September 01, 2015

Horse 1970 - Operation Forty-Toad

If you are in charge of a government that wants to do something either hideously unpopular or which is seen as cruel by a great deal of the population, what do you do if you intend to do it anyway? If you are going to do something which is going to cause pain, like remove someone's kidney without their permission, then maybe you can hit their thumb with a hammer. That way, while they're worried about their thumb, they might not notice that their kidney is gone.

Within the same week that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was announcing that Germany would take up to 800,000 refugees, the Abbott Government in Australia was in damage control after the Australian Border Force had announced that under Operation Fortitude, it would stop people on the streets of Melbourne and demand to see their visa papers and or passports. The announcement was made early in the morning and by mid-afternoon, there were so many protestors at Melbourne's Flinders Street railway station that the operation was cancelled. Never before have we seen an agency backpedal so furiously that they'd burnt out the tyres on their bicycle in less than one day. Of course the Immigration Minister Peter Dutton was nowhere to be found as he was mysteriously 'sick' and the Prime Minister Tony Abbott tried to lay out the excuse that it was just a badly worded press release even though the intent was absolutely obvious.
How did we get here?

The problem that the Abbott Government has at the moment is that they are at least six months away at the earliest from an election and that at the bare minimum they will have to do some governing in the interim. Usually that wouldn't be an issue but they've come to the point in the election cycle where governments start to get judged for their actions and they've realised that the electorate has memories.
The first six months for a government are usually the best because they can do the big ticket items and sound the fanfare of how wonderful they are. Every new government will also get a chance to crow about fixing the mistakes of the previous government and then there are those symbolic gestures which cost practically nothing but look as if they are fulfilling promises.

In 2013 the Abbott Government was elected on a visible platform of 'not being Labor' and of Tony Abbott 'not being Kevin Rudd or Julia Gillard', as well as the three word slogan to 'stop the boats'. Unfortunately in 'not being Kevin Rudd or Julia Gillard', Tony Abbott has been Tony Abbott, which is fine if you happen to be the Leader of the Opposition but isn't exactly the most positive of policies if you are the Prime Minister. The policy of stopping the boats whilst it has worked, has come at the price of looking extremely cruel. When you start shipping refugees off to nations with populations which are smaller than a concert hall, or when there are reports of refugees sewing their lips together in protest of being stuck somewhere for years with no obvious plan to be moved, or when you start towing boats back into open seas, it all just comes across as being a bit extreme. Then if the same government department which is in control of enacting those policies, suddenly announces a domestic policy which resembles that of a police state, the population then starts to get very worried.
Governments generally turn to a 'get tough on crime' policy footing before an election because it usually involves the loudest and most visible set of announcements for the least amount of effort. Border Force was one such announcement because it took an existing set of workers, clad them in shiny new uniforms and then employed them to do roughly the same thing. Now I would argue that having a paramilitary presence on the streets of the CBD of a major city is all kinds of crazy bonkers but I'm not entirely sure if it was sinister of itself. This smacks to me of a government which has thought to itself 'we need to be seen to be doing something; this is a thing; therefore we need to be seen doing this'. Yes it is crazy bonkers but arguably it has done its job because it is visible and for the least amount of effort.

If you look at a lot of policy which was supposedly been tossed about in the last week such as starting a debate about the republic, they were ostensibly about making noise without doing anything. Even talk about Joe Hockey supposedly being cautious about his job as Treasurer, I think was mainly about making a noise to distract from the previous noise generated by the Border Force farce; for the least amount of effort. Leadership speculation can generate lots of column inches in newspapers and mindless chatter on radio and television, without having to do anything of real value.

When it comes to serious policy such as altering the GST and Income Tax rates, by making as much noise as they possibly could, the Abbott Government has created a very nice diversion. For a couple of days the Australian electorate was too busy watching the shiny thing to notice anything else; I wonder what sort of deals were made in the background.

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