Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has now announced the ministry that will, hopefully, be taken to the 2016 election and beyond. That is of course unless there is more ministerial impropriety which takes place or is uncovered from the recent past. The new ministry is quite strong and relatively youthful, which suits the image, messaging and substance which PM Turnbull wants his government to portray.
A particularly brilliant choice was awarding the trade portfolio to Steve Ciobo, the MP for Moncrieff. By all reports, he has been a hard-working member of parliament and has excelled in his junior ministerial role in international development. Mr Ciobo is also a strong and confident when it comes to engaging with the media.
There were however some missed opportunities as a result of today’s reshuffle.
A few women were promoted, including new Deputy Leader of the National Party, Fiona Nash, and Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells. However, there could have been promotions offered to more, including Senator Joanna Lindgren, and the Member for Brisbane, Teresa Gambaro.
Today was also an opportunity to deal with the Minister for Immigration, Peter Dutton, who is simply not across his portfolio. Mr Dutton is also trying very hard to pull the politics of immigration and citizenship even further to the right and that is not healthy.
It must be said however, that Minister Dutton was probably kept in cabinet to appease the Abbott-backers. Also, a new minister would only be able to make the language used around asylum seekers and immigration more positive, rather than any substantive policy change. But an improvement is an improvement.
Given the bipartisan push toward the recognition of indigenous people in the Constitution of Australia and the sentiments from the Prime Minister in his Closing The Gap update to parliament, perhaps the biggest missed opportunity was in the indigenous affairs portfolio.
Currently that post is occupied by Senator Nigel Scullion, who is widely respected and has been quietly going about his business. However, for someone in what is a very important policy area in terms of the current political discourse, his voice has been conspicuously absent from a lot of the debate.
If you couple that with the fact that the Coalition Government now has two indigenous members of parliament within their ranks, then it is easy to see that talent and experience has not been harnessed there.
Ken Wyatt has extensive experience in the area indigenous health and welfare both prior to and during his time in the parliament and he would be the perfect candidate for Minister for Indigenous Affairs.
Senator Joanna Lindgren, although she has not yet been in parliament for a year, would be an ideal candidate for the junior role in this portfolio area.
Shifting Senator Scullion from the role would have proved a bit of a complicated situation, given he has held the role since 2012 and that the process for constitutional recognition of indigenous people is well underway. But, a successful change would not have been impossible.
Today, Senator Matt Canavan was appointed Minister for Northern Australia and will assist Josh Frydenberg in this role – someone who lives just about as far south on the Australian mainland as is possible.
Senator Canavan is a satisfactory choice as assistant minister in this role, given that the north of Australia is close to his heart. However, given that the government wants development of northern Australia to remain a key focus, the ministerial experience of Nigel Scullion, who lives in the Northern Territory, should be utilised in the senior role, rather than Josh Frydenberg retaining it.
Rather than election-winning moves, the changes outlined above are simply minor improvements to better serve the people who are represented in these areas of society.
In political circles, s18c of the Racial Discrimination Act is one of the hottest topics. Out in the broader community, it is not exactly high on the agenda. But the government is seemingly moving towards repealing that section of the Act. Indeed, it was one of the commitments made by the government when in opposition.
If the government were to break their promise, and not repeal s18c, they would lose no political skin. The government is still talking about a repeal of s18c of the Act however, though the final outcome may not end up being the removal of this part of the Act. There does appear to be mixed messages from the government.
Both sides of the debate have been passionately advocating their respective positions since the policy was announced. Sometimes that passion has been overly emotional. Nuanced and dispassionate consideration of the issue at hand has often been lacking, with the full repeal advocates and those in favour of the status quo being the loudest participants.
As you would imagine, the issue has been hotly debated on the various political panel shows for some time. And that debate has continued to accelerate in recent weeks, including on The Drum and Q&A last week.
There was a mostly mature discussion of the subject on both programs. The political class, the politicians in this case on Q&A, did get a little more emotional than those closer to the periphery of political debate, the guests on The Drum.
And then there was the social media commentary from the politically engaged. Twitter, as it often does, played host to a whole new level of angry and emotional consideration of the topic.
From the Twitter discussion last week, I learned that privileged, white, middle-aged males in particular have no right to take offense at any kind of jibes directed towards them. However everyone else is, in the eyes of a number of people on Twitter, allowed to seek comfort from the law. White privilege apparently means that no laws are required.
This is a problem. It is a problem because we live in what is supposed to be a liberal democracy. Granted we do not always get the application of liberal democratic values right in our society, but we are, for all intents and purposes, at the very least in name, a liberal democracy. That means that everyone is supposed to be equal before the law. Everyone is to be treated the same by and under the law.
When it comes to the section of the Racial Discrimination Act in question, I have been on quite a journey. I have held a few positions since the court case involving Andrew Bolt, which started us on the journey to the debate we are having at the present time.
At first my largely libertarian and liberal politics came to the fore. I thought that section of the Act just had to go because, well, free speech. It was a very absolute position. How could anything else possibly amount to free speech I thought.
Then I thought about it some more when I heard David Marr speaking on one of the panel shows on television. His position was that the part of the Act being debated should be altered.
At present, someone is in breach of the Racial Discrimination Act if they engage in behaviour which ‘offends, insults, humiliates or intimidates’.
David Marr has argued that the first two words: ‘offends’ and ‘insults’ are too subjective. The threshold there is indeed too low. A higher test should apply to the Act, and at the time I thought that Mr Marr’s thinking struck the right balance.
But again in recent days I have reconsidered my position. I have begun to think that the word ‘humiliates’ should be removed from the Act. The word seems to me to be so similar to the first two that it is an unnecessary part of the legal test for discrimination.
I do however think that the word ‘intimidates’ needs to be retained in the legislation. Essentially, racial discrimination and vilification in its purest sense is behaviour which intimidates the victim. It is the very foundation of true hate speech and has no part in a civilised society.
In short, we should have laws against hate speech. However, neither the status qu0 nor the proposed alternative position are adequate ways of dealing with what is a very complex issue.
It is worthy to note too that no single characterisation of the Act, either considered here or elsewhere, will eradicate discrimination. However, a legal remedy must remain available for when discrimination and vilification has been found to have occurred.