Now-Nowing the Hullaballoo: the Tragic Fire Sale of Civil Liberties in Australia
WORDS BY TOM ST JOHN
A Hopeful Eulogy for an Australian Monster … Terrifying Stuff … And the Tragic Fire Sale of Civil Liberties in Australia
Press conferences in Australia tend to be awkward and boring affairs. The nation has little interest in rhetorical flourish, probably because there is no need to feed soundbites into the yammering maw of a 24-hour news media machine. Instead, our leaders take turns hunched behind podiums, flanked by flags taller and more plentiful every year, clearing their throats and staring down the camera hole. The Eyeball Pledge is designed to distract from all the dumb throat clearing, blazer re-buttoning, and mind-numbing bureaucratese.
It’s September 2015, and Abbott, Morrison, and Dutton are clumping their way through another inelegant fandango before the cameras, dressed in ill-fitting suits like they’d just strip-mugged some Kelly Country mannequins. The Lodge was on to its fifth resident in as many years. Wispy crown, the tallest of the three, Dutton genuflects to the leader of the country and offers one of his trademark bons mots.
“It’s like Cape York time.”
Abbott chuckles and offers some inane and barely coherent remark. It’s gorgeous repartee – truly – Abbott and Costello if neither had a prefrontal cortex. ScoMo tries to get in on the action with a pointless question, before staring around the room absently like Mr Magoo on OxyContin.
But Dutton’s not done – far from it. Seldom lost for a sermon on Big Brother pragmatism that honks from his chunky throat, this time he opts for another zinger, one that turns standard hot microphone patter into an immortal distillation of his villainy. This particular barb was aimed at the millions of Pacific Islanders whose homes are threatened by rising sea levels.
“Time doesn't mean anything when you're, you know, about to have water lapping on your door.”
Abbott forces an unnerving laugh, and Scott Morrison is quick to point out the boom microphone looming atop their heads. “Yeah, yeah.” Abbott acknowledges under his breath like an out-of-work ventriloquist. Dutton realises his mistake, and the look on his face is worth all the relentless spying and criminal negligence his elected office represents.
Dutton’s run for the leadership was unsurprising, but the prospect of his victory was unendurable. It’s unclear at this stage how much damage the run will do to his ambitions. This piece may well be thrown back in my face in a week’s time when a racist ex-cop is being sworn into the Prime Ministership. I won’t mind; I’ll be busy tossing Molotov cocktails. Dutton’s rise is a harbinger of everything that is deeply wrong with Australian politics and culture writ large, the indigenous berserk, the rumblings of a continent scorched clean of a soul. Let’s hope he retires to spend more time with his family, or family trusts. Let’s hope this is a eulogy.
Australian society is notoriously easy to whip into line. As the sun sets on the Holy Wars of the early 2000s, Dutton is apparently struggling to convince large swathes of the population that unfettered power in the hands of slimy goons is a good thing. As such, the only rhetorical tool he has in his arsenal is the Very Serious Press Conference. The VSPC aims to shoot down the middle – forceful but never aggressive, remarkable but never interesting. He hums his dirge on deaf ears. Selah.
But the last week’s affairs are particularly disquieting precisely because he is such a peculiar breed of political animal. He doesn’t slither away, adapting and ready to fight another day. Dutton doubles down. He trades notes with the Hadleys and Bolts of the world, co-conspirators hell-bent as he is on amassing power and expelling the dissidents. Therein lies the core oddness of Peter Dutton; why someone who looks like him is allowed to stay in power, do the things he does, and get away with it.
Dutton, for a start, looks like Voldemort in witness protection. A word – skulk – pops into mind. He has a Frankenstein smile and a wax brow. It’s easy to imagine him chanting and adorned in robes. He’s balding as if his hair is trying to distance itself from his mouth. He is grotesque and his mere presence brings doom. If you ever sold your soul to the Devil, this is the guy that would give you the receipt.
The only smart thing Peter Dutton has ever done was to come to the realisation, quite early in his life, that someone who looks as evil as him can afford to be evil, and reap the benefits of being evil, because nobody ever expected anything better from him. That’s what makes him such a disturbing enemy.
Although few people outside of Canberra seem all too fazed by this, Dutton is one of the chief architects of a plan to encroach on every civil liberty our society has earned. He spends most of his time trying to convince people that behaving humanely toward a group of destitute immigrants is tantamount to heresy; the kind of crank shit Richard Di Natale dreams up smoking PCP and trying to contact the ghost of Che Guevara with his Ouija board.
For now, anybody that kicks up a stink just isn’t a team player. Dutton will keep an eye on them for us though. He’s the austere face this country apparently so desperately craves, to solemnly lurk and Now-Now the Hullaballoo. It’s comforting too, in a funny way; if you ever dare venture down into The Depths, God Damn there’ll be company.
On the 15th of May, the Prime Minister and Minister Dutton (as he then was) co-opted Melbourne Airport for another gung-ho security announcement. The government’s $294 million investment in airport security is only possible, Dutton is quick to remind us with a sycophantic gesture toward the Prime Minister, “…because of the Government's good management of the economy and of the Budget and we make these investments because we want to keep Australians safe.”
Dutton chose this moment to remind the gaggle of reporters about a foiled terrorist plot on an Etihad Airlines flight last year. “Now had that been successful,” he says sternly and semi-literately, “hundreds of people would've, of course, lost their lives.” But this is just reciting sheet music for the chaos-stirring LNP. The next sentence is where Dutton distances himself from his screw-loose peers. “But it would have an enormous impact on the psyche of the Australian travelling public as well as a multi-billion-dollar impact on our brand, on international students, on tourism et cetera.” Ah, of course, think of the brand.
It’s in service of the brand that the Minister for Home Affairs and the Prime Minister announced an expansion in police powers. Essentially, police can now, without cause, require anyone in an airport to produce identification at request.
The airport announcement goes to the heart of who Dutton is as a politician, perhaps even as a man. Post-Howard politics in Australia have been chaotic; we’ve not had an Australian PM finish a term since Twitter was invented. MPs horny for the Prime Ministership create bedlam by deluding themselves into thinking they can land smoothly in the power vortex. Dutton fits the mould perfectly; a paranoid authoritarian that can only see criticism and government restrictions as unnecessary impediments to his quest. Of course it was him that would be next to challenge the throne.
As if you needed further evidence, Dutton recently proclaimed his plan to create a national facial recognition database. In this proposal, CCTV camera footage would be pooled to identify individual people and link them with existing intelligence agency information. He argues this is necessary to “proactively disrupt and covertly remove” threats to Australian national security.
“What do you say to critics and sceptics that say you’ve become too powerful in your new role?” Dutton was recently asked by reporters.
He paused, as if considering whether to tell the truth.
“Well, I just think people should look at the facts.”
Unfortunately, we are. Dutton might not be a mentally-hampered ideologue à la Tony Abbott, but that doesn’t mean he won’t pursue those same politics as a means to an end; moral sprezzatura.
In a 2015 poll by Australian Doctor magazine, Dutton was voted the worst health minister in the last 35 years. That same year, Dutton forcefully rejected the claims of Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young that her trip to Nauru was under the spying eye of the Australian federal government. Despite this, the claims were later vindicated by the security organisation that had been tasked to spy on her. The agency was apparently given a brief that included her room number, car registration, and her code name: ‘Raven’. In 2016, a court found Dutton had breached his duty of care by refusing to fly an asylum seeker who had fallen pregnant by rape from Nauru (where abortion is illegal) to Australia, despite what the SMH reported as “grave fears for her mental health.” Later, when journalist Samantha Maiden penned a critical column of former MP Jamie Briggs. Dutton drafted a text message to Briggs dismissing the columnist as a "mad fucking witch", but mistakenly sent it to Maiden instead. Briggs’ crimes? The SMH reports he had “…violated a woman's privacy by circulating of photo of the two of them, after promising he would protect her privacy.” In March of 2017, following a letter from 31 CEOs to Malcolm Turnbull calling for a vote in the Australian Parliament on same-sex marriage, Dutton excoriated these mouthy business-types (I mean, c’mon guys, how about showing some grace for all the tax cuts?). Dutton held that the CEOs "shouldn't shove their views down our throats" and that CEOs who were "doing the wrong thing" should "be publicly shamed". I’d hope we could do the same for Dutton, but three short years of perpetual controversy appear to have cauterised his sense of public shame. He also decided to make public his innate distress at the hordes of Melbourne’s African Gangs terrorising the streets … unless they’re White African Gangs, preferably farmers, in which case he would like to offer them visas. See? He seems to ask. I do care about the Africans.
As Minister for Home Affairs, Dutton reigned with Orwellian zeal. Don’t worry, the title is designed to make you confused. The Home Affairs portfolio is a major re-arrangement of national security, law enforcement, emergency management, transport security, border control, and immigration functions, all drafted under the auspices of one steady hand.
Will the nation come to terms with Dutton’s creepiness before he slides his way into the Lodge? Fuck no. The citizenry is hoodwinked and ruined. Dutton will just keep staring down the camera, making those Eyeball Pledges and Now-Nowing the Hullaballoo. He would like you to think that he and his test tube chuds fight for the Australian Dream, but really he just fights to preserve the myth of its existence.