Political editor, The Age
Tony Abbott began his short career as a journalist at what was then the country’s quality weekly news magazine, The Bulletin, before moving to the national broadsheet, The Australian. But he has always possessed the instincts of a mass circulation tabloid editor.When the Prime Minister branded the ABC’s Q&A a “lefty lynch mob” at Tuesday’s meeting of Coalition MPs, he would have been acutely aware that the line would be reported to journalists during their official briefing on the party room discussion.And, when he was asked about the remark at a press conference called to announce legislation to automatically strip dual nationals of their citizenship if they were involved in terrorism, he was happy to elaborate.
“I’m certainly not going to repeat things that were said in the confidentiality of the party room,” he began, even though the “lynch mob” quote had been relayed verbatim to journalists by a government spokesman 15 minutes earlier. The PM then asserted that millions of Australians would feel “betrayed” by the national broadcaster’s decision to give “a convicted criminal and terrorist sympathiser” in Zaky Mallah at platform on Monday night’s program. “I think the ABC does have to have a long, hard look at itself, and to answer the question which I have posed before: whose side are you on here?”
Yet the question Mallah posed on the program was pertinent to the conversation Abbott invited the nation to have when he announced his original plan to give the Minister for Immigration, Peter Dutton, the discretion to strip dual nationals accused of being terrorists of their Australian citizenship. And few were better placed to ask it.
Mallah introduced himself as the first man in Australia charged with terrorism, admitting he had “done and said some stupid things, including threatening to kidnap and kill”. He had been convicted over the death threats, but acquitted on the terrorism charges. His question: “What would have happened if my case had been decided by the minister himself and not the courts?”
The response from Steve Ciobo, the parliamentary secretary to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, could hardly have been more provocative. “I’m happy to look you straight in the eye and say that I would be pleased to be part of a government that would say that you’re out of the country as far as I’m concerned,” he said.
Mallah’s reply triggered a swift rebuke from host Tony Jones and stunned silence from the studio audience. “The Liberals now have justified to many Australian Muslims in the community tonight to leave and go to Syria and join ISIL because of ministers like him,” Mallah said.
But the last word, and the most sustained acclamation, belonged to Ciobo. “Let me tell you, I know a lot of Muslims. They’re very good people and I think they would be recoiling at what you just said.”
And that was it. Really.
The Prime Minister’s outrage (and that of many of his colleagues) could hardly have been better reflected in the News Corp tabloids the next morning if Abbott had been chairing their news conferences and issuing the editorial orders. “ABC OF JIHAD”, shouted the Herald Sun; “TERROR VISION”, The Daily Telegraph; “IT’S YOUR ABC”, The Courier Mail, complete with a digitally altered image of an ISIL fighter brandishing an AK-47 and a flag bearing the ABC logo.
And it got worse. A double-page spread in the Telegraph featured a digitally altered image of a chuckling Jones chairing a panel of terrorists under the headline: “WHOSE SIDE ARE YOU ON.”
From the Abbott perspective, the treatment sat neatly with the narrative he wants voters to accept: that here is a government doing its very best to keep the nation safe, only to have that objective undermined by the left-leaning ABC. Come in spinner.
Even before Dutton seriously accused ABC journalists of running a “protection racket” to support the ABC, the broadcaster conceded it had made “an error of judgement” in allowing Mallah to ask a question and announced a review of the program. This was a mistake.
Mallah might be an attention-seeking misogynist and a loose cannon, but he is on record as an avowed opponent of Islamic State who insists he loves this country and has reformed since his acquittal on a charge of planning a terrorist act in 2005. Q&A‘s mistake was not to insist that his question be pre-recorded and put to the panel by video link.
When the ABC rebroadcast the program, with a disclaimer, this opened the broadcaster up to renewed attack from Abbott, who announced an “urgent government inquiry” and declared that “heads should roll over this”.
This segued neatly to a potential second political dividend for Abbott: the wedging of Malcolm Turnbull. The Communications Minister can take the most credit for the moderating the citizenship laws introduced this week and making them less vulnerable to constitutional challenge, but he was now in a pickle.
If Turnbull failed to match Abbott in the bellicose outrage stakes, he risked further alienating himself from those MPs who are every bit as gung-ho as the Prime Minister in labelling the ABC as un-Australian. If Turnbull went along with it, he would be marked down by those who consider him the most articulate voice of the middle ground.
But Turnbull is not for wedging. Invited by the ABC’s Leigh Sales to agree with Abbott’s call for heads to roll, he replied: “I’ll decide what metaphors I use and the manner in which I use them.” Asked to endorse Abbott’s view that the ABC had betrayed the country, he said it had betrayed its own “very high standards”.
Back in February, Turnbull might have been prime minister if he had challenged when Abbott was in so much strife that desperate backbenchers moved for a spill of the Liberal leadership. Turnbull resisted then, and Abbott’s political recovery is now so comprehensive that some are speculating on an election this year. Don’t bet on it.
The recovery can be attributed to a host of factors, including Abbott’s determination to be more consultative and to redress the unfairness of last year’s budget. And don’t forget the reminder, courtesy of the ABC’s The Killing Season, of Labor’s dysfunction in government.
But don’t discount the PM’s ability to exploit the fear factor on national security for political gain, either. Or deploy his tabloid abilities to this end.