A Clear and Present Danger

Dec 20

A Clear and Present Danger

Posted by: George Grundy

As parliament closes out 2021, Scott Morrison’s government is taking steps to set the agenda for next year’s federal election. Morrison will be hoping for no major bushfires this summer and a return to pre-Covid normality, so the battle can be fought around perceived LNP strengths such as the economy, national security and culture war issues like social media trolling.

To that end, Morrison continues to champion the reopening of international borders and an end to lockdowns and travel restrictions irrespective of health outcomes, and Peter Dutton plays to type by irresponsibly scaring everybody with talk of a war with China. Yet governments can only do so much when it comes to the focus of the electorate. If the election is held in May next year, as seems likely, it will be 8 ½ years since the Coalition took power, and history suggests that a national mood for change is difficult to overcome no matter the issues at hand.

So as the warmth of Christmas comes into view, Australians should consider the breadth of Scott Morrison’s first full term as elected Prime Minister, because beneath the daily headlines there are warning signs that all is not well with Australian democracy, and that the decision to be made in 2022 is one of the most consequential in the nation’s history.

First, the economy (voters most important issue in 2019’s election). These are strange times. On the surface, annual GDP growth of 3.9% looks like success, even allowing for a lockdown-induced contraction of 1.9% in just the last three months. But despite Josh Frydenberg’s repeated promises of a return to surplus the budget remains badly in deficit, as has now been the case for a decade, and sovereign debt has soared to the stratosphere.

From roughly $250 billion when Kevin Rudd left office, Australia’s national debt has ballooned, passing $830 billion this August and appearing inevitably on course to reach $1 trillion. This fundamental of taking on enormous debt in order to maintain acceptable economic performance should place the Coalition’s record in perspective, just as a man who spends lavishly on a credit card may not actually be rich.

Other economic indicators show near catastrophic underlying change. Manufacturing as a percentage of GDP has collapsed, as has construction. Investment in social housing is through the floor, and as house prices and rents have increased exponentially, affordability has cratered. Household debt is approaching record levels and, as ever, the poor are suffering the most. Funding for social and indigenous housing has been slashed under the LNP government. 600,000 Queenslanders now live in poverty, and many Australian cities are experiencing record homelessness. These outcomes are not an accident, but the result of deliberate political decisions – nearly three quarters of a trillion dollars of national debt taken on, and still people can’t afford a roof over their head.

Although the unemployment rate is a respectable 5.2%, under-employment is up, hours worked are down. The poor are getting poorer, the gap between rich and poor wider. This is a consistent theme across every level of Scott Morrison’s government.

It’s in this environment that Morrison has also squeezed household budgets from the other end, quietly cutting 900 items from the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and increasing medication costs, often for those suffering from life-threatening diseases such as cancer. The NDIS and those with disabilities have not escaped the scythe, and many families living in the most difficult circumstances imaginable have just had their lives made even harder.

Pensioner poverty in Australia is already one of the worst in the OECD, but should Morrison win next year, the Indue card (hugely profitable for its privately owned operator) will likely be rolled out to all aged pensioners and recipients of social security, meaning 80% of social benefits will be tightly controlled by the government.

More regulation, less freedom, tougher lives. Another term for Morrison will mean more cuts to Medicare and a government more committed than ever to punching down at the weak, vulnerable and poor.

Internationally, Australia’s image has been tarnished by blundering diplomatic belligerence and climate policies that make this nation the world’s carbon pariah. Australia remains the worst CO2 emitter per capita on earth (among major nations), one of the world’s largest exporters of coal and natural gas, and firmly at the back of the field when it comes to emissions reduction. Whatever sympathy Australia engendered during the 2019 bushfires is gone, and at COP26 Morrison delivered his keynote address to a virtually empty room, a stunning show of disrespect and irrelevance for one of the world’s leading economies.

After betraying the French and having Emmanuel Macron publicly call Scott Morrison a liar, Australia’s relationship with the nation about to take charge of the EU is in tatters and must quickly be repaired given the next round of free trade talks are due in February. If, as seems likely, Morrison fails to apologise and offer détente, the disastrous mismanagement of the new AUKUS alliance and ditching of the French submarine deal is likely to significantly hamper Australian industries wishing to trade freely with Europe.

Meanwhile Peter Dutton rattles the sabre of war, pitting Australia against China, a nation with an army 74-times the size of ours. China also happens to be Australia’s biggest trading partner, with a sensitive, centrally administered government holding enough economic power to crush Australia at a stroke. Dutton’s loose talk is a danger to national security, given our current stock of just six submarines pitted against a country with 250-350 ballistic nuclear missiles. The eye-popping $90 billion submarine deal with the US is still twenty years away, yet Dutton continues to recklessly suggest that war with China should not be discounted (choosing Anzac Day, of all days, to amplify this madness). Australia’s government is playing with fire, in the hope of reaping short-term electoral benefit by bringing national security to the fore.

Despite these blunders, it’s the issue of climate change that most often gets Australia onto the world’s headlines. Ten months after taking office, Tony Abbott’s government became the first on earth to repeal active pricing legislation on carbon emissions. Since then it’s become difficult to track emissions reduction performance, given the kind of shonky governmental accounting practices that allow Morrison to claim a reduction in emissions because less land is being cleared than originally forecast.

Whatever the true picture, it’s not good. In 2020, coal still accounted for 66% of the nation’s electrical generation. Australia continues to spend more than $10 billion annually on fossil fuel subsidies and was ranked last of sixty countries for climate change policies at COP-26.

It would be bad enough that Australia has a Prime Minister who has to be dragged kicking and screaming on every little step towards climate action, but the Coalition aren’t just standing in the way of progress, they are actively undermining state efforts to reduce emissions. This intransigence is made flesh in the form of Angus Taylor, the hysterically titled Minister for Emissions Reduction, who appears not to have seen the sign on his office door when he recently waved through Woodside’s $12 billion Scarborough LNG project that will release 1.36 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.

There are reasons to be optimistic. South Australia is now regularly generating 100% of its power requirements from wind and solar. Queensland’s renewable sector has trebled in size in four years. The US, UK, Japan and Canada have all pledged to slash emissions this decade, piling pressure on Australia, and the private sector appears to be ignoring or outpacing the government, with battery and solar panel prices plummeting.

Yet there is much greater reason to be concerned. The Paris climate target of 1.5 degrees warming appears to be gone. Neither major political party has committed to anything like the emissions reductions required to avoid what scientists are unanimous in describing as calamity. ‘Once in a century’ heatwaves and floods are becoming commonplace, and even the CSIRO says that climate change is behind an 800% increase in bushfires in the past 32 years. One in six Australian birds are now under threat, and it’s not unfair to suggest that it is now official government policy that the Great Barrier Reef will die.

When the sheer scale of this catastrophe to come finally seeps into Australian minds, we will look back on Scott Morrison’s climate vandalism and judge him one of modern history’s great criminals. That Australia, in 2021, with all the overwhelming evidence to hand, continues to green light massive new fossil fuel projects….well, it beggars belief. The national security, moral and even existential implications of climate change dwarf any other threat to this country, yet our government focuses its resources on the need to regulate mean tweets.

Much of the government’s climate intransigence is because it is so utterly beholden to special interests and big money. There has never been a more corrupt Australian government than the one headed by Scott Morrison. The list of scandals is exhaustive, incredible even. Transparency International’s recent corruption perceptions index suggests Australia has ‘significantly declined’ since 2012. With the corrosive influence of money in politics unchecked, and having broken a promise to establish a federal integrity commission, there are precious few ways to stem the rorting except voting the Coalition out of government. This will prove more difficult after the billions lavishly splashed around in Coalition-held seats, but should Labor win government and have the courage to establish a powerful and retrospective ICAC, the corruption these last few years may rise to the level of criminal charges. For some Coalition figures, losing the 2022 election carries more than just political consequence.

It’s not just the corruption that is unseemly. Morrison and his government have a profoundly uneasy relationship with people who aren’t white privileged males just like them. Scott Morrison has a woman problem, and just can’t seem to find a way to act decently around them. Australians have reluctantly learned that there is such a thing as ‘training’ for empathy, and may have struggled themselves to feel empathy when discovering that $190,000 of their tax dollars was spent teaching members something that might otherwise be expected to come naturally.

It didn’t seem to work. Parliament house has become, as no less than the New York Times described it, ‘a cloistered, alcohol-fuelled environment where powerful men violated boundaries unchecked’. A young woman was raped in a Federal minister’s office and the Prime Minister’s staff appear to have backgrounded journalists against her partner, before the PM’s wife stepped in to remind him that rape is bad.

Sex in the Prayer Room, wanking on ministers desks – as the Jenkins Report confirmed, Australia’s parliament is often a dangerous, misogynistic zoo. Any CEO of a major corporation presiding over a workplace in which one in three staff reported experiencing sexual harassment would be out of a job by sunset, yet Morrison said he felt the report was not surprising. It may be a leap to connect a Prime Minister who lacks the good grace not to (regularly) turn his back on women speaking in parliament to a country in which a woman is killed by her partner every week, but the prime minister sets the tone. Scott Morrison is responsible for one of the worst workplaces in the country for women and a parliament where, incredibly, over half of the people working there have experienced bullying, sexual harassment or assault.

Since 2006 Australia has dropped from 15th on the World Economic Forum’s gender equality index to 50th, losing six places in the last year alone. We’re just above the tropical rainforest nation of Suriname – this is not good enough, and Morrison appears to lack the character or will to fix it.

But, if anything, this sexist shit-show is overshadowed by the savagery inflicted on the truly vulnerable. With each passing year, Australia’s offshore concentration camp policies have become more squalid and untenable, and revelations of the conditions on Nauru should, in any rational world, engender prison sentences for those involved in its administration. Guards trading cigarettes for sexual favours. Children as young as ten raped. Guards filming themselves in sexual encounters with detainees, then sharing the videos with each other. A woman gang-raped, then doused in petrol and set alight. This is a national, historic shame. Peter Dutton was the minister responsible for much of the time when this was happening. He is a monster.

It seems a footnote after such horror, but Nauru is also now almost unbelievably uneconomic. Each refugee costs $4.3m a year to detain. That’s $11,780 per person, per day. It’s insane.

It is hard not to conclude that racism plays a significant role in the government’s approach to asylum seekers, especially when considering other aspects of race in Australia. 29% of Australia’s prison population is indigenous, despite their making up just 3.3% of the population. 15 of the 22 deaths in custody between July 2019 and June 2020 were indigenous. Sadly, indigenous mistreatment by police and the justice system isn’t something new for Australia, but it’s hard not to spot a pattern, especially in the behaviour of Peter Dutton.

It was Dutton who lied that Victorians were afraid to go outside because of ‘African gangs’, Dutton who tried to fast-track white South African farmers visa applications (saying they needed help from ‘a civilised country like ours’) and it was Dutton who notoriously ripped an integrated and adored Tamil family from the town of Biloela and imprisoned them at a deserted processing centre, at which one of the young children nearly died this year.

Vicious, virulent, cruel racism, courtesy of Australia’s Minister for Defence and Leader of the House. Scott Morrison’s right hand man.

Racial inequities are found in nearly every aspect of Australian society, not least the Covid vaccination rollout, where last month just 54.5% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were fully vaccinated (compared to 81.1% across the country), despite indigenous people being among the first to be eligible for the vaccine.

Australia’s distant geography and ocean borders have largely spared us from the ravages of Covid experienced in Europe and the US, but our relative success has been almost exclusively due to the actions of state premiers rather than Scott ‘that’s a matter for the states’ Morrison. The Federal government is clearly responsible for quarantine, aged care, vaccinations and international borders, and it’s a tale of failure at every turn.

Nearly two years into the pandemic, as the Omicron variant causes fresh concern and Europe deals with it’s worst surge in cases, Scott Morrison has yet to build a single dedicated quarantine facility, despite overwhelming evidence that hotels are simply not fit for purpose, and despite a number of outbreaks coming directly from hotel quarantine breaches. Greg Hunt recently had the chutzpah to boast that Australia is one of the most ‘recently vaccinated’ nations on earth, but that’s because of a botched federal vaccine rollout earlier this year that we were promised would put us at the front of the queue, but wasn’t a race, and at one point missed it’s four million vaccinations target by 3.4 million doses.

And as with everything under Scott Morrison, it’s the poor who have suffered the most, with low-income earners 2.6 times more likely to die from Covid than their wealthier counterparts. By May next year some voters may have forgotten about the 655 aged care residents who died from Covid in Victoria last year, and Sydneysiders might find someone else to blame for 107 days of lockdown caused in great part by another Liberal choosing not to listen to medical advice, but Covid management and the vaccine rollout has been a debacle. Richard Denniss at The Monthly put it succinctly.

“The federal government’s handling of the pandemic has been the worst public policy screw-up in Australian history.”

There is competition for the title. The Australian arts sector has been decimated during Covid, and was under attack until the very last sitting days of parliament. The ABC’s budget continues to be slashed, and chairwoman Ita Buttrose has accused the government of ‘political interference’ and intimidation, all while Murdoch’s Sky News Australia spreads its insidious influence. Tertiary education has shed 40,000 jobs (nearly one in five) during the pandemic, an unprecedented disaster for learning in this country. Curiously, that’s almost exactly the same total number of people employed in coal mining, whose jobs are apparently vital to the survival of the nation (just ask Matt Canavan).

Disdain for the arts, education, social welfare, human rights. Scapegoats, corporate media, corruption. These are underlying indicators of the health of a nation’s social fabric. All have suffered under Scott Morrison. Curiously, they also fit well with political scientist Laurence Britt’s famous list of fourteen characteristics of a fascist nation. It’s uncomfortable to use the ‘f-word’, but look at the list. They do.

The fourteenth fascist characteristic, you will note, is fraudulent elections.

When Australians go to the polls next year, it’s unlikely that democratic breakdown will feature in their top ten issues but Scott Morrison has, often barely noticed, waged an unprecedented war on the mechanics and institutions of Australian democracy, in a way that suggests genuine danger for the federation if given another term.

We’ve seen the rise of political prosecutions, secret trials where the defendant isn’t allowed to see ‘super secret’ evidence against them, and deportation laws allowing the state to use secret evidence. People who have lived in this country their whole lives deported without notice or explanation. Widespread and unnecessary secrecy, hiding matters like breaches of Ministerial standards and corruption, and (just this month) climate warnings that are of vital and urgent public interest. Mass surveillance legislation that allows the government to hack your computer and online life without a warrant. A push to make voting harder through ID laws (despite the AEC confirming just 19 people out of 15-million voted twice at the last election).

There’s more. Charities relentlessly attacked, and now stripped of their advocacy rights in a way that has been described as ‘the biggest attack on the Australian charity sector you have never heard of’. An abandonment of parliamentary debate, with the lower house scheduled to sit for just ten days between now and August 2022, and the Senate for just five days. Five days! As Morrison seeks another term of office, the Coalition has signalled that they have no new legislative agenda, no laws to pass. Just a will to power.

There’s still more. A new law that gives the government the power to detain refugees indefinitely, maybe for the rest of their lives. A splinter nationalist party somehow able to send all of us political texts on our phones, whose leader is permanently banned from Facebook for spreading misinformation but has somehow just been appointed to a parliamentary committee looking into online safety and social media. The rise of the far right, death threats becoming commonplace, state premiers not safe in their homes, gallows and nooses in the street and hard-line fringe MPs flirting with the mob. Defamation trials launched by the powerful against members of the public because of a mean tweet. The silencing of dissent.

This is a five-alarm fire for Australian democracy, a dangerous moment for this nation.

And what of the character of the individuals legislating this never-ending drift to the right? We’ve seen Australia’s Attorney General accused of the anal rape of a teenager, then accepting $1m from anonymous backers to fund a defamation trial, and then have the government close ranks around him. Backbencher Andrew Laming accused of taking an ‘upskirt’ photo. George Christensen, frequenter of Phillipino brothels and poster of violent gun imagery who nevertheless fancies himself as a moral guardian to protect women’s uteruses, and a member of the nation’s government who advocates civil disobedience. Alan Tudge, the Education minister who stepped down after accusations of physical abuse. A senator accused of making dog noises at female speakers. An embarrassment of a deputy Prime Minister who, shall we say, often appears tired and emotional.

It’s a rogue’s gallery, a zoo. And at the top of it sits Scott Morrison, an profoundly religious evangelical man, who somehow interprets the message of Christ in a way that allows him to torture the weakest people on earth in facilities where they are assaulted and raped. Australians may forgive Morrison membership of his strange, extremist, ponzi-scheme of a church, but it remains incredible that a Prime Minister who has downplayed white supremacy and extremism in Australia, has nevertheless maintained a close friendship with Tim Stewart, one of the country’s most prominent Q-Anon conspiracy theorists. Q, let’s not forget, believes that the world is run by Satan-worshipping, infant-sacrificing, blood-drinking paedophiles, and in America is linked to violent acts like kidnapping and murder. The FBI has come close to designating Q-Anon a terrorist group and is conducting threat assessments amid concern about Q-inspired political extremism.

Take a step back. Perhaps you forgot about this. Scott Morrison, Prime Minister of Australia, is friends with someone a hairs-breadth from being called a member of a terrorist group.

This perhaps overshadows a lot of other frankly weird stuff that just hasn’t been true of other Prime Ministers. Morrison said social media was run by Satan. He believes that God made him PM, and that when he puts his hands on people he is passing on some kind of holy spirit. It makes you wonder what he is capable of if perceiving that an election loss is also not God’s will next year.

All this corruption, all the lies and the cruelty. Scott Morrison is a dreadful Christian, bringing shame to a noble faith and never missing an opportunity to punish the poor and the vulnerable. The opposite of Christianity. It’s been clear for some time that Morrison cares about just one thing, winning re-election. The PM often shows a darker side, a mendacious quick temper when under pressure. Behind in the polls, it will be worth watching Scott Morrison as the thing he desires most of all comes into view.

It’s become popular in America to frame every election as the most important in history. This time it’s actually true in Australia. If Scott Morrison somehow secures another term in office, the incalculable damage he has already done to Australian democracy may be completed. Another Morrison government will be a catastrophe for this country.

Australia faces an existential election in 2022. Australians would do well to dwell on that this Christmas season.