Culture

Philip Ruddock Sure Is Amazing On Twitter. He’s Also Trashed Human Rights And Marriage Equality.

Australia's longest-serving Parliamentarian gets a great run in the media these days. Here's why he shouldn't.

Update, February 8, 2016: This afternoon Philip Ruddock announced he will retire from Parliamentary politics at the federal election later this year, bringing to a close a political career spanning more than 42 years. 

At the same time, Ruddock announced that he has been appointed as Australia’s first Special Envoy for Human Rights. In a statement, Ruddock talked up his human rights credentials, including his work combatting the death penalty and leading a Parliamentary inquiry into human rights abuses against women and girls in the Asia-Pacific. 

Given his record in other areas pertaining to human rights, some have begun pointing out the irony of the appointment.

With that in mind, we thought we’d update this piece from October 2015 and let it stand for posterity.

For some time now, Father of the House and former government whip Philip Ruddock has been carefully cultivating an online presence as a kind of wacky, kindly old man who just happens to be a politician.

He regularly tweets old photos of himself as a young chap in safari suits, has an ongoing contest to see who in Parliament House takes the most steps on Fitbit, and comes up with witty and sassy rejoinders to young reporters and politics-watchers who ask him questions. He’s even released his own branded coffee cup, along with the helpful hashtag #philipruddockmug, and politicians and journalists alike are clamouring to snag one.

And the efforts of Ruddock and his staff to remake his image appear to be paying off in spades. In a piece published in October, BuzzFeed Australia recorded several videos with Ruddock teaching him how to use Snapchat, while he played the adorable-old-man angle to the hilt.

Of course, this is understandable. A lot of BuzzFeed’s political coverage tends toward the light and the positive — doing interviews with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop using only emoji, one-word sit-downs with Greens leader Richard Di Natale, getting giant milkshakes with Clive Palmer — and Ruddock’s genuinely funny Twitter presence plays into that perfectly. BuzzFeed followed up their Snapchat piece with a more hard-hitting traditional interview in November, and even if they hadn’t, not all political coverage needs to be deathly serious.

But the Snapchat piece is representative of an uncritical, semi-ironic adulation of Ruddock that much of Parliament and Twitter engages in — and it’s not all harmless fun. Politicians are getting pretty good at presenting themselves online as funny, benign people in ways that conveniently gloss over their more serious failings. Junkee’s fallen for this in the past plenty of times. When Anthony Albanese sends out a press release about his latest DJ set or Mike Baird livetweets The Bachelor, and outlets like Junkee faithfully write it up in glowing terms, we’re playing into their hands in a way that should give any media outlet pause.

Philip Ruddock offers a perfect example of why this new dynamic needs to be challenged. Some pretty unsavoury events in Ruddock’s career undercut the cutesy old-man shtick he’s constructed around himself — events that Ruddock, first and foremost a politician, would clearly like people to forget about.

He’s Partly Why Australia Is So Terrible To Asylum Seekers

Undoubtedly the greatest stain on Ruddock’s legacy comes from his time as Immigration Minister in the Howard government. In 2000, Amnesty International asked Ruddock to stop wearing his Amnesty lapel badge while performing his duties as a minister, as his enforcement of Australia’s mandatory detention policies for refugees was in breach of international legal conventions on human rights. In 2002, Ruddock’s own daughter announced she was so appalled by her father’s stance on immigration that she was leaving the country to volunteer for an aid group.

But even for Australian politics, Ruddock’s efforts to stoke fear and hatred of asylum seekers and refugees for political gain stand out in our history. In October 2001, Ruddock fronted the media and claimed that asylum seekers on board a fishing boat between Java and Christmas Island called the Olong had threatened to throw their small children into the sea, in an effort to force the Australian government to grant them asylum.

Ruddock’s statement turned out to be patently false. In actuality, the Australian Navy had fired shots across the dangerously overcrowded and unseaworthy boat’s bows, boarded it several times and towed it behind a Navy vessel, obeying government orders to stop the Olong reaching Christmas Island. The boat eventually began to break apart and sink under the strain of being towed, forcing the Navy to conduct a full-scale rescue operation to prevent people from drowning.

Australia’s Defence Minister at the time, Peter Reith, learned Ruddock’s claims were false only hours after they had been made. But 2001 was an election year, and Reith waited until after the election — more than four weeks — before finally correcting the public record. In the meantime, John Howard whipped public hysteria over asylum seekers to levels never seen before, infamously uttering “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come” at the Liberal Party’s official campaign launch.

The Children Overboard affair, as it came to be known, has cast a shadow over Australia’s refugee politics ever since. As ABC presenter Virginia Trioli noted in 2012, “that moment, that uncorrected untruth, shifted the public’s view of asylum seekers for all time”. Despite a subsequent Senate inquiry finding that Reith had “misled the public,” Reith, Howard and Ruddock were never held properly accountable. Nor have they ever acknowledged their mistakes. In a 2003 interview, Ruddock said of his role in the affair: “I don’t apologise for that at all”.

Ruddock-themed pop culture back then had a decidedly sharper edge than the stuff that comes from his Twitter account these days. In 2002, Melbourne band TISM released ‘The Phillip Ruddock Blues’, a savage excoriation of the callous fend-for-yourself values the Howard government, embodied in Ruddock, applied to asylum seekers and the wider Australian community with equal gusto.

The Time He Made Marriage Equality Illegal

It’s also worth noting Ruddock’s historic efforts to deny LGBT Australians equal rights. As Attorney-General in 2004, Ruddock introduced amendments to the Marriage Act that explicitly banned same-sex couples from marrying or adopting children from overseas. Those amendments have remained in place ever since.

Ruddock remains opposed to marriage equality to this day, and has entertained some pretty spectacular legal manoeuvres to forestall it. In June this year, along with then-Social Services Minister Scott Morrison, he proposed Australia ditch the Marriage Act entirely and institute civil unions for everyone rather than simply allowing LGBTI people to marry. Australian Marriage Equality described the proposal as “appalling,” accusing Ruddock and other “defenders of traditional marriage” of “prefer[ring] to wreck the institution than allow same-sex couples to marry”.

Why This Matters

All of this is on the public record already, and it’s understandable why an outlet might not exhaustively recap it when doing a light and fluffy article on a politician. But when it comes to elected representatives, indulging a public perception that glosses over their political flaws can be a problem: Ruddock remains a member of federal Parliament, and as such is accountable to the Australian public for decisions he’s made while in office.

What’s more, Ruddock is a career politician to his bones. He’s been in Parliament since the 1970s, held some of the most powerful Cabinet positions in the country, and seen nine Prime Ministers come and go. In other words, he knows exactly what he’s doing when he sends a silly tweet or sits down to make dumb faces on Snapchat with a reporter.

Ruddock has a clear interest in airbrushing the nasty little facts about his past from the record, and his job’s made easier when he’s presented to the public as a kindly old duffer discovering his phone. A young woman who delightedly watches Ruddock spewing rainbows might mistakenly think he’s a friendly presence in Parliament, not knowing that he’s one of the main reasons she can’t legally marry her girlfriend.

It’s always tempting to praise powerful people for being funny or daggy or otherwise accessible — it’s easy, and it’s fun, and people respond to it. But we should recognise that the politicians get far more out of these carefully prepared cool-guy moments than we do.

If we allow a politician’s humour or media savvy to blind us to their atrocious policies and hypocrisies, we are enabling — and justifying — their contempt for us.

Feature screenshot via BuzzFeed.