The leaky Australian Cabinet

Peter Hartcher has what appears to be a detailed briefing of an Australian Cabinet meeting:

As a member of the Abbott cabinet, Malcolm Turnbull is obliged to keep any criticisms of the government’s performance to himself. Unless, of course, it’s in the confidentiality of the cabinet room itself.

“This is an extraordinary proposition,” the Communications Minister said to the cabinet meeting on Monday night, according to people present in the room. 

The Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, was proposing that he should have the power, at his own discretion, to strip an Australian of his or her citizenship. Even if it’s the only citizenship they have.   It was not for any random reason, however, but specifically for use on people suspected of terrorism-related offences.

Dutton enjoyed the vocal support of the Prime Minister. The meeting had no  trouble accepting a related proposal, the idea that a dual citizen could be readily stripped of Australian citizenship. But someone with no other citizenship?

Turnbull objected: “A person’s citizenship is of enormous importance, intrinsic to themselves. Take me. The only people who’ve lived in Australia longer than my family are Aboriginal. I have no other identity. Are we seriously saying some minister could take my citizenship?”

Only if you’re a terrorist, was the rejoinder. “Only if you are someone the minister thinks is a terrorist,” Turnbull corrected. 

This was Barnaby Joyce’s central objection too – the lack of hard proof, the lack of a trial, the absence of a jury, the lack of real rigour in a decision to take away a basic human right. “Isn’t that what we have courts for?” Joyce posed.  The deputy leader of the National Party went to the heart of the matter: “If you don’t have enough evidence to charge them in a court, how can you have enough evidence to take away their citizenship?”

According to participants, Dutton replied: “That’s the point, Barnaby. You don’t need too much evidence. It’s an administrative decision.”

This was too much for George Brandis: “I am the Attorney-General. It is my job to stand for the rule of law.”

Christopher Pyne was forceful on this point too: “This is a matter for the judiciary to decide, not the minister.” …

Julie Bishop pointed out a central reason that the idea was unworkable. If Australia were to strip one of its people of citizenship on suspicion of terrorism, would Britain, for example, really go ahead and give them British citizenship?

By the time the forceful objections of these five ministers had been reinforced by another –  Defence Minister Kevin Andrews warned that if the idea was controversial in the cabinet it would be much more so in the community – it was apparent that the idea was moribund.

From time to time you get reports of discussions or disagreements in Cabinet. But it is very rare to see a story such as the above, in which one or more Ministers have basically described in detail the discussions to a journalist. That makes for a very good story, but a rather troubled Government.

Contrast that to New Zealand. The decision to increase benefits by $25 a week would have been known by Cabinet for six weeks or so. Also by many political staffers (and Treasury and DPMC officials). Possibly even caucus knew of it. But not one single hint of it was leaked before the Budget.

I suspect there will be attention in Australia about whom in Cabinet is describing Cabinet discussions in detail to the media.


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