A matter of days after the Coopers controversy that was not much of a controversy died down, today there was a reminder of how the debate around marriage equality can often be toxic and potentially dangerous. The ever-reliable Peter Dutton provided that jolt to the memory.
The Immigration Minister was speaking in response to a letter to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, which was co-signed by a number of business leaders, including the Managing Director of Wesfarmers, the Chief Executive of ANZ, and the Qantas boss, Alan Joyce.
All the champions of free enterprise bore some of the unwarranted criticism from the combative Immigration Minister. However, it was to be Alan Joyce, the openly gay CEO of Qantas, who was the singled out for further unnecessary criticism, above and beyond all the other signatories.
In his rage against the business community, Mr Dutton said that the company bosses should “stick to their knitting”, and that the government he is a part of “would not be bullied” by the business sector.
Furthermore, the minister went on to say that “it is unacceptable that people have used companies, and shareholders money, to try to throw their weight around in these debates”.
Then came the ministers precision-guided barb aimed at Mr Joyce. He said that “Alan Joyce, the individual, is perfectly entitled to campaign for and spend his hard earned money on any issue he sees fit, but don’t do it in the official capacity and with shareholders money”.
First of all, the Minister of Immigration is more than a little bit lucky that his knitting jibe was directed at the group, rather than the Qantas CEO. Had Mr Dutton aimed this remark at Joyce, it would have been rightly seen as playing to the negative stereotypes of LGBTIQ community.
If the minister had made that particular part of the statement about Alan Joyce, he would have been accused of using the outdated and wrong assumption that gay men are somehow feminine in nature – which they are not.
Minister Dutton’s riposte to the letter, that business must stay out of the affairs of government and society, needs to be examined.
Companies in any given nation, where they are free to do so, like in our liberal democracy here – need to respect and appeal to diversity. This is not an unnecessary evil, but a responsibility in a free and open society. Individual businesses and business leaders can choose whether this amounts to simply serving a diverse community, or using more broader mechanisms of inclusion, like what happened in this particular instance.
In the absence of laws providing for inclusion and non-discrimination, it is a basic concept of business, that organisations within society need and should want to appeal to as big a market as possible – and also to serve an existing market. Otherwise, how would they maintain and then grow their respective markets?
That is precisely what these champions of industry have done in these circumstances. They have engaged with their responsibility to be inclusive of the whole of Australian society, while using broader mechanisms of inclusion.
When you live in a liberal democracy, you are entitled to freedom of expression. This goes for both business, and the Immigration Minister. And, as is frequently said when instances like this arise, they can be called out if and when those people make what any reasonable person would call, at the very least, stupid and ill-informed comments.
It just so happens that the Immigration Minister has a history of being called out for saying the wrong thing.
Just the person you want as a leader to unite the nation together.
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.