Sydney Harbour sparkles in the morning sun, a wash of blue and the perfect backdrop for the azure ties and matching navy Zegna suits of power-dressers Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu and Malcolm Turnbull who step out together in Admiralty House gardens at Kirribilli; wives Sara and Lucy, their minders, handlers and backers in tow like seconds at a duel. Camera men scramble backwards up steep paths risking injury to keep it all in frame.
A riot of photo-opportunities beckons a government of endless self-promotion where image and spin utterly upstage vision; where government can seldom move far away from the politics of the campaign stump. But what is Malcolm Turnbull doing inviting one of the most reviled leaders in the world to Australia for a week?
Is it part of the deal Turnbull denies striking with Donald Trump? Could our PM have agreed to back up US support for Israel in return for The Donald’s re-consideration of the controversial refugee swap between Australia and the US agreed under the Obama regime, a deal the President has dismissed as dumb and stupid? It would seem that our military commitment to fighting ISIS in Syria is about to be increased. Just out of the blue.
Certainly Bibi-love is in the air. We can’t make too much fuss over him. Helicopters hover above. Police boats patrol below. Armed police are everywhere. Security forces haven’t been this busy since 1967 when Holt invited Air Vice Marshall Nguyen Cao Ky, playboy US puppet boss of South Vietnam in another politically and morally bankrupt gesture of goodwill. But none of the force on display will protect us from the enemy within however much he may look like the innocent flower.
“This is magnificent,” says Sara, admiring a place Mark Twain found “superbly beautiful”. Yet all the beauty in the world cannot undo the terror inflicted, the suffering wrought by the monster just ahead, her husband the “butcher of Tel Aviv”, flash as a rat with a gold tooth in his finely-cut Italian suit. Despite all of the security patrols on show on land sea or air, Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit is a welcome mat to state terror.
Operation Protective Edge saw Netanyahu’s Likud government kill 2,251 Palestinians including 1462 civilians, 299 women and 551 children in the bombing of Gaza between 8 July and 27 August 2014. 142 families lost three or more members. Sixty-six Israeli soldiers and seven civilians in Israel also lost their lives.
Over 11 000 Palestinians were injured according to an independent UN report which found that while both Palestinians and Israelis may have committed war crimes, hundreds of Palestinians – many of them women and children – were killed in their own homes.
But we all need to toughen up, Netanyahu explains. The bodies were arranged by Hamas to display “telegenically dead Palestinians” for their cause. Ironically, the same propaganda technique was deployed in Goebbels’ 1941 propaganda piece ‘the Jews are guilty’. It’s not too far from John Howard’s 2001 babies overboard claim.
Sixty prominent Australians pen a letter of protest that Netanyahu’s government sets out to “provoke, intimidate and oppress” the Palestinian people. Netanyahu defends the Nakba, the Israeli colonisation of Palestinian territory as a bulwark against radical Islam. A tape from 2001 leaked in 2010, however reveals his own form of terrorism.
“Beat them up, not once but repeatedly, beat them up so it hurts so badly, until it’s unbearable”, he says on tape.
If Turnbull has been expecting reasoned moderation or compromise, he is rudely disabused. Now he must also take responsibility for isolating Australia from mainstream international policy in cosying up to a monster and pariah. The stakes are high both the PM and for the nation. Yet he seems to go to excessive lengths.
Turnbull uses The Australian to lecture the UN not to be “hypocritical” over its Resolution 2334 which condemns Israeli settlements as a flagrant violation of international law. He does his best to push the two state formula.
“My government will not support one-sided resolutions criticising Israel of the kind recently adopted by the Security Council and we deplore the boycott campaigns designed to delegitimise the Jewish state,” he writes.
“We support an outcome which has two states where Israelis, the Israeli people, the Palestinian people live side by side as a result of direct negotiations between them — that is the fundamental point — and live together in peace and the security that they are entitled to expect,” he adds. But Bibi won’t have a bar of any two state juju.
Netanyahu’s a realist, at least. The two state formula is a con, Bernard Keane notes. It lets nations turn a blind eye to Israel’s illegal occupation and control of the West bank by settlement and military force.
What Netanyahu wants is Australia to support his current policy of Illegal colonisation by settlement. And he gets it. What Turnbull gets for going out on a limb risking international isolation- even from New Zealand which moved the resolution – and censure is another drubbing, another foreign policy humiliation.
No-one mentions the siege of Gaza. Israel has besieged Gaza by land, air and sea since 2007, following Hamas’s takeover from the Palestinian Authority’s security apparatus. 1.8 million Palestinians are “locked in and denied free access to the world,” the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported in July 2015. Does Malcolm Turnbull believe that the UN is being hypocritical here, too? Where does the accommodation end?
All that matters, then, is the Bibi and Malcolm and Sara and Lucy show, a feel-good story. It’s a simple script. The foursome get on so famously that they hang out together all week. Turnbull hopes Brand Netanyahu will rub off on him a bit; help boost his own anti-Islam, anti-terror standing with his insatiable hawkish right wing. Somehow the PM trusts that despite his failure to stand up to Netanyahu, Bibi’s company will make him appear stronger.
The official rationale includes vital agreements needing to be signed on technology and air services. Then there’s airy talk of expanding co-operation in areas including cyber-security, innovation and science.
Why we could triple our trade with Australia, says Netanyahu on cue. With bilateral trade between Israel our 44th trading partner and Australia currently worth around $1 billion, the benefits would still not offset the costs to Australia’s reputation. Or the potential offence we may give to Arab nations. Ultimately it comes down to a botched strategy. The visit was only ever about Turnbull’s need to look tough on the domestic front.
Instead he’s compromised himself and his nation, especially given the contrast with the reception given to Indonesia’s leader – and especially given the cloud of criminal charges hanging over Benjamin Netanyahu.
When Joko Widodo arrives Saturday, no formal dinner awaits him. He’s left to rustle up a bucket of Point Piper Kentucky Fried for himself. But he’s cool. And he needs to stay cool. In ways “too painful to explain”, an irreverent Perth army base training manual discovered in January discredited Indonesia’s military, its people and its ideology, claims his hard-line military chief Gatot Nurmantyo who has little love for Australia.
Any thaw in relationships has to be staged carefully. Unlike the Netanyahu love-fest which runs all week.
Clearly, Benjamin Netanyahu PM of Israel, a much smaller and more remote rogue nation than Indonesia, is much more fun to be with. Mal and Lucy have all the time in the world for their new pals. War criminal Bibi, in return, must appreciate time out from charges of improper use of state funds and criminal corruption for hurting a rival newspaper and accepting illegal gifts the Israeli PM faces at home. The case is likely to go court.
In the best news money can’t buy, Israel’s Channel 2 reports police have a recording of Netanyahu offering to curb the circulation of Israel HaYom, a critical newspaper, and also to broker billionaire investment in rival newspaper Yediot Aharonot if its publisher, Arnon Mozes, would make its coverage more pro-government.
Caught in the headlamps, also, is neighbour James Packer, one of Bibi’s inner circle of billionaires. The casino owner’s quest for Israeli citizenship may be unrelated to his buying a beachfront house next door to the Netanyahu shack. Similarly Packer may not be one of the billionaire investors teed up to buy the paper.
Police have questioned Netanyahu about his close relationship with Packer, who is reported to have financed trips abroad and hotel stays for Netanyahu’s eldest son, Yair.
Here a fulsome media embrace is orchestrated. Breathlessly, endlessly, every channel tells us that this is the “first visit to Australia” by a sitting Israeli Prime Minister. Trade deals are touted breathlessly, as always, as if somehow governments must clear the way before any enterprising trader may succeed in a free trade environment. Not a word is heard of Israel’s war crimes and current charges against its PM are soft-pedalled.
Happily a leadership lunge by a punch-drunk Tony Abbott provides media with a great story, Thursday, when he uses a Sydney book launch Making Australia Right a collection of essays by conservatives edited by James Allan, and an appearance on his pal Andrew Bolt’s show to outline his own five point plan to win the next election. Some journalists describe his thought bubble as a major speech.
It’s more of a kamikaze attack which will further alienate any support which remains for him but which is bound to damage Turnbull and to accelerate rapidly dwindling public affection for a clearly divided, dysfunctional Coalition government. Some, including Bernard Keane, suggest that the hard right’s leader in waiting, Peter Dutton, will be the chief beneficiary of Abbott’s open assault on his leader. It is a fair stretch, however, to tip Dutton for PM.
David Marr, however, on ABC Insiders, Sunday, finds the prospect laughable. Yet years ago, Abbott was similarly dismissed as having shown little of the requisite qualities of mind and spirit to become leader. It may well be, also as Carl Bernstein has written of Trump that Abbott’s achievement has been to break the civic consenus as to the qualities required in successful political leader. Or the behaviour expected.
Astutely, Abbott observes there is disappointment ‘perhaps even despair’ with Turnbull’s government. He notes nearly 40 per cent of Australians didn’t vote for the Coalition or Labor in the 2016 election before spoiling his speech by claiming: “It’s easy to see why”. In reality, he still has no idea as his solution shows.
“In short, why not say to the people of Australia: we’ll cut the RET [renewable energy target] to help with your power bills; we’ll cut immigration to make housing more affordable; we’ll scrap the Human Rights Commission to stop official bullying; we’ll stop all new spending to end ripping off our grandkids; and we’ll reform the Senate to have government, not gridlock?”
Abbott’s plan is just a series of empty rhetorical assertions. The lie about lower energy bills has already been tried and recent polls show most Australians do care about renewable energy targets.
Immigration cuts will not lower house prices and would help further suppress economic growth. Scrapping the HRC, a body his government attacked savagely is not going to end official bullying, especially when Centrelink is doing a magnificent job of that already with its Robo-claw automated debt-recovery debacle.
Stopping spending is rich, as Christopher Pyne points out, rashly, when he observes that Abbott’s was a big-spending government which raised taxes, too in the form of a deficit levy and a fuel excise rise. How exactly reform of the senate would proceed is left up to the listener to imagine in a series of points which is less of a “manifesto”, as some in the press have helpfully dubbed it, than a few more empty slogans.
On savage counter attack, Turnbull taunts Abbott for being all mouth and no trousers. The PM’s dresses up his ABCC, his removal of MP’s travel Gold Pass and his tax cuts to show that what he says he does. Solid achievement.
It’s risky not only because the claims of achievement are risible, especially with an ABCC modified beyond all recognition. It’s laughable to claim that in its new form that the ABCC will restore law to the building sector.
Research published this week by Alan Austin in New Matilda shows that despite Abbott’s promises and Turnbull’s assurances, construction has dramatically contracted under the Coalition. Yet it has become more dangerous.
“Weighted for actual activity, construction deaths increased from an average of 24.7 deaths per 100,000 chain volume units of construction activity under Labor, to 30.3 under the Coalition. That is an increase in the death rate of nearly 23%. That represents an extra six fatalities each year.”
And flip flops are always risky. Out with the bathwater goes the Coalition’s previous claim that Turnbull’s government represents some form of continuity with its predecessor.
Abbott’s outburst sets a course further to the right when there is no evidence it will win more Liberal votes. Tracking even further to the right would only further reduce his party’s appeal to, what opinion polls reveal, is still a moderate electorate.
Even more of distasteful to voters, however, is the recent decision of the Fair Work Commission to dock the pay of some 700,000 of our lowest-paid workers by reducing Sunday penalty rates. Many will find themselves $6000 out of pocket in July when the decision takes effect but many others will know or depend on those whose earnings have been reduced.
The concept of penalty rates is well supported by most Australians in Essential’s opinion polling. the decision will be seen as unfair and a capitulation to the business lobby’s crusade against penalty rates. Claims that lower wages mean expanded business and more jobs are not supported by hard evidence, while economists point to the slowing effect on the economy of the reduced purchasing power of low-paid workers.
The government chose not put in a case to the commission and its bizarre claim that the decision is all Labor’s fault will not wash. The rhetoric of an independent umpire will also be tested given the slew of pro-business appointments to the commission made by Michaelia Cash.
While the cut is restricted to retail, fast food, hospitality and pharmacy, other sectors may follow using the decision to effectively cut Sunday rates in new enterprise bargaining .
By week’s end, the government is again in crisis, hosing down its former PM’s challenge and attacking Labor in a hopelessly long-shot attempt to pin the Fair Work Commission’s decision on the Opposition. In the process, it has shot itself in the foot by bagging Abbott’s lack of achievment and pointing to his big spending and high taxing government – a trend continued by Turnbull.
Turnbull’s failure to manage Abbott, on the other hand, only serves to draw more attention to his pyrrhic victory over the budgie smuggler; how hopelessly he is encumbered by the circumstances of his leadership coup.
On top of the Coalition’s domestic problems sits its foreign policy debacle with the United States. Deal or no deal with refugees, it must now contend with the international response to being Israel’s new best friend at a time when investigations into Benjamin Netanyahu’s dealings are likely to lead to, at least, to a court case.
Should a new troop commitment against ISIS be announced, it will become immediately apparent that Turnbull has been trumped by the US president and that the PM’s determination to succeed with a deal to palm off our offshore refugees on to our great and powerful friend could in the end put many more lives in danger.
The Coalition’s immediate challenge, however, will be to deal with the fallout from the decision of the Fair Work Commission which may help put dollars in bosses’ pockets but which will punish lower paid workers and send shock waves much more widely affecting all families with children with part time jobs. Above all it will most profoundly affect the lives of women.
Turnbull still has time to reject the Fair Work Commission’s decision. He also has time to back out or postpone his promises of 50 billion tax cuts to companies. Anything less will be fatal to his government’s chances of re-election, to say nothing of arresting his inexorable decline in the polls.
One thing Tony Abbott has right, however, it may be too late to arrest his decline in the polls. No amount of power-dressed photo opportunities can save Turnbull or his government now.
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