Attorney-General George Brandis will become Australia’s high commissioner to London in a ministerial reshuffle set to be announced on Tuesday.
Brandis’ appointment opens the way for Malcolm Turnbull to elevate deputy Senate leader Mathias Cormann to Senate leader, and gives the Turnbull government a cabinet vacancy.
But it leaves Turnbull with the problem of being seen to have adequate representation from Queensland in the cabinet. A Queenslander will have to be elevated, but the choice is limited and there is no standout candidate.
Queensland is a vital state for the Coalition at the next election.
While Brandis is a Liberal, the Nationals have been agitated for months about the need to boost Queensland’s representation in the ministry – and Brandis’ departure complicates the issue further.
Favourite to get Brandis’ portfolio of attorney-general is Social Services Minister Christian Porter, who was attorney-general in the Western Australian government before he moved to federal politics.
The Nationals, who appear confident of holding their five cabinet spots despite losing a parliamentary seat to the Liberals, now find themselves with an excess of Victorians in cabinet.
Their new deputy, Bridget McKenzie, is from Victoria, as is existing cabinet member Darren Chester. The party has only four federal MPs from that state.
It is speculated that Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce, who is agriculture minister, will move to Chester’s infrastructure portfolio in the changes.
The reshuffle also is likely to see the return of former health minister Sussan Ley, who resigned after allegations of the misuse of travel entitlements, which she denied. Turnbull wants to promote women and personally likes Ley.
The reshuffle comes as the government is behind Labor in the 25th consecutive Newspoll. The ALP leads 53-47% on a two-party basis, unchanged from the previous poll.
Turnbull said recently he regretted referring to Tony Abbott losing 30 consecutive Newspolls when he launched his 2015 challenge against the former prime minister.
Abbott replied that he will respond to this Turnbull statement of regret, but he wanted to leave it until after Saturday’s Bennelong byelection.
Decades of gentrification in London and other European cities (including Paris, Barcelona, Rome and Istanbul) have enacted a form of social cleansing. This has pushed away low-income and marginal residents, divided the rich from the poor, and generated inequalities among citizens.
The Hammersmith area, where the Grenfell Tower is located, has been gentrified. This previously working-class area has been transformed into a vibrant middle-class neighbourhood. Just a few residential social housing tower blocks remain.
As a cosmetic measure, the Grenfell Tower was refurbished in 2014. The choice of cladding material that appeared to fuel the fire is now subject to scrutiny, but with no understanding of the social dimensions of the building’s design regulation and safety measures.
There has been an outpouring of grief and anger from the affected community and beyond and tensions remain high. While certain elements of the media rebuke those seeking to hold the ruling class accountable, it is important to emphasise a simple truth: disasters are socially – and politically – constructed.
Root causes of disaster
Disasters are often misunderstood as “natural”, or simply assumed to be extreme and tragic events.
This view draws on a century-old paradigm that puts the blame on rare and inescapable natural phenomena, an “act of God”, or technological breakdowns that lie beyond the everyday social fabric.
But there is nothing natural about disasters; disasters usually have root causes of vulnerability that we don’t speak about and that reflect the day-to-day make-up of society – inequality, poverty, political ideology, class and power relations.
Disasters as experienced today are often rooted in the historical development of societies. The impacts of colonialism, slavery, military conquest and discrimination based on class, gender, race and religion are visible today.
Billions of people around the world, in both wealthy and less affluent countries, are at this moment suffering under structural injustices. As demonstrated at Grenfell Tower, this is a recipe for disaster.
Structural injustice creates vulnerability
This disaster is quite a shock to British society. Although the contributing sociopolitical drivers (while sometimes not explicitly discussed) are perhaps more visible on this occasion, having struck a centre of wealth and power in London, we need to recognise that injustice lies at the core of almost all disasters.
This injustice is not an accident – it is by design. There is no disaster that kills everyone in a particular locality nor one that knocks down all buildings in a single place.
Normally the resources to overcome the impact of natural hazards are available locally. The privileged have access to these resources while those at the margin do not.
Vulnerability to hazards, and related disasters, therefore mirrors how power and resources are unequally shared within societies. More often than not disasters affect people not because of a lack of knowledge about disasters, but because this knowledge is not applied.
The residents of Grenfell were poor in a rich neighbourhood. They were those the market rejected, a burden on a borough apparently determined the rich should not pay to lift the constraints of the poor.
The British political class has failed to adequately represent the interests of its most vulnerable citizens for decades. That people are consigned to live in such conditions in a wealthy country is at best a betrayal of the vulnerable by the state. Some would call it criminal. It is not only the Tories who must swallow this bitter pill.
Cities tend to greatly magnify inequality. The Grenfell Tower disaster is a product of a deep societal divide in Britain, where wealth is increasingly concentrated among a small minority.
Gentrification is pushing already marginalised people out of sight and out of mind. This kind of urban development is a boon for housing market profiteers and supports the ruling class agenda, but neglects the needs of the most needy in society. Marginal people become resourceless, invisible to public policies, and disempowered in public life. This increases their vulnerability.
If cities are to reduce the risk of disasters like the Grenfell fire, we must focus on social justice in urban development. The benefits of development or redevelopment should prioritise the have-nots and provide dignity to people regardless of income or background. Cities that are able to provide opportunities for all citizens are also able to appreciate diversity rather than homogenisation.
The Grenfell Tower fire exposes the injustice of disaster, and this terrible moment must be learned from and acted upon. Pushing people to the margins and deeming them worthless is ultimately what causes them to perish.
Legitimate questions certainly arise from the weekend outrage in London, but they are not those immediately provoked by Pauline Hanson or Donald Trump.
The US president’s impetuous reaction was to tweet that the attack on London Bridge and the Borough Market proved that American courts should “give us back our rights. We need the Travel Ban as an extra level of safety!” Note the exemplary use of the exclamation mark. However, Trump did have the grace eight minutes later to offer a form of condolence to the British people – “WE ARE WITH YOU. GOD BLESS!”
The capitals presumably mean either that he was shouting or that he really means it. Not so the One Nation leader, who chose to use Twitter to desecrate the warning from the British authorities for people to “run, hide and tell” by declaring that it was time to “stop Islamic immigration before it is too late”.
Labor’s Penny Wong rightly declared Hanson’s eructation “irresponsible and crass”. One of Australia’s foremost counter-terrorism experts, Greg Barton of Deakin University, went further, telling me that what the One Nation leader was saying was “downright dangerous” on at least two counts.
One, in this age of postmodern terrorism, Islamic State operates as the first metaphysical nation with no dependence on physical territory or traditional communication to wield its power. In that environment, the security authorities rely on tips from the communities from which impressionable operatives emerge.
Maligning those very communities, Barton says, tends to make its members turn inward, reducing their trust in the authorities and diminishing the likelihood that they will report the wayward behaviour of people they know. Witness the bizarre spectacle of the Manchester bomber, Salman Abedi, praying loudly in the street.
Second, it encourages the very sense of alienation, the feeling that they are stigmatised outsiders, that leads people to lose their sense of belonging. That makes them more vulnerable to the brutal siren call of murderous extremists.
Hanson either does not know this or does not care, because it is likely that her anti-Muslim message, basically a reworking of her initial hostility to Aborigines and then to Asians, appeals to much of One Nation’s base. What more would you expect from a person who over two decades has used the public purse to turn politics into a highly successful small business?
There are legitimate questions, though, about this latest attack in the UK, the third in as many months. One is whether Britain has a peculiar problem when it comes to these apparently autonomous acts of ghastly violence. The other is whether the London Bridge/Borough Market attack had anything to do with the UK election, now only days away.
The answer to the latter is probably not. As Barton points out, if the perpetrators had wanted to influence voters, they or their sponsors would have made a statement to that effect in some form, either direct or allusive.
That is not to say that the violence of Saturday night won’t affect the result of Thursday’s poll. Conventional analysis has it that assaults on security tend to favour the incumbent, especially if they are from the centre right.
Theresa May’s Tories consistently poll as “better for” national security than Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. But this has not been a conventional UK election campaign and there are also questions about whether a sense may take root within the electorate that the government is failing to protect the community, following two fatal acts of terrorism in just a fortnight – Manchester and now London. May was, after all, home secretary, responsible for domestic security, for six years before she became prime minister.
She has not had a good election. Gone are the days, less than two months ago, when it looked as if she could gain a majority of 100 in the House of Commons, knocking Corbyn for six. Her refusal to engage with Corbyn was seen as arrogant, and UK voters are sick of going to the polls (three times in less than two years). There was also her blunder on a “dementia” tax, essentially a proposal to make the elderly contribute to their health care if they have combined assets of more than £100,000.
Immediate public outcry forced a U-turn, but the damage had been done. As campaign managers would say, May had gone “off-message”. The election was no longer a plebiscite on her managing of Brexit, but an argument about health and welfare, traditional Labour turf.
It was a surprising mistake, especially given that as a political up-and-comer May warned the Conservatives back in 2002 that it had become the “nasty party”. Its base was “too narrow” and on occasion so were its sympathies, a sermon this child of the manse had clearly forgotten delivering.
On the question of security, the message from the voters is decidedly mixed. In the wake of the Manchester attack Corbyn boldly, but deliberately, stated:
Many … professionals in our intelligence and security services have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported … and terrorism here at home.
I have been here with the G7, working with other international leaders to fight terrorism. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn has said that terror attacks in Britain are our own fault.
Corbyn was “not up to the job”, she said. He also faced criticism from within his own ranks, but it seems May’s decision to play the security card was not as effective as she might have hoped, because the opinion polls continued to tighten in Labour’s favour.
None of this means May will lose when the votes come in on Thursday. Rather, it shows that national security is a more complex issue in the UK these days, after a decade and a half of unpopular wars and years punctuated by regular, fatal terrorist attacks.
It is not clear whether the story is the same in either the United States or Australia. It is possible this is one way the UK is grimly unique.
Just when the Western world had absorbed the shock of a truck attack in Berlin in December that claimed 12 lives, it is reminded again of the dangers of “lone-wolf” attacks inspired by Islamic State (IS) that are almost impossible to guard against.
When a sole attacker drove randomly across London’s Westminster Bridge towards the Houses of Parliament – one of the most trafficked thoroughfares in the Western world – killing and maiming innocent bystanders, it served as a reminder, if that were required, that open, global cities are vulnerable to such attacks.
These are moments that serve as a reality check for those in authority who are striving to maintain a balance between oppressive policing and surveillance and a free society. This is enormously challenging in an environment in which strains of fanaticism have been let loose.
Regrettably, the London terrorist attack leading to five deaths, including the perpetrator and a policeman, will find its way into a racially tinged political discourse – and not in a way that will be particularly edifying.
But there is also no point in pretending that mayhem in the Middle East can be separated from what takes place on the streets of London or Brussels or Berlin or Nice, or in other places that become victims of continuing upheaval in a crescent that stretches from the Mediterranean to South Asia.
Now that the weapon of choice for lone-wolf terrorists seems to have become a vehicle to mow down people innocently going about their business, a policing task becomes even more difficult.
Peter Bergen, a terrorism expert, noted in a post for CNN that as long ago as 2010, al Qaeda’s Yemen branch had encouraged its recruits in the West to use vehicles as weapons.
A headline on its webzine, Inspire, had described vehicles as “the ultimate mowing nachine” – not to “mow grass, but mow down the enemies of Allah”. He wrote:
These attacks are hard to defend against in free societies where crowds will gather, as was the case for Bastille Day in Nice, or the Christmas market in Berlin … and now throngs of tourists and visitors that typically crowd the sidewalks around the Houses of Parliament.
The utter cynicism and brutality of these random low-tech attacks pose enormous challenges for security.
This latest episode will not be the last such vehicle attack with the possibility that something much worse might eventuate, including the detonation of a truck packed with explosives and shards of shrapnel. Open Western cities will always be vulnerable to these sorts of attacks.
The threat of IS-inspired terrorism is now embedded in Western societies. It is no good pretending it is not.
Since 2014, when IS proclaimed its caliphate, there have been more than 70 terrorist attacks “conducted or inspired” by its followers in 20 countries (not including Syria and Iraq), according to a running total kept by CNN.
If Syria and Iraq were added, such terrorist attacks would number in the hundreds.
In 2014, CNN lists seven terrorist incidents, including the stabbing of two Australian police officers in New South Wales. Six died and 12 were injured in 2014, in Belgium, Australia, Canada, the US and France.
That was the beginning.
By 2016, the numbers of casualties from IS-inspired terrorism had risen sharply across the Middle East and in Europe. This included the Brussels bombings at a metro station and an airport, in which 32 people died and 340 were injured.
It is not least of macabre coincidences that the London terrorist attack occurred on the first anniversary to the day of the Brussels bombings.
So far this year, there have been five major incidents. Most, if not all, are linked to IS.
London was the first such episode in continental Europe. The others occurred in Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
Out of all this, it is a depressing conclusion, but as IS in its strongholds in Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria is further degraded, chances are it will step up its terrorist activities elsewhere.
In other words, risks to countries involved in the war against IS will rise as its fortunes in its so-called caliphate slide. IS is on the ropes in its Middle Eastern strongholds. This makes it more dangerous to Western interests.
In London, and among Britain’s allies, political leaders have hastened to express solidarity, but all would be aware that such ritualistic professions of support and concern will not provide a foolproof shield against the next Islamist-inspired terrorist attack.