The Abbott government’s attack on the president of the Human Rights Commission Gillian Triggs as “blatantly partisan” has backfired spectacularly.
Former Howard government cabinet minister Amanda Vanstone has lined up with those appalled by its latest affront to the rule of law.
That’s the rule that guarantees our freedoms against tyranny as another senior Liberal, Malcolm Turnbull, reminded the nation last week.
Ms Vanstone, in her Fairfax newspaper column, gave the government both barrels.
“You can imagine my profound disappointment, bordering on despair, when I see someone on ‘my team’ thinking it is OK for a minister alone to take away citizen’s rights – indeed take away citizenship – in the blink of an eye,” she wrote. “No appeal, no judicial process, just a ministerial decision. What were they thinking?”
The anger and the language used by Ms Vanstone was much stronger than Professor Triggs’ latest foray into the marketplace.
The Commission president, whose job is to blow the whistle on governments straying from their stated and accepted obligations, has been attacked for doing just that.
“The overreach of executive power is clear in the yet-to-be defined proposal that those accused of being jihadists fighting against Australian interests will be stripped of their citizenship if they’re potentially dual citizens,” she warned.
The government didn’t like that statement, or this one:
“Have we thought about what the consequences are of pushing people back to our neighbours, Indonesia? Is it any wonder that Indonesia will not engage with us on other issues that we care about, like the death penalty?”
That was conflated as a link to the recent executions of two Australian drug smugglers.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton on Friday demanded Professor Triggs front the cameras and retract “this outrageous slur”.
On Sunday, with a little prompting from conservative commentator Andrew Bolt, the minister said the president should contemplate whether to stay in the role, “when you reduce the position to basically that of a political advocate”.
The approach completely fits in with the political modus operandi of the Abbott government. There is no nuance. There is no place for anyone to question. Especially in this area. If Ms Vanstone, Mr Turnbull or anyone else has concerns they are as bad as the Labor party.
There has been a cold calculation that voters’ sensitivities about their individual liberties pale into irrelevance compared to their fears of terrorist attack.
And just in case people don’t think the threat is real, Mr Dutton, like Tony Abbott, keeps reminding them.
“I think people realise now this is a significant threat,” he said. “It is the most significant national security threat we face.”
No doubt that perception is fed by the Lindt Cafe siege late last year.
Never mind that the government and its agencies were caught napping on that one. Laws and alerts already in place were not even applied.
The political imperative is to sound tough and look like you are doing something.
So far there has been no explanation how stripping citizenship from anybody will make us safer.
What we do know, thanks to Professor Triggs, is that what is proposed will make us less free.
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