Leading article Australia

Power without responsibility

16 February 2019

9:00 AM

16 February 2019

9:00 AM

Stanley Baldwin is remembered for saying ‘power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot through the ages’. Baldwin meant press barons of his time. But his dictum also applies to the intellectual harlotry of those who have just voted to dismantle Australia’s highly effective border protection regime simply because they don’t like it.

Chief among them is independent MP and former Australian Medical Association president, Kerryn Phelps.  Grandstanding on her by-election win in Liberal-wet Wentworth, it was her bill to make removals from offshore detention on Nauru and Manus Island easier by curbing ministerial discretion and handing over decision-making responsibility to two or more treating doctors. She wants us to believe doctors are saints in while coats, never acting except out of altruism, never allowing ego or ideology to influence their godlike judgment. A bit rich coming from a former AMA president who led a militant trade union masquerading as a professional association, who played politics hard then and didn’t hesitate to sue when then health minister, Michael Wooldridge, displeased her.

Then there’s the House of Representatives crossbench, including Greens professional agitator Adam Bandt, the hand-wringing Andrew Wilkie and self-regarding Liberal traitor Julia Banks, aided and abetted by their Senate counterparts in forcing the bill into law. Having, thanks to Malcolm Turnbull’s disgraceful treachery in bailing from Wentworth, the balance of power against a now minority government, they used it ruthlessly to put themselves on a moral pedestal. They happily joined the chorus of condemnation against PM Scott Morrison and especially home affairs minister Peter Dutton for simply doing their jobs: ministers who, whatever their political failings, are decent men with consciences. The post-vote photo of this smug little group jubilantly congratulating themselves for getting one over the government says it all: this was above all about them, their egos and their newfound parliamentary power.

But let’s not forget Bill Shorten and Labor. The PM-in-waiting, who surely should remember what it’s like sitting around the Cabinet table agonising about morally tough problems, knowing first-hand these decisions are fraught for ministers making them, cast his lot with the crossbench, Greens and Left activists and opinionistas fawning over Dr Phelps.  True, Labor wheedled some changes out of Dr Phelps and the Greens but, in voting for the final bill, Mr Shorten made it crystal clear that the days of putting people smugglers out of business through a tough border protection regime are over if Labor wins office this year. He blinked.

And in terms of truly ugly intellectual harlotry, a special mention for Dr Paul Bauert of the AMA. He it was who made the grotesque comment that Holocaust victims were better off than detainees on Nauru and Manus (well-serviced, safe and well provided for tropical islands that they have the choice to leave any time they like), which he justified by the disgusting (and false) claim that Jews were somehow comforted by the ‘meaning and certainty’ of knowing they and their families were about to be gassed. He has since apologised for his vile comments. The AMA, to its shame, thus far has not.

Under what passed this week, it will be hard for a minister to stop doctors moving detainees and family members to Australia for medical treatment simply by creating a mental health justification. A long-closed door is being reopened to people smuggling. If Dr Phelps and Co. now succeed in their real goal of getting all offshore detainees to Australia through this artifice, it doesn’t matter whether or not this bill applies to new arrivals. The precedent is set and will be used again and again.

Mr Morrison and Mr Dutton suffered a parliamentary defeat, but it is they who emerge with honour. For once, this government defended its principles, and unlike the craven Mr Shorten refused to negotiate with political terrorists. Mr Shorten is gambling that mainstream Australian voters are on the side of the activists, Mr Morrison on the side of the government. Whoever’s right (hint: it isn’t Mr Shorten), voters in the imminent election will see it’s not Mr Morrison who’s failed his leadership duty. Mr Shorten knows first-hand that government sometimes means making unpleasant decisions in order to prevent far greater harm – in this case, hundreds of lives lost at sea if the people-smuggling trade starts up again. He knows Mr Morrison and Mr Dutton aren’t amoral monsters, but his eagerness to appease the luvvies and Twitter trolls who do is unworthy of anyone aspiring to the highest office.  Mr Morrison should make this failed test of Mr Shorten’s character and leadership an election issue. Quickly.

Mr Morrison is now reopening the Christmas Island detention centre anticipating a new wave of illegal arrivals. Dr Phelps, Mr Shorten and everyone else exercising power without responsibility in their intellectual bordellos stand condemned for making this necessary.

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