Tony Abbott’s Team Australia rhetoric is getting scary
By Craig Emerson
By asking the ABC whose side it is on following the airing on Q&A of a question from a man who had been charged with terror offences Australia’s Prime Minister was essentially accusing the national broadcaster of supporting terrorism. It’s part of a pattern. Eighteen months ago, the Prime Minister accused the ABC of taking “everybody’s side but Australia’s.” It seems the Prime Minister will decide who is on Team Australia and the circumstances in which they are selected.
Q&A was plainly wrong to offer a platform to someone who had threatened to kill ASIO agents and tweeted about gang raping female journalists. But instead of spending a healthy amount of time admonishing the ABC for its grievous error and moving on to defend free speech, the conservative media is supporting the Prime Minister’s unfortunate statement that “heads should roll” and is backing his complaints of anti-government bias.
There’s no need to speculate about where the Australian government wants this to end: the Prime Minister has told us he wants “the ABC to be a straight news-gathering and news-reporting organisation.” No more Clarke and Dawe satirising the prime minister of the day, no more Shaun Micallef being as mad as hell, no more the Hamster deciding anything. In Abbott’s world the ABC would be reduced to reporting Canberra press releases and airing replays of The Killing Season. Why would the government want to turn the ABC into its Pravda when it already has The Daily Telegraph?
Imagine the furore if the ABC and not Fairfax had first aired allegations of Australian officials paying people smugglers to turn their boats around. It was, in fact, not unpatriotic of Fairfax or of the opposition to ask questions about this matter. Australia’s defence forces do a fantastic job and we should be proud of them. But that doesn’t make them entirely immune from media scrutiny. Nor does it mean that anyone who questions any military incident is un-Australian. No defence force chief would consider the ABC’s investigation into sexual abuse in the navy rendered it a supporter of forces hostile to Australia.
Frequent references by the Prime Minister to Team Australia are becoming scary. No doubt it works brilliantly in focus group testing. Protagonists in the Cronulla riots would love it. The government’s motivation was laid bare in the leaked question-time brief whose talking points urged ministers to brand the opposition as being soft on terror.
Yes, the threat of terrorism is real, ISIL (the “Death Cult”) is barbaric and despicable and we need strong anti-terror laws. But whereas Prime Minister Howard, in response to the World Trade Centre bombings, advised Australians to be alert but not alarmed, Abbott is telling us to be alert, alarmed and antagonistic. Anyone questioning this sort of divisive rhetoric is immediately fingered as a member of the un-Australian team.
Dividing the nation into them and us might be clever politics but it is inimical to the national interest. It alienates young Muslims who, rightly or wrongly, receive a message that they are suspected of being members of the them-team against the us-team. Accusing the ABC of supporting the them-team against Team Australia shores up Abbott’s support in the party room just as did his initial proposal to strip Australians of their citizenship on the immigration minister’s say so. But national security policy should be guided by the national interest and not by internal party politics or by party-political opportunism.
We are heading down a dangerous path. By all means, criticise the ABC for its Q&A decision. And sure, criticise the ABC for airing without proper investigation claims by asylum seekers that naval personnel had forcibly burned their hands on hot pipes. But as to accusations of anti-Coalition bias, I was with Bob Hawke during the 1987 election campaign when he walked out of a Four Corners interview, having been accused of being too pro-American. My own appearances as a minister with Leigh Sales were tough but I never complained. I respected her for it. Tough interviews, I considered, brought out the best in the guest – if there was a best to be brought out. As for those commercial media outlets revelling in the government’s attempts to muzzle the ABC, remember, if you’re not considered to be on Team Australia, you could be next.
Craig Emerson is a former cabinet minister in the Gillard Labor government.