The dog whistle is extremely useful for a political leader who fears his support base is leaching away.
That can be the only explanation for this call to arms from Prime Minister Tony Abbott:
We need to ensure that the system is at least as focussed on Australia’s national interests as it is on the interests of people from overseas seeking to come here.
Right wing xenophobes must be cheering. The benefit of the doubt will be withdrawn for residency, for citizenship and for social security.
If it wasn’t designed to play on our worst fears and prejudices it’s achieved that. Stopping people “playing us for mugs” is great with the benefit of hindsight. That’s what the “Lindt murderer” did, says Mr Abbott.
The real danger is that innocent people such as Muslims fleeing persecution will face more intense suspicion and exclusion. That’s a recipe for a further breakdown in social cohesion, but is it a reasonable price to pay for political survival?
Mr Abbott is desperately trying to put the “excitement” of last week behind him. But as one wit observed, “it’s behind him like an out-of-control semi-trailer hurtling downhill behind you”.
The momentum for a change at the top is still there and it’s spooking the PM. The sacking of party veteran Philip Ruddock as chief government whip exposes the siege mentality. After denying for two days the shock leadership spill result was the real reason, he broke cover on the Bolt Report.
“Well plainly, I wasn’t aware as I should have been of all of this,” he told News Corp columnist and host Andrew Bolt.
“I never want to find myself in this position ever again. And I’m confident that with the whip’s team we’ve got, I will be very much aware of what’s going on inside the party.”
The scapegoat for the Prime Minister’s tin ear would have none of it. Mr Ruddock rebutted his leader on Sky News. His job wasn’t to marshal party room numbers in a spill. If his leader thought otherwise he never raised it.
The new whips will have their work cut out for them as the Liberals’ federal director (and husband of Mr Abbott’s chief of staff Peta Credlin) Brian Loughnane discovered.
Two days after the spill, angry backbenchers told him the government was out of touch with the community’s real concerns. They questioned the extent of the focus on national security.
In one report an MP told Mr Loughnane: “While we know people are concerned, all of us know that there are bigger issues for people.”
Government cuts to community service groups were nominated as an example. And in the sort of leak that so damaged Julia Gillard in the 2010 election campaign, Mr Abbott and Ms Credlin are being pinged for the cruellest measure in the 2014 budget.
The Murdoch Sunday tabloids reported Mr Abbott and Ms Credlin rejected concerns from ministers Kevin Andrews and Eric Abetz that a six-month waiting period for school leavers to get unemployment benefits was “too harsh”.
Ms Gillard was accused of arguing against more generous pension payments in cabinet. This leak is equally high level. It comes from Cabinet ministers working on the budget razor gang.
Labor seized on the revelation saying pushing young people into poverty was another “captain’s call”. Labor is resisting that measure in the senate but is signalling a willingness to support any necessary tightening of national security laws.
Bill Shorten has no idea what the Prime Minister will propose in next week’s address. He says the issue is above party politics.
All the evidence is that it is increasingly wishful thinking.
Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics. He is Contributing Editor for Network Ten, appears on Radio National Breakfast and writes a weekly column on national affairs for The New Daily. He tweets at @PaulBongiorno