The Rules of Engagement
Updated: Nov 25, 2020
Today I ‘lockdown’ my lockdown writings. It seems an appropriate day to do so. Yesterday was the 23rd consecutive day of no new cases in Victoria. The battle is this part of the world against the pandemic is perilously close to being won. In an ironic and morbid twist, 150 mourners are now allowed at funerals and, thankfully, the funerals should not now be for victims of the virus.
Victoria’s lockdowns and those imposed in other countries and cities have been stringent tests of the ability of governments to successfully engage with their electors. Rulers have had to convince the ruled to forego many liberties to attain the greatest good for the greatest number. Our governments have had to ensure they were acting on sensible and defensible information and advice.
Look out if you don’t! Last weekend, South Australia’s medical officers became epidemiologists with no clothes when they had to abandon a suddenly imposed and severe six-day lockdown in the State. It was discovered that the basis of the lockdown, being that a ‘super spreader’ had delivered contagion through a pizza box, was a concocted story.
Successfully engaging with people is no easy feat, even the ones you know and love!
For governments, the task is especially difficult. The motives, rules and expectations of the engagement must be explained and defended.
In the last fortnight the rules of engagement in a diverse range of political and social arenas have become the focus of national discussion.
The rules of engagement of war are, prima facie, a paradox. How can there be rules about bloody and barbaric conflict where States sponsor killing of others in the same way there can be rules about filing one’s tax return?
But, rules there are. International conventions outline those who are legitimate targets and participants in war and those who are not. Rules for the treatment of prisoners of war also exist. What happens when they are more honoured in “the breach than the observance?”
Last week a Defence Department investigation recommended that several Australian soldiers be investigated by Federal Police for possibly committing war crimes in Afghanistan in the war against the Taliban, especially the killing of innocent civilians.
This will be an unenviable task. Can bureaucrats in Canberra’s clinical corridors truly understand the pressures and demands of warfare? Can the rules of engagement of war always be upheld amidst the traumas and terrors of a theatre of conflict? Can any of us truly understand the stresses that must play on the minds of soldiers? Dear friend of ours in Perth lost their nephew in Afghanistan to a sniper’s bullet that killed him as he was peacefully going about his business in his compound. If random, unpredictable violence becomes the norm of wartime existence, what is the appropriate perspective to judge by? It seems not all can be fair in love and war, but at what point does fair become foul? And at what point do we forget that the presumption of innocence must remain, notwithstanding emotional headlines in newspapers about the findings of an investigation, which are yet to be tested in a court of law.
For Ben Roberts-Smith, who received a Victoria Cross for his valour in Afghanistan, the perils of managing peacetime must seem as punishing as his tours of duty. First there was George Negus’ unseemly slur about his prowess as a lover. Then were disclosures about an affair. Close to eighteen months ago he commenced a defamation action against the Fairfax press for alleging he had participated in war crimes.
The case has been set down for an eight-week hearing commencing next June. Kerry Stokes, owner of the 7 Media Network, has confirmed that he has lent Roberts-Smith a $1,000,000.00 so he can fund his legal action.
Roberts-Smith’s Victoria Cross and other decorations have been offered as collateral for the loan. Mr. Stokes has said that if the loan can not be repaid, he will donate the medals to the Australian War Memorial. A land fit for a hero has become a litigious landscape with no final horizon in sight.
The rules of engagement of personal relationships within professional workplaces have also become a national topic of discussion. This follows the resignation of Channel 9’s CEO, Hugh Marks, amidst revelations of his relationship with a junior company executive and a Four Corners programme that disclosed that Federal Minister, Alan Tudge, had had a consensual affair with one of his senior advisers.
The programme also impugned the morality of Attorney-General, Christian Porter, by suggesting that he had sexual relations with a staffer, whom he was allegedly seen kissing and cuddling with in a Canberra bar. The best Four Corners could do to give veracity to this allegation was the hearsay evidence of Senator Hanson-Young, along with Malcolm Turnbull’s not so thinly veiled criticism of a person who did not vote for him in the 2018 leadership spill. There was also much attention given to the Attorney’s boorish comments about women as an undergraduate. At that age, most young Australian men would stand guilty as charged by Four Corners.
Who was it said that what goes on behind closed doors between consenting adults is no-one else’s business if it does not frighten the horses?
Such an approach is infinitely preferable to a selective parade of judgements about the private lives of individuals that, by their very nature, are inconsistent and variable, based as they on the values of the accuser. Tudge stays. Joyce went. No doubt Turnbull, having as he does a long list of names to hate, will hope that Porter’s political ambitions are mortally wounded. Thirty years ago, Hawke never had to worry about his philandering as he triumphantly married the long-term mistress and biographer. Nor have Kings of England. Everyone knew that as Edward VII lay dying, his wife, Queen Alexandra, sent for Edward’s favourite mistress to comfort him.
In a year when a pandemic has placed burdensome barriers and borders between people, communities and countries, the body politic continues to place barriers in front of those considering contributing to the public good. Judgements about people in positions of authority seem to be increasingly shrill about a widening range of subjective matters.
Who would seek to enter Parliament if you thought every crass comment you made ten, twenty, and thirty years before could be used against you? Who would seek to serve in a senior corporate role if you are to be judged by the watch you wear and whether you spend too much at a hairdressing salon? Who would enter public life if you thought there was a prohibition on forming relationships with those you met? As much as values may change, elemental attractions remain. Respectful relationships have always and will continue to be formed in workplaces. However, the puritans seek to deny this truth. Recently, a QC told me that his advice on the new rules of office relationships is that employers are best not to pay excessive compliments to an employee unless they intend to become engaged to that person.
If we disengage the competent and committed from considering public and private roles of responsibility because they are concerned that they will not pass either the Four Corners test of perfect probity or will face unjust public scrutiny, then who are we left with? Worryingly, it will be the narcissistic and thick skinned who are usually more impervious to proper standards of behaviour than anyone else. Not something to look forward to! Yeats said it perfectly: “The best lack all conviction whilst the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Australia’s rules of engagement in its trading relationship with China are also under review. The Chinese have made clear that we must repair our national and cultural faults, before they will consider relaxing recently imposed bans on importing several Australian products. Unremarkably, it is always the totalitarian regimes that seem themselves as blameless. Oh, what a fine line a government must walk when deciding the appropriate relationship between the commercial and moral imperative in foreign policy.
The way a government engages with its citizens can also be problematic. The Federal government has agreed to settle a class action brought by those who were adversely affected by its bizarre and iniquitous Robodebt Scheme. The government implemented a programme that used recorded phone calls to pursue people for alleged welfare debts, many of whom could not either pay the debt or did not owe the government money. If Banks were pilloried by a Royal Commission for intimidating people with Down syndrome to buy insurance policies they could not understand, what to make of a government that devised such a callous and cavalier scheme? Well, whilst we consider an answer to that question, the Federal Treasury will be writing a cheque for $1.2 billion to remedy the government’s unacceptable rules of engagement.
Victoria’s State Coroner has found that Victoria Police did not engage in an appropriate manner with James Gargasoulas before he embarked on his killing spree by driving a car along Bourke Street’s footpath in January, 2017. Coroners, like the rest of us, always have the benefit of hindsight; however, most reasonable people would consider that the police woefully underestimated the nature of the criminal and failed, when necessary, to take appropriate preventative action.
At midnight last night, the border between New South Wales and Victoria re-opened, restoring the normal rules of commercial and social engagement between the two States. The re-opening of all intrastate borders before Christmas remains a doubtful proposition, especially the prospect of Victorians being able to visit Western Australia without having to enter quarantine for a fortnight.
Many a Queenslander would say that the normal rules of engagement prevailed in the deciding game of this year’s State of Origin Rugby Series. New South Wales, seemingly blessed with a stronger team, were denied by Queensland at Lang Park. All would agree that the Queensland player Jai Arrow, who lifted a clearly concussed James Tedesco above the ground, only to drop him back down, broke every rule of proper engagement on a sporting field.
In contrast, Dustin Johnson rewrote the rules of sublime achievement on a golf course, winning the delayed US Masters golf tournament. It was his second major title, and he chose 2020 to fire a remarkable 20 under par to win the tournament by five shots.
In Rugby union, the all-conquering All Blacks have had to accept new rules. For the first time since 2011 the team lost two tests in a row, the first to Australia and the second loss being their first ever loss to Argentina. Such was the euphoria and elation amongst the Argentinians, that only the toughest of Kiwi hearts could have begrudged the Pumas their day in the sun.
Yesterday was the 22nd November. The anniversary of JFK’s assassination in 1963 and Thatcher’s departure from Downing Street in 1990. A kind reader let me know, and I should have known, that 22nd November is also the birthday of Billie-Jean King, now 77 and Boris Becker, now 53. Billie-Jean engaged with the tennis world like few before and since. When Boris won Wimbledon as an unheralded and unseeded teenager in 1985, he engaged the world with his joyous enthusiasm and precocious talent. Boris was the flagbearer of a new guard of players- Edberg, Cash, Agassi and Sampras- who were to dominate the game for most of the 1990s.
Yesterday in London, there was a changing of the guard, in addition to the one at Buckingham Palace! Unlike the daily occurrence at the palace, this one has been fifteen years in the making.
At the ATP finals in London, Daniil Medvedev and Dominic Thiem won torrid three-set semi-finals against Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Medvedev came from a set down to beat Nadal, being first player to do so against the Spanish superstar in 71 matches! Djokovic was the last of the ‘Big Three’ to win the ATP End of Season title in 2015 with the last three champions being Dimitrov, Zverev and Tsitsipas. This morning a fourth new champion in four years was added to the honour roll with Medvedev again coming from a set down to beat Thiem. Medvedev was unbeaten during the round-robin tournament and beat Nadal, Djokovic and Thiem- the holders of this year’s three Grand Slam titles-to claim the title. The challenge for the new guard is to now impose their recent dominance of this event in the Grand Slam tournaments.
The end-of-year Doubles crown was won by Croatia’s Nikola Mektic and Wesley Koolhof from the Netherlands. Mektic and Koolhof are the fifteenth different pairing to win the title in the last sixteen years. Finland’s Henri Kontinen and Australia’s John Peers won successive titles in 2016-17. Before that the Bryan brothers won titles in 2003-04. Australia’s ‘Woodies’, won two titles in separate years. The American team of John McEnroe and Peter Fleming remain supreme, winning seven successive titles from 1978-1984.
As the London tournament ends, with some of the year’s best matches played in an empty stadium, eyes turn to the 2021 Australian Open. Yesterday amidst a series of announcements further relaxing the conditions of Melbourne’s lockdown, the Premier indicated that large sporting venues will be allowed to have crowds up to 25% of their capacity. That seems to be the easy bit for the organisers of the tournament.
There are to be new rules of engagement with Australia’s Grand Slam next year. It now seems likely that it will be played during Melbourne’s hottest month of February. School students will only be able to attend night sessions as the tournament will commence after the beginning of the school year. The major rule that still must be decided is whether players will be allowed to train during any part of their mandatory fortnight of quarantine. Given the runaway levels of infections in many northern hemisphere countries from where many players will come, a fortnight’s quarantine for all players upon their arrival is inevitable and necessary.
Martina Navratilova defected to the West during the 1975 US Open: I wonder, even with the arrival of a Covid-19 vaccine, many players could be tempted to defect to the Covid-19 free island continent?
We can but wait and see.
Typing without a mask and enjoying seeing socially distant others reveal their faces for the first time in months, it is time to bring my lockdown writings to a close, lest I tempt the fates of a “third wave”.
My predictions at year’s end?
1. There will be never another phrase as overused as “2020-the year like no other”.
2. As the pandemic’s effect recedes so too, hopefully, will the number of people expressing their wish to “reach out”.
3. Scott Morrison will be glad he will not have to worry about taking a summer vacation to Hawaii-remember his fall from political grace when he travelled there less than a year ago as bushfires raged across the country?
4. Post-vaccine politics will still be dominated by the economic environment created by Covid-19: will the nation’s employers be asked to pay an increase in the superannuation levy?; will the ALP promise a higher level of post-Covid Jobseeker allowance?; will the ALP moderate its carbon emissions targets as it targets marginal seats in Western Australia and Queensland?;
5. The inauguration of President Biden will take place as scheduled on January 20. Trump will huff and puff until the end, but he will not be able to blow the constitutional rule of law away;
6. Incumbency will be a supreme political asset for most governments around the world: they will either receive plaudits for managing the pandemic well, or voters will be reluctant to switch to a devil they do not know. Remember, Trump lost a personal Presidential ballot, but the Republican Party did not lose significant support in the Congressional vote;
7. Scott Morrison may be tempted to call a Federal election late next year, especially if the ALP’s ideological divides are still openly exposed; however, my view is that Morrison will seek to serve as close to a full-term as he can. Morrison, having served two years and eighty-nine days in the job, has already served longer than ten of our thirty Prime Ministers. If he is still in office on 30th August next year, he will have served longer than half of them and will have become our first Prime Minister to serve three years since Julia Gillard;
8. Daniel Andrews will stare down any adverse findings of the Inquiry into the Hotel Quarantine programme. If he leaves office before the next State election in November 2022, it will be at a time of his choosing;
9. Ash Barty will emulate her beloved Richmond Tigers and win the 2021 Australian Open, beating Naomi Osaka in the final; and
10. Neither of the ‘Big Three’ will win a Grand Slam title in 2021- it will be the year of a new world tennis odyssey!
My compliments of the forthcoming festive season to all.
Remember to observe the most important rules of personal engagement- pandemic or no pandemic!
1.Post your own mail.
2.Always be punctual.
3.Keep zippers closed.
4.Finally, follow Conrad Hilton’s advice given to guests at his hotels, “Keep the shower curtain inside the bath.”