Monthly Archives: December 2014

The Dangerous Despotism of Scott Morrison MP

It has been another one of those weeks. A week where the Australian government surpasses itself in its three top capacities: deceit, cruelty and incompetence. I intended to document the depths of deceit, cruelty and incompetence of each minister in the Abbott Cabinet today, as per my post last week. The bit about how every single minister attacks every person for whom they are responsible. Like the way that Malcolm Turnbull destroys public broadcasters, or how Kevin Andrews thinks starving people on income support is a good idea.

But once again it is impossible to go past the depths of deceit, cruelty and incompetence of Abbott, Morrison, and Hockey. Abbott is the liar supreme, Morrison is the most heartless of power-seekers, and Hockey still does not get just quite how economically illiterate he is.

It is Morrison and his shredding of the 1951 Refugee Convention, and its founding principle of non-refoulement, under the new Maritime Amendment Act, who should be most carefully scrutinised. With the vote of an emotional Senator Ricky Muir, who spoke at length on a joint letter he received from refugees on Christmas Island (Hansard, 4 December 2014, p. 104), this thing just became law. Welcome to Morrison world, Senator.

During the debate on the Maritime Bill, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson Young said that refugee children on Christmas Island were handed telephones, to call and plead with Ricky Muir to save them from indefinite detention (Hansard, 4 December 2014, p. 121). If true, we can assume this was facilitated by staff who in turn must respond to government orders. So we also therefore know Morrison is accountable under the Westminster system, which holds ministers responsible for the actions of their departments. We can sleep at night, or not, knowing that we the people who elected this government, and in whose names its actions are taken, are no better than terrorists holding children hostage. This point was made succinctly by Justin Whelan of the Uniting Church (@juswhel).

There was no barrier, no bar at all, to Morrison releasing children from indefinite detention before the bill was passed, or at any time in the last 15 months.

Usually I vent on here at what the Commonwealth government has done in our name in the preceding week,or the week before that. Today I draw attention to an under-reported draft piece of legislation which is currently before the parliament. It is yet another abrogation of all that is decent about the principles of democracy, parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law. These noble rules and principles have never been upheld, of course. Never. How could government ‘for the people by the people’ or ‘equality before the law’ be upheld when the whole operation is run by elite white men? This demographic knows nothing of power-sharing, or equality of opportunity, or reward for merit.

The fact that elite white men are incapable of ensuring equality in any form is the exact reason they speak to it so much and so often; and why they pour so much energy into reproducing the fictions. If elite white men were capable of ensuring that no-one is above the law, or that everyone is innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt, there would be perfect equality by now – and a lot more elite white men in prison. So no, they can not operationalise these rules and principles on which they espouse such detail, despite claiming authorship of simple notions like all humans are born equal.

The most important set of rules and principles in a democracy can be loosely grouped under the Doctrine of the Separation of Powers. Thousands o people killed and died for the purpose of establishing these rules. Classical liberalism raised these rules – from their early birth in communal and tribal societies. It’s a simple principle: to avoid despotism, the authority to legally exercise power over the lives of fellow humans – the citizenry – must be shared across different branches of government. In the common law countries, the liberal democracies, these branches are the Legislature (members of parliament in both houses), the executive (public servants like police, immigration officials, teachers) and the judiciary (judges, magistrates and assorted commissioners and tribunal members).

Across time, all over the world, all humans have always known that power must be shared. Otherwise, despots cruel the existences of our fellow humans. Our collective memory tells us that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely – and that this is not a value-free state of affairs. It does not matter whether you take an absolutist or deontological approach; or a consequentialist or teleological approach. Despots violate the fundamental human rights of others for their own ends. Their actions are inherently bad, and cause harm to their fellow humans. This is morally, ethically, philosophically, politically wrong on every level.

Over at The Guardian, Oliver Laughland described Morrison as dangerous, incompetent and ruthless; but I disagree with the middle descriptor. Morrison is not a sweaty stumbler like Hockey, or an incoherent embarrassment like Abbott. He goes about getting what he wants with cold precision. In my view, Morrison is in fact dangerously, ruthlessly competent. Given the tasks he sets himself – actions so appalling that Australian treatment of asylum seekers on his watch has been reviewed and admonished by the United Nations Committee Against Torture – it would be an improvement in many lives if Morrison was a bit less competent.

The off-shoring of asylum seekers has reached new depths of human rights abuses under Morrison; and the newly-passed Maritime Amendment Act is an abomination. But it has passed. We are stuck with it unless or until there is a change of government and a commitment by a new government to oversee its repeal.

Which brings us to the Australian Citizenship Amendment Bill 2014 tabled before parliament for Minister Scott Morrison, a despotic tyrant if ever there was one. What Morrison wants to do next, and which has not yet passed, is well worth campaigning against. There is still time to lobby micro-cross-benchers Ricky Muir, David Leyonhjelm, Bob Day and Dio Wang, PUPster Glen Lazarus and the newly independent Jacqui Lambie, and the seemingly decent and intelligent Nick Xenophon and John Maddigan.

I am grateful to Kaye Lee, the Australian Independent Media Network, Susan Argall and the Australian Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and Dame Shona of Abbottstan (@shona3003 on Twitter) for alerting me to this development.

The Australian Citizenship Amendment Bill 2014 would empower Morrison to revoke the citizenship of Australians on any grounds he sees fit, which is to say on any grounds at all. How the status of current Australian citizens falls under the purview of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection remains unexplained. What follows is drawn from the second reading speech on the bill (Hansard, 23 Oct 2014, p. 11744), delivered by Paul Fletcher.

Predictably, this supporter of Morrison mania represents one of the safest most comfortable places on earth, the North Shore of Sydney. Much like in Morrison’s region, “The Shire”, people who are pre-selected to represent the LNP for Sydney’s North Shore are invariably expensively educated white men who have never struggled or wanted for anything in their entire lives. Not once. Not ever. Nobody is less qualified to decide what is good for anyone in need, or escaping persecution, or whose rights are being violated by a government elected to serve them. It is impossible to even imagine someone less qualified than Paul Fletcher, member for Bradfield, who also tabled the bill and explanatory memorandum “for Mr Morrison” (the “first reading”, Hansard, 23 Oct 2014, p. 11743). There is no doubt about where his loyalties and allegiances lie. No Muir-esque soul-searching for Fletcher. Just the same dangerous, ruthless competence as Morrison.

The second reading speech is the one that counts. It is the “extrinsic material” to which judges typically turn when interpreting legislation, should an ambiguity or absurdity arise, in order to ascertain the intention of the parliament. It is an essential component of law-making in a democracy, where an elected representative puts to the House, and for public scrutiny, the arguments supporting the rationale and purpose of a new piece of law.

Fletcher starts by handily grouping the changes under three broad themes, reproduced below with the ordinary English translations:

“Strengthening program integrity”: allows the Minister to revoke the citizenship of an Australian citizen, no matter how that citizenship was conferred. It extends this power to minors.

“Underlining the importance of connection to Australia”: these sections even further institutionalise, by authorising in law, the racism and xenophobia of the Australian polity.

“Improving decision-making”: empowers the Minister to ‘set aside’ Administrative Appeals Tribunal decisions – ie Morrison could arbitrarily over-rule an expert independent legal body.

In that soulless LNP way, Fletcher goes about the business of producing Orwellian gibberish about each of these in turn. Even the disturbing propaganda spouted by Michalea Cash in the Senate on the Maritime Bill, while hideously dishonest and frighteningly cruel, at least contained some emotion. This stuff is dry as an outback drought. Let’s have a look at what Morrison has in store for us – and himself.

“Strengthening program integrity”: in which Morrison reserves to himself the power to revoke citizenship, whether the citizen arrived by overseas adoption, or having lived here for the first 10 years of their life, or applied later as in immigrant or permanent resident. Morrison also wants to be review decisions over minors.

 

It goes without saying that increasing the capacity of anyone to legally exercise arbitrary power, whether as odious as Morrison or not, does not “strengthen” the “integrity” of any program.

Also, we are not talking about a “program”. We are talking about the most fundamental rights in any liberal democracy, the rights that attach to citizenship. Here is what our representative Paul Fletcher had to say:

The ‘good character requirement’ extends to everyone who applies to become a citizen aged 18 years and over. The bill amends these provisions to require applicants aged under 18 to also be of good character. Character concerns are not limited to adults and indeed the Department of Immigration and Border Protection has had serious concerns about the character of certain applicants aged under 18. In practice, the change will mean that the department may now seek to obtain police clearances for 16-17 year olds. It would also be able to assess the character of youths younger than 16 if the department becomes aware of particularly relevant character issues.

Now pause for a moment and ponder the new Data Retention laws and ask yourself how the “character” of a “youth” may come to the attention of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. This department, we are told, has “serious concerns” about the “character” of “certain applicants”. Well I have extremely serious concerns about the character of the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection.

If you are old enough, you may remember the last LNP Immigration Minister, the equally hypocritical and self-serving “Christian” Kevin Andrews, and his decision to send Mohammed Haneef to Villawood Detention Centre on “character” grounds. That debacle eventually righted by the integrity of several members of the judiciary and the immense courage of Haneef’s lawyer, the no-holds-barred Peter Russo, in releasing the record of interview.

These sorts of rank injustices will be repeated over and again, with little independent scrutiny, as the government violates the rights of applicants and citizens (see abolition of merits review, below). Figuring out which particular ethno-religious characteristics or memberships these individuals hold is not rocket science. Arab men are likely to be the group under heaviest surveillance, of course. We know this from the passage of the Foreign Fighters Act, which reverses the onus of proof, and legislates that those travelling to “ISIS-affected areas” prove to the government that they have a “reasonable cause” to travel.

“Underlining the importance of connection to Australia”: these sections even further institutionalise the racism and xenophobia of the Australian polity, and appear to have some homophobia encoded in there as well.

I loathe this stuff. Like John Howard and his Don-Bradman-batting-average bullshit. As if the White Australia policy and Tampa and the Northern Territory Emergency Intervention and the Stolen Generations and Reza Barati all the other rampant racist killings and injustices perpetuated by the Australian state were not enough, Morrison now wants to amend the Citizenship Act to “underline the importance of connection to Australia”.

Let’s see what our representative Paul Fletcher has to say about this one.

It is important that applicants spend a sufficient amount of time here to understand what being Australian means.

Like most of us, I do not really know what being an Australian means, and certainly not under this government. Apparently it means being scrutinised by the UN Committee Against Torture, whatever THAT means. However, Paul is silent on this point. The sentence is nothing more than racist code. He then goes on to say that

People are eligible to acquire citizenship automatically if they are born in Australia to an Australian citizen or permanent resident parent, or if they are ordinarily resident in Australia until their 10th birthday. The bill limits automatic acquisition of citizenship on the 10th birthday to those persons who have maintained lawful residence in Australia throughout the 10 years.

“Those persons” appears to referring to 10 year old children born to Australian parents? Like, just any old mainstream kid born here can have their citizenship revoked if they have not maintained lawful residence in the country of their birth, over which they have no control, while below the age of criminal responsibility? The surrounding text is concerned with overseas adoptions, changing the definitions of de facto partners (probably code for homophobia), and children born to consular officials.

But this paragraph refers to children born to Australian citizens and permanent residents. Fletcher then moves right on to the next item on his list. This is the most ominous characteristic of the paragraph. It is probably code for punishing first generation Australians for the actions of their ‘immigrant’ (but now Australian) parents. This would be in keeping with how Morrison went about his business with the Maritime Amendment Act. But it is still confounding. And despotic.

Finally, there is the “improving” decision-making section. These “improvements” improve nothing for anyone except Morrison in his lust for power. The section empowers the Minister to ‘set aside’ decisions reached by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, decisions made by expert, independent arbiters in accordance with administrative law. In other words, a nasty, ruthless despot like Morrison can interfere with – arbitrarily over-rule – an expert independent body that was established by Gough Whitlam as part of his wider reform project around Freedom of Information and open, transparent, accountable democracy.

Freedom of information and open government are not the concern of Scott Morrison. The bill also makes these arbitrary exercises of power by the Minister secret. It removes “merits” review, which is what the Tribunal does, based on administrative law, the branch of law under which all public servants operate in order that they go about exercising power over the citizenry legally. The bill retains judicial review, which means anyone affected by these arbitrary rulings by the minister must show standing and mount a whole legal case, rather than simply apply for a review of a decision as happens now with matters such as having income support payments suspended by Centrelink, for example. Judicial review only tests whether the Minister exercised his power lawfully. With this much power, it would be a tough test case indeed to prove that he had acted, not unjustly, but illegally.

And here is the nub of these proposed amendments. Everything about each section goes against fundamental principles and rules established over centuries by liberal democracies. As mentioned, none of the liberal democracies are particularly liberal or democratic, but it is what we have. Absent a revolution, it is what we have to work with in Australia.

The extent to which power would accrue in the office of the Minister under these reforms is despotic, immoral, and dangerous. Morrison wants to enshrine in legislation a fundamental breach of the separation of powers, by authorising himself to overrule the decisions of an independent judicial tribunal. He might be competent at what he sets out to do, but what he sets out to do shows a profound disregard for “what it means to be Australian”. Morrison is beyond despotic. May he rot in the hell in which he claims to believe.

* Quick shout-out to Scott’s media monitors whose job it is to read this: remember, truth is a defence. So read the supporting arguments about Morrison being a despotic tyrant carefully. The evidence is in the bill, and the bill is before the parliament, and the second reading speech is in the Hansard.