Tony Abbott losing credibility by the day
Just when we thought the ridicule floating around the Royal Commission into Trade Union Government and Corruption might have ended, it was surely added to today. The Commissioner, Dyson Heydon, adjudicated that despite being a guest speaker at the annual Garfield Barwick Address (a Liberal Party-initiated event hosted from 2010 onwards), he will continue with his commission until its completion, ruling that “it is not the case that a fair-minded lay observer might apprehend that I might not bring an impartial mind” to the inquiry.
However, if Dyson Heydon really understood how a fair-minded person might think, he would understand this imaginary person would believe otherwise, considering he was appointed to the High Court in 2003 by the Howard Government; both of his parents were staff to former Liberal Party minister, Ron Casey, and Heydon was on the panel that approved the Rhodes Scholarship for Tony Abbott in 1980. His father was also the private secretary to Robert Menzies. And although self-ruling in this situation is an acceptable legal protocol, the fair-minded person might conclude that it’s totally outrageous that Heydon can decide by himself whether he can continue with his commission, especially at the handsome fee of $3,000 per day.
Aside from his innate conservatism, it would be hard to find someone on the political spectrum more diametrically opposite to the Labor Party and the union movement. He was also legal adviser to Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy, and worked with Tony Abbott in the campaign against the republic referendum in 1999. In 2013, at the right-wing think-tank Centre for Independent Studies, he claimed that the ‘Rudd government was non-substansive’ and criticised the Gillard government about various bills in parliament, and its spending patterns. He’s a Liberal man, through and through.
Due to speak at the annual Garfield Barwick address, an event organised by the Liberal Party, and promoted as a fundraiser for the Liberal Party, Heydon claims that he wasn’t aware that it was a fundraiser and should not lead to the average ordinary person thinking that he might be, in any way, biased.
His main rebuttal to the claim that he received emails about his speaking appointment at the Garfield Barwick Address, which clearly indicated that it was a Liberal Party fundraiser (and should have aware of this), was that he does not own or use a computer and he is incapable of sending or receiving emails: ‘the consequence is that I read emails only after they have been printed out for me’ (his private secretary prints out his emails for him). We can accept that someone in their 70s is probably not going to be the most technologically literate person around but, in 2015, many older Australians have acquired the skills to read and create emails.
In political speak that would do his masters proud, Dyson added that: ‘Further, the fair-minded observer would recognise that I was busily engaged in Commission work. The contention that, having regard to those matters, the fair-minded observer would necessarily infer that I read the invitation is fanciful.’
Dismissive, arrogant, loose with the facts, dismissing that this supposedly ‘fair-minded observer’ would have any reason to question his credibility, or his ‘unbiased mind’.
This, of course, is all quite foolish, and more consistent with a political rebuttal, rather than a legal one. Despite the protests of Tony Abbott and Attorney–General George Brandis, this Royal Commission has primarily been set up as a political exercise to discredit the Labor Party. The timetable has been developed to enable the release of a report around the time of the next election. Heydon attempted to humilate former Prime Minister Julia Gillard by admonishing her for not having a clear memory of minor events from over 20 years ago, harassed current ALP Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, about his ‘credibility as a witness’ and presided over the Royal Commission as though he was an extension of Abbott’s political Preatorian Guard.
The Royal Commission has been seriously tarnished, whether Dyson Heydon was to stay, or whether he was to go. But, the main spotlight has been placed onto Tony Abbott. Whether the Royal Commission was to find anything worthwhile about corruption within the trade union movement is immaterial – there are many other avenues to seek where corruption lies, and establishing a Royal Commission is probably the least effective. But, as a blunt instrument to apply a blowtorch against your political opponents – rolling media coverage, unsavoury characters hauled in front of the Commission, all of your political enemies lined up like a Nuremberg-style show trial – there’s nothing better… with one caveat. That it needs to be run properly and above politics, and Abbott’s management of the Commission has been far from this.
Firstly, if Abbott was genuine about the Royal Commission, Heydon’s commission should have been terminated immediately, and a new commissioner installed – he’s been severely compromise, as has the reputation of this Royal Commission. By being loyal to Heydon, Abbott has been caught up in another scandal of his own making. Perhaps he had memories of the Royal Commission on the Activities of the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union in the 1980s, which started off as a witch-hunt into the affairs of corrupt unions, but the commissioner, Frank Costigan, veered into bottom-of-the-harbour schemes and netted other corrupt behaviours of corporate Australia (and Liberal Party donors).
By going for overkill, Abbott has exposed his main political weakness – impatience, a total inflexibility to new strategies, and very few tools at his disposal to negate any poor political news or the political events that don’t (usually) go to plan, and adequately prosecute a case for re-election.
A case in point is the recent Operation Fortitude, where Australian Border Force staff were due to be positioned in the Melbourne CBD and, according to their press release (yes, a press release!) ‘speaking with any individual we cross paths with’, apparently looking for people overstaying their visa conditions. Perhaps it was the macho-bravado, but many people viewed it initially as a prank—I certainly did. The entire operation descended into farce and fiasco, and within hours, a humiliating cancellation and official backdown, a series of blame-games, and then the admission that the minister responsible for Australian Border Force, Peter Dutton, hadn’t even read the press release about Operation Fortitude before it went out. Aside from this, why the Australian Border Force would telegraph its intentions so clearly to the public was never explained.
(For history buffs, the original Operation Fortitude during Word War II was a deception to trick the Germans into diverting their armies away from Normandy. It’s hard to imagine what the deception might have been in Melbourne but it’s probably best to stick with stuff-up, rather than conspiracy. After all, there is no war currently in Melbourne).
And these same people, the ones that can’t even organise a sting to catch taxi-drivers overstaying their visas in downtown Melbourne, now want to offer planes for airstrikes over Syria.
The following day, Abbott kept to the script: it was ‘a poorly worded press release’. He managed to conflate the issue with ‘stopping the boats’, repealing the carbon tax, small business incentives and, like the drowning man clutching at the straw, threw in ‘infrastructure’ for good measure.
And here lies the problem for Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party: lack of an agenda. At every opportunity, two key points, border security (boats) and carbon tax, are wrapped around the issue of the day and, as if to realise that ain’t enough, two more disparate and abstract ideas are added to the spiel. After two years into his Prime Ministership, all Tony Abbott can offer is a rerun of the issues from the 2013 election, with two new catchphrases tacked on: small business and infrastructure.
Desperation is the first element the electorate sniffs from a poorly-performing Prime Minister, and Abbott has this written all over him. Just repeating the mantra ‘better than Labor’, and revisiting old agendas from election past just won’t wash with the electorate. The reported request for ‘weekly security announcements‘ between now and the next election shows that the government is bereft of ideas, and wasted all of that time in opposition during 2007–2013 working out how to get back into government, rather than working what they would do once they got there.
If only they’d performed their homework during those long years in opposition, the Liberal Party would not be in their current predicament – 18 months behind in the polls, and facing a loss of 36 seats at the next election. Preselecting military people into by-elections (Canning), wanting engagement in faraway wars in unknown places, creating havoc with Border Force, repeating ‘death cult’ endlessly, and promoting faux militarisation of politics can always work if a government is seen as competent, and has an underlying bed of achievement.
But this government hasn’t got that. Tony Abbott can keep trying to put border security and the military at the forefront of his government and in the mind of the electorate. Try as he might, it’s just not going to work. Not even by donning military fatigues and leading the SAS to the frontline in the desert. The electorate is cynical and can see that beyond this thin veneer, there is nothing else. Absolutely nothing.