By Mungo MacCallum
Christmas comes but once a year to fill the voters’ hearts with fear; so now that Tony Abbott is not here as Prime Minister to supply it, The Australian has obligingly steeped in to the space with a splendidly seasonal beat-up.
It started with an interview not in the national daily, but in its little sister the Daily Telegraph, which somehow made it worse. Duncan Lewis had the temerity to assert that Muslim baiting in Australia was overblown and dangerous and could make the various counter-terrorist agencies harder to do their work.
And, shock horror, he had reportedly said the same thing to some of the coalition’s more bellicose back benchers, just in case they could not read the newspaper. But what would Duncan Lewis know about it? He is only the Director-General of ASIO, our chief domestic intelligence network and the man responsible for the nation’s security.
Fortunately we had The Australian’s fearless foreign editor, Greg Sheridan, who set him right. Lewis, thundered the paper’s uberpundit, was wrong in substance and in principle. His substantial sin, it appears, was implicitly criticising Sheridan’s dear friend Tony Abbott – utterly unacceptable, akin to blasphemy. And his mistake in principle was to involve his job in political debate – it was an issue of free speech, which could be left untrammelled by the Abbottistas of this world, but must be ruthlessly suppressed in the case of Lewis.
And this, continued Sheridan, was not only his opinion; he had talked to lots of his friends, politicians of course, but also extensive contacts within the security services – supportive spooks. Which is really the point; while ASIO’s boss, Lewis, is prepared to be upfront with the public about his carefully thought out assessments, there are still many of his unreconstructed underlings who are willing and able to leak, anonymously to supportive elements in the media to further their own agendas.
Sheridan is not the only one, nor the first to be the beneficiary of such subterfuge; since ASIO was inaugurated at the start of the cold war years there have been compliant politicians and journalists eager to feed on whatever scraps of information – and misinformation – their sources could provide. And few, if any, complained, even when they have turned out to be seriously misled.
Lewis, encouraged by Turnbull, has been more open, to the chagrin of conspirators like Sheridan who love to believe that they are real players in the secret world, lurkers in the shadows.
It has since turned out that Lewis spoke to just two members of parliament: Dan Tehan, who is the chair of the joint parliamentary committee on intelligence and security, and the newly-elected Andrew Hastie, who, like Lewis himself, is a former SAS officer. Neither of the two has objected to Lewis’s counsel. The outrage, as Sheridan called it, came from the usual suspects in the Abbott camp: the terrible Tasmanians, Eric Abetz and Andrew Nikolic, and the West Australian Dennis Jensen, perhaps urged on by the usual suspects in the media.
Turnbull himself has firmly denied that he asked Lewis to speak to anyone in particular, but that he did say that the ASIO chief and his colleagues in the counter-terrorism business should be prepared to talk to as many people as possible – politicians on both sides, community groups and journalists – including, presumably, Greg Sheridan. But I doubt if The Australian’s deep throat will take out the offer. After all, to tell his readers what his sources actually are would take all the fun out of it.
Just to confirm that conspiracies are the paper’s meat and drink, a follow up piece – no, a screaming headline — on Monday proclaimed: ‘PM warned on stifling Islam debate’. There was, we were told, a ‘furious dispute’ within the coalition party room – which has, of course, been empty since parliament rose for the summer recess, but had anyone been inside it, no doubt they would have been disputing furiously.
As it was, the report did not name a single new source; the zealous defenders of their right to free speech were carefully anonymous – if, indeed, they existed. But they were enough for Sheridan to fulminate in yet another opinion piece that Turnbull must sort out the ‘incredibly messy business of misusing ASIO to enforce political uniformity’.
And the chief stirrer of the schemozzle went on to deplore ‘inexperience of national security, a lack of a clear, consistent deeply thought out political outlook on the matter, combined to endlessly put Abbott to the sword’. But fortunately Sheridan, as always, had a solution: ‘Where is the national security grey beard, the hard head, someone who can blend the policy and the politics, in his (Turnbull’s) inner circle?’
Who could he possibly have in mind? After all, the photograph that came with the diatribe shows that Sheridan’s beard is only slightly grizzled, not really grey. But, having in the previous week penned the job application for Tony Abbott to take over as Turnbull’s partner, perhaps it is only fitting that he should spruik his own credentials. It would be nice to have the two close friends working together to re-educate their boss.
But alas, Malcolm Turnbull already has security advisers he trusts: Duncan Lewis, for instance, and also the Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, Andrew Colvin, who has also spoken on the need for a calm and measured approach when it comes to dealing with the Muslim community. Sheridan will have to be content with his traditional role of ringing his bells and waving his placards, warning constantly that the end is nigh unless and until the leftie sinners like Turnbull are defeated in the final battle – when, of course, they will be cast down to burn in hell forever.
And let’s face it, Sheridan would never be comfortable in the rational optimism surrounding Turnbull’s office. He will always be happier in the metaphysical forebodings of the Murdoch empire. After all, it is entirely appropriate that Greg Sheridan translates anagrammatically as he rigs danger.
And with that thought, merry Christmas to all our readers. And bah humbug to the rest of you.