I’ve pondered it before and I am pondering it again – what is it about conservative immigration ministers?
What makes them so horrible – nature or nurture?
One after the other, they emerge from the shadows, inoffensive and even amiable, and in a few short months they turn into monsters. Is it the job, or is it something in their inner being that gives them licence to channel their potential to become a version of Ivan the Terrible?
Philip Ruddock, for instance, started as moderate, a genuine liberal; but given the opportunity – an ultimatum, really – he morphed into a tyrant, incarcerating hapless boat people in the hellhole of Nauru while defiantly flaunting his Amnesty badge in the process.
Kevin Andrews was always a mean-spirited social services minister, but once moved to Immigration he unleashed a streak of brutality that made him as feared and loathed as his predecessor.
Not only is Dutton as ruthless as his unlamented predecessors, he has reached new heights (or depths) of authoritarian arrogance.
Scott Morrison relished his moment from the beginning, running the post as a military supremo, quashing dissent and even inquiry in a manner which verged on – transcended – the totalitarian. And now we have Peter Dutton, who has adopted Morrison’s euphemistic title of Minister for Border Protection.
Peter who? In an earlier life he was an undistinguished health minister, achieving little save the occasional blunder, seldom noticed and almost never regarded. Now he apparently sees himself as a character along the lines of Napoleon – George Orwell’s caricature of a megalomaniac pig, not the French emperor.
Not only is he as ruthless as his unlamented predecessors, he has reached new heights (or depths) of authoritarian arrogance. We are told that when his plan to unilaterally cancel the citizenship of Australians who may, just may, be able to avail themselves of other passports was queried in cabinet, he simply dismissed the doubters.
What, it was asked, if the victim of his vengeance had previously been found guilty by a properly convened court?
Why, replied the unflinching minister, that was exactly the point. To hell with the rule of law, to hell with the separation of powers. His word, his will, his whim, would prevail.
The state, that was him. Shades of another Queensland hillbilly dictator, one Joh Bjelke-Petersen.
Dutton was talking about literally millions of Australians; I can think of a dozen of my own friends who are in that category.
And not only those of foreign descent – their children, in some cases their grandchildren.
To propose that a significant proportion of the population should be potentially deprived of their most basic right on the mere suspicion of one man is more than outrageous; it is a paranoid fantasy.
But Dutton, backed by Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison, was raising it not only as a thought bubble but as a pre-announced reality. A handful of more sane ministers restrained him, but not, apparently, his backbench, urging him on like the more bloodthirsty spectators in the Coliseum.
And we know now that Dutton was already razing new fields: pausing only to dispense a couple of king hits to professor Gillian Triggs and senator Sarah Hanson-Young, he moved on to announce that his critics would henceforth be jailed forthwith: doctors and teachers who worked in the gulags of Nauru and Manus Island were forbidden to breathe a word of the appalling conditions prevailing among the inmates, the viciousness and possible criminality of the guards or indeed anything that would detract from the unfettered tyranny of the places under the threat of imprisonment themselves.
Not only their civil liberties and rights, but their actual duty of care was to be arbitrarily removed in the name of – well, what? Border security?
Hardly – the only security which is involved is that of the asylum seekers themselves and we all know that that was disregarded long ago.
This is mere power for the sake of power: the naked image of a boot crashing down on a human face, another of George Orwell’s unforgettable phrases.
The long-conditioned public has, as they say, moved on; as far as the bulk of the voters are concerned, the asylum seekers are out of sight and out of mind.
But surely there must be politicians who still cling to their democratic ideals who will rise up in protest? Well, there are the Greens, and they deserve credit for it. But as for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, the parliamentary Labor Party – barely a squeak.
Once again Bill Shorten has signalled a pre-emptive grovel: principle, if there ever was one, is to be subordinated to popularity. This is not realpolitik – it is moral cowardice.
Even when the worst of the Tampa crisis was developing in the run-up to an election in 2001, Kim Beazley – a bit of a pussycat of a leader himself – drew the line; the idea that the police and the military that were to be above the law, to be exempted from crimes up to murder in performing the government’s dirty work, was not acceptable and was not accepted.
But Beazley looks like a positive hero of the Resistance in comparison to the folding Bill.
Regrettably, in one sense it is just par for the course: Shorten’s bipartisan capitulation as the spooks and their political appeasers move remorselessly towards more repression, more secrecy, more authoritarianism.
We are not looking at a police state in Australia – not yet. But those who fear that direction are being increasingly silenced, if not by force then by timidity, by conformity, by apathy.
The point men for the sinister advance are the power-drunk mediocrities promoted as immigration ministers; their lieutenants are the backbench cohort, the camp-followers their media cheerleaders and the cannon fodder the easily seduced voters. But the willing collaborators are the so-called opposition and its so-called leaders, wallowing in their gutlessness in what they misguidedly believe is their own advantage. When the time comes, of course, they too will be taken; appeasers always are.
It is time, much more than time, that they reflected on the old adage: for evil to triumph, it is only necessary for good men to remain silent. That is, if there are any good men left.