I returned to Parliament a week early for hearings of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. The committee is examining new laws designed to protect Australia from foreign agents trying to steal our business and governmental secrets and disrupt Australia’s critical infrastructure. ASIO has three major intelligence and security functions: protecting Australia from homegrown terrorist attacks, protecting our borders and stopping other countries trying to steal Australia’s secrets. ASIO testified that the threat to Australia from foreign espionage is unprecedented – greater now than during the Cold War. Unlike the threat of terrorism – most Australians remain unaware of this fact.
One of the most extraordinary witnesses to appear before the committee was the former Greens candidate and ex-head of the Australia Institute Professor Clive Hamilton. Hamilton is one of the major figures of the Left in Australia. So when he testified that his research into Chinese foreign interference in Australia had caused him to become a supporter of the US Alliance and to call for tougher national security laws to protect Australia, we should all take note. On this, Hamilton appears to be something of a modern-day Whittaker Chambers.
The Coalition party room welcomed two new Senators – Jim Molan and Lucy Gichuhi. Molan is rightly known for military leadership. He is perhaps less well known as a fluent Indonesian speaker, possibly the parliament’s only one. Gichuhi’s arrival has given the government a real morale boost and returned our numbers in the Senate to what they were before the defection of Cory Bernardi.
Former Attorney-General George Brandis left the Parliament. Brandis reminded colleagues that when he first came into the Senate in 2000, the general view was that the Howard government, which was behind in the polls, would lose office at the 2001 election, but with unity and good political management they prevailed. Brandis was one of the most philosophically literate people ever to sit in the Parliament and his valedictory speech contained a warning for the Liberal party. He argued: ‘Increasingly, in recent years, powerful elements of right-wing politics have abandoned both liberalism’s concern for the rights of the individual and conservatism’s respect for institutions, in favour of a belligerent, intolerant populism which shows no respect for either the rights of individual citizens or the traditional institutions which protect them. If I might adopt a brilliant phrase of [Senator Scott Ryan], we have seen the development of right-wing postmodernism. A set of attitudes which had its origins in the authoritarian mind of the Left has been translated right across the political spectrum. This presents a threat to both liberalism and conservatism and a profound challenge to the Liberal party as the custodian of those philosophical traditions.’
Brandis could not depart without a dig at his shadow minister Mark Dreyfus. Having outlined how well he got on with former political adversaries Robert McClelland and Nicola Roxon, he said of Dreyfus: ‘There were a couple of controversies over the last four-and-a-half years but I could always rely on the member for Isaacs to blunder in and get me out of trouble. I will be forever grateful that Mr Dreyfus was my shadow. One of the many reasons I am cautiously optimistic about the outcome of the next federal election is that I believe the Leader of the Opposition is quite close to Mr Dreyfus, and often seeks his advice.’
Last year’s reshuffle brought some new faces to the front bench. David Littleproud, the National’s new Minister for Agriculture, has proven himself to be an adept Question Time performer. Littleproud, the 41 year- old son of a former Queensland state minister, was a rural banker before becoming member for Maranoa in the 2016 election. Maranoa contains the town of Blackbutt which surely wins the award for the most politically incorrect town name in Australia. Littleproud is one of the youngest members of cabinet but he performed as if he had been doing this for years, hitting hostile questions out of the park.
I had the opportunity to pay tribute to Brian Loughnane, who was recently made an Officer of the Order of Australia. It is good to recognise people who see politics as a noble profession. Brian has been a friend of many years’ standing and one of Australia’s best strategic thinkers. He ran four federal campaigns including masterminding the Coalition wins in 2004 and 2013. Two sorts of people become federal or state director: those for whom it is just a job; and those who believe deeply in the cause. Brian is in the latter category. He used to maintain a list of over 100 reasons why Billy McMahon was a better PM than Gough Whitlam – it was a list to which he was constantly adding.
Last year due to government policy like business tax cuts and industrial relations measures there were 1,100 jobs created every day – the strongest calendar year of jobs growth ever recorded. Everyone who wants a job seems to be getting one: even Sam Dastyari seems to have found one.
With the pending Batman by-election Bill Shorten seems to be telegraphing a shift to the Left in order to stave off the Greens. Labor’s changed position on the Adani mine provides a frightening illustration of how a Shorten government would make policy. If Adani fails due to political interference it will send a terrible signal to companies seeking to invest here and damage the relationship with India – an ally whose rise can only be good for Australia. Labor might want to win Batman but to get there its leadership seems to behave like the Joker.
Julian Leeser is the Federal Liberal Member for Berowra