Comment: Driven to distraction

Michael Keenan was sworn as Minister for Counter-Terrorism and Concetta Fierravanti-Wells was sworn in as Parliamentary Secretary to the Attorney-General this week. Source: AAP

When it comes to national security, get ready for a big government bloated with small ideas.

Within any political week there are generally a lot of “distractions.”

Some issues actually are purposefully distractive. If the government is facing some sort of an attack someone like Barnaby Joyce will be wheeled out to shout “squirrel” to the press and off we go worrying about Johnny Depp’s dogs for a few days.

But governments hate distractions not of their own making, for it forces them to talk about things other than they wish.

The government this week did not want to be distracted with talk of same-sex marriage.

Instead, it wanted to focus on what it thought were the key issues of the week: small business and national security.

The small business angle was purely a continuation of the budget sales pitch, but terrorism was given a major boost by a number of announcements early in the week.

The first came on Monday with Tony Abbott announcing Michael Keenan as the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Counter-Terrorism, and former diplomat, Mr Greg Moriarty, to the new position of Commonwealth Counter-Terrorism Coordinator.

Why either of these roles is needed given the existence of the National Security Committee and other organisations was rather unexplained.

It’s also rather confusing. Keenan, as the current Minister for Justice is junior to the Attorney General George Brandis. Senator Brandis has oversight on ASIO – our main national security organisation – and yet Keenan in his new role is in charge of “central coordination” of all national security agencies.

Keenan is thus ranked both below and above Senator Brandis in the national security hierarchy.

It would appear as well that Mr Moriarty will be coordinating with groups such as the National Security Committee whose job is to already to coordinate, and he will work within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet – a department whose sole purpose is to coordinate with other departments and government agencies.

So, I hope you all feel much safer now that an extra level of coordination has been placed on top.

But the Prime Minister was not done there.

On Tuesday, Tony Abbott in front of the usual six flags that must appear for any such announcement,  appointed Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, and former Minister for Immigration and Attorney General, Philip Ruddock to lead a “national consultation to improve understanding of the privileges and responsibilities of Australian citizenship”.

Apparently this is to help stop “radicalisation”.

The national conversation asks a number of questions such as “How can more Australians be encouraged to participate in civic life to build strong, inclusive and sustainable communities?” and “Are these the areas of the citizenship test and the Pledge that should be examined? Are any areas more important than others?” and “Should certain privileges of citizenship – such as the right to vote in elections and receiving consular assistance – be able to be suspended for Australian citizens engaged in terrorism?”

It all smacks a fair bit of asking how can we make being an Australian citizen conform to the view of citizenship held by Tony Abbott and other members of his government.

Will it stop radicalisation? Doubtful. But at least it will give talk-back hosts and callers a chance to express their views about people they don’t like.

But the Prime Minister was not done there.

Also to help with combating terrorism was the new measure also announced on Tuesday to strip dual nationals of citizenship should they be found – in the view of the Minister for Immigration – to have engaged or are suspected of engaging in terrorism.

No need for any convictions. That pesky “beyond reasonable doubt” is all a bit outdated now, it seems.

Of course, stripping a dual citizen of their citizenship is rather pointless in combating terrorism. It makes the government look like it is talking tough, but what practical effect will it have?

It won’t assist authorities in Australia bringing to justice any former Australians fighting overseas for terrorist organisations. Given their passports can already be revoked, it won’t stop any such people travelling overseas or coming back.

If anything the measure just sends potential terrorists to countries like Iraq and Syria (or keeps them there), which is perhaps not the best way we can assist them in helping fighting against terrorists. 

What it will also do is marginalise dual-citizens. Given the history of this government wanting to look tough on crime, it wouldn’t be surprising to see calls being made to widen the scope to other crimes that would allow citizenship be revoked.   

It really is more about being able to talk about people being un-Australian and attempt to make the ALP look weak on national security than doing anything to address the actual issues of terrorism and violent extremism.

In any event, were another nation to strip a dual citizen of its citizenship, the Minister of Immigration Peter Dutton has already stated that we would take them back.

So this was the government’s focus for the week, all the while also trying to talk up its budget.

On Wednesday Tony Abbott held a doorstop at a cafe in the Canberra suburb of Fyshwick to spruik the $20,000 small business instant asset write-off. But given the asset write-off is 2 week old news, not surprisingly journalists wanted to ask him not just about the budget but his counter-terrorism measures – especially how they would relate to family of ISIS fighter Khaled Sharrouf.

This all was great for Mr Abbott as he was happily able to talk tough and suggest that “If you commit serious crimes you should face serious punishment and as far as I’m concerned that will always be the case”.

However, near the end of the press conference the cafe owner yelled out “How do the journalists feel about small business? Yeah? Got any interest in small business? All these other issues are important issues but they’re sideline issues.”

It must have been a tad galling for the Prime Minister to hear his own counter-terrorism announcements being regarded as a “sideline issue”.

But sometimes voters, despite the best efforts of the government, can spot a distraction when they see one.

Greg Jericho is an economics and politics blogger and writes for The Guardian and The Drum. 

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