Our prime minister deals in absolutes. Coal is good for humanity – not some coal or some parts of humanity. No suggestion that coal can have its disadvantages, adverse consequences, to sully its benefits. There are no qualifications: coal is good for humanity. The sky is blue, the grass is green, beauty is truth, truth beauty; that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.
And it’s a similar story with border protection: the most moral thing you can do is to stop the boats. No matter that this eternal verity does not even appear in Tony Abbott’s own catechism: there is no mention of Thou Shalt Stop the Boats among the Ten Commandments, nor does the Sermon on the Mount contain the message Blessed are the boat-stoppers, for they are the most moral of us all.
Abbott’s repeated insistence that everything that has been done to stop the boats has been lawful may or may not be true: he refuses to adduce any evidence to support it. But even if it is to be accepted – at least as far as Australian law is concerned – it has almost nothing to do with morality.
Indeed, when it comes to paying off people smugglers to return the hapless cargo to Indonesia, it may not even be good policy; as one historically minded commentator has reminded us, once you pay the danegeld, you will never get rid of the Dane. And moral, except in a strictly ends-justify-means sense, it most certainly is not.
Crooks bribing cops is what crooks do. But it is a bit different from cops bribing crooks, which is what we are talking about.
The best Abbott’s boosters have been able to say is that it is probably no more immoral than some other behaviour regarding people smugglers. Abbott’s bestie, The Australian’s foreign editor Greg Sheridan assures his readers that the smugglers often bribe Indonesian police to give them a green light. And no doubt they try it – crooks bribing cops is what crooks do. But it is a bit different from cops bribing crooks, which is what we are talking about.
And it has also been revealed that it was likely – again no one will confirm it – that in the past Australian officials have bribed people smugglers or their cohorts to provide information. Distasteful, certainly, but paying phizzgigs is accepted police practice. What is rather more unusual is paying the crooks to continue and resume their previous criminal activities, especially when there are innocent victims who may be involved.
However this fine distinction has successfully confused the issue to the extent that has taken the government largely off the hook at a time when it appeared to have been floundering. Two ministers, Julie Bishop and Peter Dutton who should have been in the loop initially responded by indignantly denying that it had ever happened, only to tacitly admit after more mature consideration, that they had perhaps misspoken. Since then both they and all their colleagues have followed the rote mantra of offering the lawful line, while refusing to discuss what they call operational matters. Bribery is operational? Some operation.
This ritual secrecy is, of course, somewhat selective; Sheridan, for one, seems to have little trouble unearthing his version of what happened when it is in the interests of the government. And the Indonesians are far from satisfied – but who cares about the Indonesians? What matters is the domestic politics, and it is here that Bill Shorten, having announced that he would prosecute the case to the utmost, has once again folded.
It is almost beyond belief that Shorten and his advisers were apparently not aware, or did not check, that the bribes had not emerged overnight; the cops and spooks were just as likely to have slipping their backhanders to willing traffickers in the Rudd-Gillard years, if not before. A modicum of due diligence would have had Shorten prepared for the counter attack, and to be able to explain the gross discrepancy between what happened then and what has allegedly happened now. But it appears that the Labor leader is just as myopic about the past as about the future.
Instead of going after the shadowy figure of Agus (clearly an assumed name – perhaps a mispronunciation of Argus, the ever-seeing watchman of the gods) and the broken deal that saw the crew and their hapless passengers to transferred to two other vessels with a minimum of fuel and food, as a result of which one ran out of juice and the other, now overloaded, ran aground and needed rescue by the long-suffering locals – instead of pursuing this clear evidence of cruelty, betrayal and danger to life attested by both the crew and the asylum seekers, the leader of the always loyal opposition again fell into silence and went to water.
And the same lack of prescience has now caught up with the allegations over his trade union dealings in the past. He called the Heydon commission a witch hunt, and predicted that it would be used to target Labor leaders and particularly him, but he apparently did nothing to forearm himself when the attack boiled over from the courtroom into the parliament and the media. Now he is again on the defensive. He may clear himself of the charges, but he is unlikely to allay the feeling that he has been an opportunist, always looking for personal advancement as the main chance.
Talk that he is vulnerable as the party leader is fanciful; not only he is protected by the Rudd rules, but a justified fear that he would unleash a fearsome retaliation and vengeance against any move to challenge him has potential contenders effectively cowered. The party room is secure. But the electorate is another matter. After a long period of indecision, the voters are moving increasingly to the conclusion that Bill Shorten simply can’t hack it.
His position is perhaps similar to that of an opposition leader of some 20 years ago; in 1996 Malcolm McGregor noted that the only reason John Howard won that federal election was because he was standing against Paul Keating. If he had been unopposed, he would have lost. So Shorten must be desperately hoping that Tony Abbott can hang on as Prime Minister. That looks like being his last, best hope.