There’s an old aphorism about the best way to boil a frog which holds that if that’s your thing, you sicko, you should turn the temperature up very, very slowly. Shock the frog with a sharp enough temperature increase and she’ll jump right out of the pot.
First published at the Guardian
Something similar applies, maybe, to the gentle stench of authoritarianism that now undeniably permeates Australian politics. Things that might have been unthinkable a decade or two ago are now becoming so routine as to be almost beneath comment. Some of this is scattershot and as casual as the occasional shout-out to white supremacy on breakfast television. But beneath this is something systematic and calculated, hands slowly turning the dial while monitoring the frog at ever higher resolution for signs of distress.
Some of the temperature increments are so notorious as to have passed into a grim kind of folklore: mandatory data retention, jailing journalists for reporting on the mere existence of Asio’s Special Intelligence Operations, or John Howard’s celebrated reintroduction of sedition to the statute books. Others go almost without a murmur, as quietly as the next batch of creepy amendments to the Telecommunications Interception and Access (TIA) Act passing in a late-night Senate sitting.
But recently it feels the tempo has shifted, and with it the temperature. Ground zero for the accretion of unaccountable power lies behind the event-horizon of whatever the hell we’re supposed to call Peter Dutton’s super ministry these days. Agencies merging behind the scenes like blobs of mercury; the trusty old customs service mutating into Border Force, complete with stormtrooper uniforms and new powers to pound on your door at 5am if you’re the wrong shade of illegal. There’s a bill before your parliament designed to prevent charities and community groups from expressing political opinions about anything that may, god forbid, be critical of government policy. It will still be OK to go out and diligently plant trees or try and run a homeless shelter, but advancing a view of the political dimensions of deforestation or homelessness will henceforth require filling out a lot more paperwork or maybe going to jail for ten years. Dissent just isn’t viewed kindly: whether you’re a raggedy bunch of environmental campaigners trying to hold onto your deductible gift recipient (DGR) status, or Prof Gillian Triggs attempting to uphold your statutory obligations to speak up for human rights. Transgressors are targeted for template-style character assassination on all the wearisomely familiar platforms, partly to shut them up but mostly as a warning to others.
With every incremental turn of the screw, the government baits opposition parties in order to wring out the last drop of political advantage by casting them as weak on national security. With the Greens and occasional trusty crossbenchers resisting this stepwise slide, it is often left to the Labor party to swing in the breeze, hiding behind committee processes to extract some kind of meagre concession before caving in to form the smallest possible political target.
When I go looking for an iconic image to sum up what seems to be happening here, it’s the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, posing at a press conference in front of gas-masked gunmen and some kind of amphibious boat-thing with a machine gun on it. He looks like the world’s least-interesting Bond villain. It’s a schtick so familiar as to be a form of self-parody, but the scariest thing is that people like him have access to millions of dollars worth of focus groups and fine-grained polling, and they wouldn’t do it if it they weren’t making some kind of mileage out of it.
If you want to know how hot the water is getting, you don’t have to take it from me. In March 2018, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders on his mission to Australia claimed he was “astonished to observe mounting evidence of a range of accumulative and persistent measures that have levied enormous pressure on Australian civil society”, in the course of a report that excoriates Australia’s recent human rights record, from its treatment of Aboriginal people in their own country to the kind of violence our government is prepared to turn a blind eye to overseas.
Human rights are not just a paper construct, intended for other people in less fortunate parts of the world. We need a legally binding human rights framework here at home to buttress the kind of role we could play in the world, a role we’ve played proudly in the past. This means flipping a staunch and collective Aussie middle finger at the cold politics of division being used against all of us right now. In real life, this looks like residents of Biloela, Queensland, banding around the Tamil family abducted in Dutton’s grotesque show of force. In coming days they’ll need more of us at their backs.
The wonderful thing is, the boiling frog story turns out to be untrue, thanks to science. Researchers have observed a thing they call critical thermal maxima in frogs; past a certain level of discomfort they jump, no matter how slowly some sadist is turning up the dial in the background. There’s no reason to believe this doesn’t hold for collectives of decent human beings as well. Have at it.