Media the minister wrote:

“After the pre-marital counselling that you attended and the sermons delivered at Ebenezer on this subject, you must surely appreciate that your commitment to same-sex marriage opposes the teaching of Christ Jesus and the scriptural position practiced by the Presbyterian Church of Australia and by me.

“This conflict of views has practical consequences in relation to your upcoming wedding.

“By continuing to officiate it would appear either that I support your views on same-sex marriage or that I am uncaring about this matter. As you know, neither statement is correct.

“Also, if the wedding proceeded in the Ebenezer St John’s church buildings, the same inferences could be drawn about the Presbyterian denomination. Such inferences would be wrong.”

This is an untenable over-reach by the Presbyterian church: not only does the church impose its will on same-sex couples, it even punishes those who dare to express a view in support of same-sex marriage. Why do we tolerate such rubbish?

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull not only tolerates it, he is fully supportive.

“Churches are entitled to marry or not marry whom they please. That is part of religious freedom,” he told Fairfax Media.

“As strongly as I believe in the right of same-sex couples to marry, even more strongly do I believe in religious freedom.”

PM says religious freedom trumps marriage equality

Perhaps it is good politics not to antagonise religious institutions lest it derail the ‘Yes’ campaign. Not so clear is why Turnbull felt it necessary to go the extra mile and declare his belief in religious freedom to be “even stronger” than his commitment to marriage equality.

Even in the event of marriage equality becoming law there is a clue in Turnbull’s trademark timidity that same-sex marriage will be not quite the equal of traditional marriage.

Why do we continue to give religious institutions such a powerful position in society? A position that is increasingly at odds with a secular society and which no longer has the social licence it once did.

If organised religion was embodied in one man, he would currently be in gaol for life for his heinous crimes against innocent children. He would certainly not be treated as a wise elder with a privileged place at the table to deliberate on the future of marriage. Yet religion’s position in society, as recognised by law, remains undiminished.

Churches are in no position to claim the moral authority to impose themselves on society.

We can only hope that an unintended outcome of the postal plebiscite is that Australians come to question why it is that in 2017 religion still has such force in our lives. It is well time to consider why churches continue to qualify for generous tax breaks, legal exemptions and elevated policy influence.

The marriage-equality debate – and the concessions demanded by churches – underscores their irrelevance.

The same-sex marriage debate over the weeks ahead places an overdue spotlight on the issue of marriage equality. The issue should have been decided by Parliament, and Malcolm Turnbull stands condemned that it was not, but even an inadequate “postal survey” is a welcome indicator of Australia’s social maturity. Not so long ago asking Australians to vote on same-sex marriage would have been unthinkable. Alas, our religious institutions possess no such maturity.

So it is to be welcomed that the marriage-equality debate will also shine a light on organised religion in Australia. Their conduct – and their demands in the name of religious freedom in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote – will hopefully prompt long overdue scrutiny of the role of institutional religion in Australia.

Churches have a right to exist and people have a right to worship at those churches, but it is time that the separation of church and state to which we pay lip service was given greater force of law.

Religion in a secular society is a marriage not made in heaven.

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

 

 

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

 

 

As PM announces expenses reforms, the Sussan Ley affair will prove either a new beginning for Malcolm Turnbull, or the beginning of the end

It has not been a propitious start to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s year. The inevitable resignation of Health Minister Sussan Ley over her tin-eared excesses on the public purse is another blow to the standing of the Turnbull Government, a government which has failed miserably to gain traction with Australian voters.

Ley’s egregious exploitation of ministerial entitlements – most notably the improbable “impulse” purchase of a $795,000 investment property on the Gold Coast while on a taxpayer-funded trip – has cut short the ministerial career of one of the few ministers to shine in Turnbull’s lacklustre frontbench. Ley’s fall from grace has been compounded by her insistence that she has done nothing wrong.

In her statement to the media, Ley avows that she has followed the rules, “not just regarding entitlements but most importantly the ministerial code of conduct”.

“Whilst I have attempted at all times to be meticulous with rules and standards, I accept community annoyance, even anger, with politicians’ entitlements demands a response,” she explained.

Amidst the delicately phrased words of borderline – not to say faux – contrition, Ley clearly considers her demise to be about politics rather than ethics: “The ongoing intense media speculation has made this… a difficult week for the Government.”

Voters will doubtless consider it fitting that, having been sprung with her hand in the public purse, Ley has paid the ultimate price. But Ley could not bring herself to make an unreserved apology, a fateful decision that will likely forestall a return to the frontbench any time soon as well as confirm voters’ deepening view that politicians are arrogant and out of touch.

This latest expenses scandal tells us as much about Malcolm Turnbull’s struggling leadership as it does Ley’s overblown sense of entitlement.

The fact that Ley and, as it has subsequently emerged, fellow ministers have not seen fit to curb their excesses in the wake of Bronwyn Bishop’s “choppergate” scandal and the resulting government expenses review can only suggest the Prime Minister commands scant authority over his government.

Despite making it clear that in his view Ley had breached his ministerial code of conduct, Turnbull chose not to dismiss his wayward minister. Instead, Ley stepped aside while the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Martin Parkinson, conducted a review – a course that presumably had more to do with buying time than establishing facts that were already known.

A question of judgement

Rather than buying time, the decision for Ley to stand aside prolonged the damaging political fallout for the government and again called into question Turnbull’s political judgement.

Turnbull’s choice of Cabinet Secretary Arthur Sinodinos – himself not without political baggage – to act as Minister for Health and Aged Care and Minister for Sport also suggests that the Prime Minister has few ministerial colleagues to turn to when it comes to ministers he truly trusts.

When Ley finally announced that she was falling on her sword – stressing that her resignation was a “personal decision” – Turnbull praised her “appropriate judgement”, which only raises the question of why Turnbull did not act himself to terminate Ley’s commission.

Ley’s departure opens the way for Turnbull to reshuffle his frontbench. His test will be to appoint a ministry that re-energises his government, a government languishing in the opinion polls and riven by factional discord.

After an initially sluggish response to the Ley affair, Turnbull’s bold announcement of reforms to parliamentarians’ work expenses, including the creation of a new compliance authority, may herald the emergence of a more assertive Prime Minister.

Or it may set up 2017 as another disappointing year in which a Prime Minister of whom so much was expected continues to disappoint as a diffident and unambitious leader. The difference this year is that neither the increasingly skittish Liberal party nor disillusioned voters will have any remaining stores of patience with Turnbull’s lack of authority and policy vigour.

Perhaps the Ley affair has finally prompted the “real Malcolm” to come out of hiding. If so, Sussan Ley has done Australia a great service. The question now is: can Turnbull maintain the momentum? He will need to, because 2017 will almost certainly be a make or break time for Malcolm Turnbull.

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