Pre-emptive fact busting

I have a theory (or, really, two theories) about what goes through Tony Abbott’s mind in situations like this. The context, so as not to get too far ahead of myself, is that Indonesian doctors appear to be treating burns of asylum seekers who claim mistreatment at the hands of the Australian Navy, as they were turned around mid-voyage.

Scott Morrison quickly pronounced this to be “sledging” with “unsubstantiated claims”. This is the political, amoral intellect of Morrison at work: conflating “unsubstantiated” with “incorrect”. Morrison’s own say-nothing policy must contribute greatly to the difficulty of determining the truth, one way or another, of such a claim. It can hardly have been “sledging” if, hypothetically, it turns out to have been accurate.

However, Tony Abbott has since backed up Morrison by also pointing to the lack of evidence. But absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

We might ask what sort of evidence Morrison and Abbott would expect. These events took place at sea, where (I presume) the only witnesses were the asylum seekers themselves and navy personnel. Clearly the asylum seekers’ claims don’t count as evidence in the eyes of Morrison and Abbott, and we don’t have access to any information from the navy’s perspective. Morrison and Abbott expect the media to carry the entire burden of proof for something only the government (for now, anyway) has any real information about.

Abbott poses this question:

Who do you believe? Do you believe Australian naval personnel or do you believe people who were attempting to break Australian law?

Who do I believe? For a start, I’m disinclined to believe a man, Prime Minister or not, who frames the vulnerable and dispossessed as criminals1. What kind of moral compass can such a man possibly have? I’m also disinclined to believe a man who asks us to simply ignore serious allegations in lieu of spending a modicum of time and effort investigating them. We don’t have to just “believe” one side or the other. A little transparency is not too much to ask in a democracy, surely.

Of course, it’s problematic to accuse unspecified defence force personnel of abusing asylum seekers, because these are people to whom we feel collectively indebted for the personal risks they take on our behalf. But they are not superhuman, and it is not actually that hard to believe that abuses might have occurred. These are human beings in relatively isolated, probably very stressful situations, acting in the context of a brutal government policy. And there are unfortunate precedents for abuse within Defence and within our police forces. People in authority are not always flawless.

One pressing political question is this: how would Morrison and Abbott react if the media now does uncover more substantive evidence of abuse?

Whether or not Morrison and Abbott intend it, turning on the outrage early in a debate seems to cement the debate in place. If you tried this, you might worry about looking like a fool, especially if evidence is later uncovered that undermines your position. But in politics, perhaps, the early-outrage strategy actually creates a certain imperviousness to future revelations. If you’re a high-profile person, and you can articulate a hard-line position, you can make a lot of other people very angry in sympathy with you, and angry people have a habit of not quite thinking things through. Angry people treat new information not as information, but as ammunition, either fired at them by the enemy2, or available for them to fire back. In this view of the world, you never make mistakes, never need to issue an apology and never need to readjust your thinking. Even in the face of hard evidence of abuse (again, hypothetically), a political leader with sufficient willpower, and a sufficiently faulty moral compass, can plough straight through, with the ironclad support of people who worship strong leaders and who care more about political victories than about good policy outcomes.

Of course, the other theory is that Morrison and Abbott are just flying by the seat of their pants, just saying whatever seems most expedient right now, with undiluted confidence in their ability to later dig themselves out of a great steaming pile of whatever they may now be getting themselves, their party and their country into. If this theory is correct, then there is at least hope that Morrison and Abbott may be inclined, after a bit of kicking and screaming, to do something about the excesses of the implementation of their policies.

Morrison’s training for the immigration portfolio, I can’t help but noticing, has consisted of years in opposition of saying whatever seemed expedient (in the course of raising awareness of the horrifying menace of dispossessed people coming to our shores and asking for asylum). Abbott similarly veers so far from doing anything constructive (say, in the areas of fiscal management, environmentalism, public transport and education, to name a few), that it’s hard to tell if he’s actively trying to be an arseclown, or if he’s just never worked out how (or even why) not to be one3. At some point, he’s probably been told to just keep doing what he’s doing and call it a strategy.

There will certainly be a lot more arseclowning to be done before this issue is settled.

Addendum (24 Jan 2014)

A couple of extra links:

  1. Wasn’t it all about saving lives at sea, at one point? []
  2. “The enemy”, of course, consists of a core of people who are behaving in exactly the same way as you are, but with the opposite objective, intermixed with a group of people who really wish you would just listen to what they have to say for a moment and stop acting like a twat. []
  3. Abbott’s rise to power demands a considered explanation, but it seems principally the result of an almost unparalleled ability to tear down other people and rally opposition against them. []

Nothing so humble

The ABC reports that Scott Morrison “climbs down in funeral row”:

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison has admitted he was “insensitive” to question the cost of funerals as families mourned for those lost in the Christmas Island shipwreck tragedy yesterday.

News Ltd reported that  Morrison was sorry for his “insensitive and inappropriate” comments:

A CHASTENED Scott Morrison today apologised for “insensitive and inappropriate” comments on the funerals of asylum seekers killed in December’s boat tragedy.

This is actually quite a distorted interpretation of Morrison’s remarks. If you read what he actually said, as reported in both articles, it’s hard to come to the conclusion that he’s “climbing down” in any meaningful sense. According to the News Ltd article:

He told 2GB “the timing of my comments over the last 24 hours was insensitive and was inappropriate”.

“I know probably more than anyone how strongly people feel about this issue, how angry they get about the costs that are involved and I share that anger and I want to see that changed,” he said.

“But there is a time and a place.”

Morrison is not sorry for what he said at all, but merely when he said it. That’s not an apology, but simply political manoeuvring. It appears he’s trying to conflate the funeral costs with overall asylum seeker processing costs.

If Morrison were genuinely sorry, he’d do the following in a long statement to the mass media:

  • explicitly disown his remarks;
  • show some leadership and not kowtow to or stoke populist fears;
  • make an argument in favour of the funeral arrangements and the consequent government expenditure;
  • make an effort to separate the issue of funeral costs from the broader “unauthorised boat arrivals”  issue; and
  • not immediately go back on the offensive (which would simply dilute the apology).

In reality, Morrison is just trying to have us ignore what he said. The problem is that there are a large number of people who probably agreed with him the first time, and who themselves will just see this “apology” for the meaningless non-concession that it is. Each time a high-ranking politician utters remarks like Morrison’s, it further emboldens the nutters who want to see, for instance, an end to “Muslim immigration”.

If Morrison were genuinely sorry, he wouldn’t try to gain political ground from both the moderates who might think he apologised and the nutters who know that he didn’t. If Morrison were genuinely sorry, he would be trying to undo the damage he caused by passionately refuting his own remarks. He isn’t sorry – he’s gaming the electorate.