Tony Abbott's Failing Search For Scapegoats


The day the Abbott government handed down its first budget in May last year was the day it sealed its own fate. The deep cuts it imposed on social spending were inflicted across a broad cross-section of Australian society. Australians may not be liberal, but we tend to be socially democratic, and this was a budget on which most Australians could not be sold.

It would be particularly hard to sell the cuts because of their political incoherence. Though the point of the cuts was to address the deficit, they hardly made an impression on it. The government’s budget was supposed to save less than $2 billion on the next year’s deficit, even as the government decided to spend another $20 billion on medical research. If the deficit was urgent, why increase discretionary social spending and cut other parts of it?

There was also the blatant hypocrisy. Abbott never missed a chance to say that if he was elected, he’d be different to the liars in the ALP who broke their election promises. For example, in August 2013, an interview with Abbott included the following:

“I want to be known as a Prime Minister who keeps commitments. I appreciate that the trust that the public have in Prime Ministers and other significant members of Parliament has been trashed because this Government, this Prime Minister, and his predecessor, have been just appalling, scandalous at making promises and not keeping them – whether it be the no carbon tax promise, whether it be the surplus promise, these people have been hopeless at maintaining the public's trust. I want to restore it.

QUESTION: The condition of the Budget will not be an excuse for breaking promises?

TONY ABBOTT: Exactly right. We will make – we will keep the commitments that we make. All of the commitments that we make will be commitments that are carefully costed and the savings to fund them will all be well-known well before people go to the polls on Saturday, September the 7th.”

And then, on 6 September, Abbott told Australia: “No cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS.”

It doesn’t require any particular genius to notice that our current Prime Minister is a particularly cynical liar. However, he is also an ideological fanatic, living in an insular bubble. This is the only way to explain not only the policies he makes which progressives may regard as morally outrageous, but also the sheer incompetence that has characterised most of his government’s actions, policies, and often even rhetoric.

Those of us on the left may not have liked John Howard very much, but he was mostly a shrewd and intelligent politician. Tony Abbott thought it would be a good idea to make Prince Philip a knight, and to send 3,500 troops into Iraq.

As it happens, we’ve already sent troops into Iraq, which was bad enough. To give an idea of what we might expect from sending 3,500 of them, it might be worth recalling the last invasion of Iraq in 2003.

US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld was forced to resign in 2006, in the wake of widespread derision at his incompetence. Among the tell-tale signs of this was his theory that a successful invasion and occupation of Iraq wouldn’t require 500,000 troops, but no more than 125,000 would do the job. Readers may recall how effective 125,000 occupying American soldiers – plus those from other invading countries – were in preventing civil war and ensuring the safety of Iraqis.

Abbott’s unpopular policies and constant blunders led, naturally enough, to many within the Coalition deciding it might be wise to have a leader who wouldn’t lose the next election and decimate their party.

On February 8 – the day before the spill motion – Mark Kenny observed in the Sydney Morning Herald “any vote greater than 30 or perhaps 35 in favour of a spill will reveal that half or more of his own backbench wants him gone. No leader can hang on in those circumstances for long.”

Or as Tony Abbott once said, “My question is to the Prime Minister… Given that one-third of [his]parliamentary colleagues… have today expressed their lack of confidence in [him], how can [he]claim to have a mandate to continue as Prime Minister?”

It took a few weeks. Abbott didn’t tell us the real problem was the “immigants” (sic). Instead, he chose to pick fights on the issue of asylum seekers, and Muslims.

Asylum seekers are somewhat marginalised, and a raft of legislation stripping away their basic rights has been passed over the last year (and in the years before that). There wasn’t much of a fight. He presumably thought going after the Australian Human Rights Commission, which most people know nothing about, would be pretty safe.

It also seems Abbott was impressed with how Israel responds to similar reports by human rights organisations. The response to the AHRC’s report on the detention of asylum seeking children was full of bluster and aggression, and personal attacks on its author, Gillian Triggs. Evidently, Abbott, his colleagues and his supporters thought that if they threw enough mud – including on Triggs’ family life – this would be enough to discredit the report.

Yet unlike most asylum seekers, Gillian Triggs has many prominent supporters. Abbott has picked a seemingly senseless fight with a respected figure, even as most people wonder why his government didn’t respond rationally: by politely ignoring them, or saying ‘I respect the value of human rights, but in this instance, the report has gone wrong, and we will issue a detailed explanation of where we disagree with their findings’.

The Forgotten Children report is about 324 pages that virtually no-one will ever read. If Abbott had replied with a 150-page report no-one would read, the result would be media reporting a disagreement on the facts, who knows where the truth lies, and a handful of leftists, activists and experts would have been left vainly cataloguing the problems with the government’s response.

Given all the public controversy, it is easy to forget, as the great Hal Wootten points out, that the report “is not about politicians but about children in detention.” Even so, it is worth reviewing briefly some facts about the report.

In 2004, the AHRC issued its last report on children in detention. In April 2013, it began planning for a 10-year review on that issue. The inquiry began in February 2014, and finished in November. 1,129 children and parents in detention responded to questions about the impact of their incarceration, along with a further 104 former detainees.

The review team visited 11 detention centres, had five public hearings and received 239 submissions. Triggs had a team which included four child psychiatrists and five pediatricians.

Their findings were unsurprising, and consistent with what we already knew. On average, children spent 14 months in detention. 34 percent of them developed mental health issues, along with about 30 percent of adults, which is yet more proof of the level of trauma inflicted by extended, indefinite detention.

The Inquiry did not visit Nauru. The report notes that the government “did not provide information concerning Nauru”, and rejected two requests from the Inquiry that it do so.

From January 2013 – March 2014, there were 207 incidents of self-harm, 128 of them by children. There were 33 reports of sexual assaults, the “vast majority” involving children, and 233 assaults involving children.

Here is one case study:

“The Inquiry team met a single father on Christmas Island who fled Syria with his five sons. The father was experiencing pain from a hernia and had difficulty walking to the communal bathrooms in the detention centre, including taking his young sons to the bathrooms. The doctor advised him to limit his walking as it could exacerbate his condition. In December 2013 the father fainted due to dehydration. His eight-year-old son was seeing the mental health team every fortnight and was taking medication for bed-wetting. In December 2013 the son became incontinent during the day and needed to wear pads. Despite these health problems, the family were transferred to Nauru where their medical condition deteriorated. In September 2014 the father underwent surgery in Nauru for the hernia and developed an infection as a result. The 8-year-old son is taking anti-depressants and recently started to suffer fecal incontinence.”

Here’s just a brief excerpt from another:

“The Inquiry team met a teenage boy with a missing front tooth and rotting gum who told the Inquiry doctor he’d had no treatment for seven months. He estimated his level of pain to be eight out of 10 when eating.”

These are real people who are suffering. These are the facts about the conditions Australia has forced upon them. It is very difficult for most of us to get the basic facts about the conditions in our offshore detention centres, which is why the AHRC report is valuable. Whilst it is easy to see the base politics behind Abbott’s attacks on Triggs, we should never lose sight of the issues Triggs has helped to expose.

And then, there’s the question of Muslims. I have argued previously that the Abbott government had decided the best way to sell its war on Iraq was “through innuendo, fear, and cheap sloganeering” about Muslims. At the time, Murdoch columnist Andrew Bolt, famously found guilty of breaching the Racial Discrimination Act, whistled about Muslims, and Muslim leaders who just weren’t doing enough to condemn Islamist terrorists.

Abbott decided to adopt more of Bolt’s talking points, and pointedly said that everybody, “including Muslim community leaders”, should speak up against terrorism. As the consistently excellent Randa Abdel-Fattah wrote,  “That he felt the need explicitly to include a particular group into the category of ‘everybody’ is the clearest signal that said group does not, in fact, belong to the category of ‘everybody.’”

Abbott went on to say that whilst Western leaders said Islam was a religion of peace, “I wish more Muslim leaders would say that more often, and mean it.”

Randa’s response: “With that one statement, every act of condemnation of violence by Muslim leaders, every articulation of the teachings of Islam, every patient dialogue was deemed suspect.”

It may be sad for Abbott that not all Muslims can be murderous tyrants like the dictators of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Even so, the call for Muslim leaders to oppose terrorism carries an insinuation about followers who clearly need such leadership as a vital measure of the fight against terrorism. That is the artful message behind his call for Muslim leaders to show that they actually mean their opposition to the murder of innocent people.

Abbott’s campaign against Muslims has included a commitment to finding the right kind of laws that can be used to ban the reactionary Islamists of Hizb ut-Tahrir. This has proved challenging, because they don’t seem to break any laws that currently exist.

The latest foray in the battle against HUT has come from the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies. Vic Alhadeff responded to a video of an anti-Semitic speech by a speaker from HUT. He declared, “It's deeply shocking that at this time of heightened concern about national security, a public figure can so brazenly incite violence and raw hatred against other Australians”.

One might not regard Alhadeff as an authority on this issue. After all, it was Alhadeff who made comments during Israel’s attack on Gaza which were deemed sufficiently inappropriate that he was forced to resign from heading the Community Relations Commission.

More comically – the anti-Semitic speech he condemns is not from “this” time of “heightened concern”. It’s from July last year. The speech is familiar to me, because unlike Alhadeff, I wrote about it last year.

However, since that time, Abbott has launched his campaign against HUT, and so it worked out quite well for his government that he had Alhadeff on hand to express outrage at the appropriate time. It helped that the Sydney Morning Herald was willing to run media-release journalism on a speech from a year ago.

Returning to Abbott, it is unlikely his vulgar attempts to pick fights with Triggs and Muslims will help him much. He is an incompetent fanatic who will be looked on with fond bemusement one day as a strange exercise in Australian folly.

Gillian Triggs will gain greater respect within the broader community for her integrity in standing up to the government on behalf of children in detention. Muslims will continue to be stigmatised, and perhaps one day HUT will be banned, even by the Attorney-General who told us that we have a right to be bigots.

Whatever happens, Abbott’s days are numbered.

Yet underneath the political squabbling, real communities are being targeted, and real lives are being ruined.

I am sure Triggs would agree that it is time to refocus our attention on her report. The one about forgotten children.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.