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PM expected to make national security announcement

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For all the hyperventilation over whether Malcolm Turnbull was abandoning conservatives this week (he wasn’t), the main point of his speech to London’s Policy Exchange think tank may have been missed.
The Prime Minister was laying the groundwork for a major national security announcement, expected as soon as next week. “In a world of rapid change”, he told the packed audience, “we must constantly review and improve the policies and laws that will best keep our people safe. To set and forget would be easy, but it would not be right.”
So what policy “improvement” is he hinting at? Most likely it’s the new Homeland Security or Home Office portfolio that will bring together ASIO, the AFP, Immigration and Border Force under one umbrella.
Not everyone’s a fan of this model, including some of Turnbull’s own Ministers. They defend the status quo with the reasonable point: if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Our security agencies work well together and have successfully foiled a number of terrorist plots.
This is certainly true. Nor is the British Home Office a perfect model. It clearly hasn’t been able to prevent terrorist attacks on home soil. 34 people have died at the hands of terrorists in the UK this year alone.
In Australia, though, the successful terrorist attacks of recent years have been carried out by those who’ve fallen through the cracks. Men who have been on and off the radar of police, Immigration and ASIO at various times. No one department has the responsibility to draw all these sometimes loose threads together.
The other great concern about a Homeland Security or Home Office super-department is the impact on personal liberty and privacy. Will it be easier for ASIO or the AFP to monitor, collect data, share personal information, detain suspects and conduct searches under the changes that may be coming?
In his London speech, Turnbull made no apologies for what many will say is a Big Brother approach. “It is in the very pursuit of freedom that we seek a stronger role for the State in protecting citizens against the terrorist threat.”  He says the fight against terrorism is a fight to defend liberal values. “In order to be free a person must first be safe.”
This is undoubtedly true. And while some on the fringes will complain, the vast bulk of Australians will welcome anything that helps keep them safe. There are deep concerns over domestic terrorism right now. It’s showing up as a top priority in both Labor and Liberal internal research. Some families are worried about taking their kids to the city, a concert or even the footy.
Whatever he does, Turnbull’s decision will inevitably be viewed through the prism of whether it is too moderate or too conservative, or perhaps a sop to the conservatives because he’s so weak. That’s seriously how simplistic our politics has become.
Which brings us to the part of Turnbull’s speech which was apparently so controversial. When Turnbull spoke of Robert Menzies being at pains not to call it the Conservative Party and when he referred to Tony Abbott once wanting to govern from the “sensible centre”, there’s no doubt he was pushing back at conservative critics and Abbott in particular.
It may have been a mistake to even venture into this toxic debate right now and provoke collective outrage from the conservative commentariat and their followers, but it’s hard to disagree with what Turnbull actually said.
Normal people don’t obsess over whether someone is ideologically conservative, moderate, liberal, socialist, a leftie, a libertarian or whatever. And those who do are often confused as to what these labels mean. Should a conservative support open markets or state-owned coal plants? Free trade or protection for Australian industry? Budget repair or tax cuts? Individual liberty for people to marry who they choose or state-sanctioned discrimination?
As Turnbull put it, “labels have lost almost all meaning in the furious outrage cycle of social media politics, long cast adrift to be appropriated, often cynically, by one politician or another as it suits their purpose.”
The Prime Minister can’t do much about the “furious outrage cycle”. It’s not going to stop. His best hope at recovery is convincing voters he’s untroubled by the noise and more focused on delivering results for them.

Published: Friday, July 14, 2017


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