Tuesday, November 12, 2013


The new coalition team's already had a couple of difficulties implementing its program. 

Responsibility for these remains with individuals. 

This is a simple portrait of one of the new government's more complex people, Brett Mason. 

It also appears in the Canberra Times . . . 


Brett Mason, the new Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs, bounds enthusiastically from his chair. “Why, yes, I’ve got it right here!" He pulls out a photo of a cluster of (middle-aged) men camping beside a lake in the Snowies. He’s obviously pleased to be sharing a moment from life rather than politics. A group of one-time school friends at Canberra High, is standing round a bush campsite. In the background is a tent.

I’d been wondering aloud if Mason, who’s been a Liberal Queensland Senator since 1998, still keeps in touch with his ACT origins. After all, it’s not the sort of thing a person seeking pre-selection would necessarily boast about in that strongly conservative state. Perhaps surprisingly, Mason’s friendships aren’t bounded by ideology.

“I’d be pretty sure this person votes Labor,” he says, pointing at one of his friends. “And this one too,” he adds, before pausing. “Actually . . . maybe not.” Mason’s reconsidered, although that’s not the impressive part of this vignette. The real point is he doesn’t know. Or care. These are his friends; not because they happen to share political dogma but because, all these years later, they still have things in common and want to spend time together.

Mason’s complex. This is perhaps what makes him so infuriating to Labor supporters. He’s obviously very intelligent and loves to debate ideas. He’ll articulate, for example, an intellectual position any leftie would endorse before following the logic through until he finds himself sitting close to the hard right of the political spectrum. He simply places different weightings on particular aspects of the issue; these lead, inevitably, to different results.

In person, Mason is charming and companionable. Why isn’t this a contradiction?

He credits Canberra, saying this is an extraordinary place to grow up and extolling the nature of the community. “If I’d been born anywhere else I could never have had this life. Educational opportunities, social mobility”, he insists. So why, I ask, isn’t he a leftie like the rest of us? Mason laughs. Again. He’s happy being challenged because it provides him with an opportunity to talk and expand on his views.

In fact Mason enjoys arguing so much it’s a wonder he didn’t become a barrister after obtaining degrees in Arts and Law from the ANU. Instead he studied. Off to Cambridge for criminal law and, much later, a PhD from Griffith. It looked like a patrician’s pedigree; a typical old-style, born-to-rule conformist with predetermined views on everything. Then I opened his book on Privacy.  

This was a mistake because, firstly, it’s big and thickly referenced. But more importantly, it’s the work of a mind that can retain and advance compelling, complex arguments. He asks if the state, for example, has any right poking about in your bedroom to prohibit you from sleeping with a person of the same sex. Obviously not – but Mason doesn’t leave it there. He asks why homosexuals should have to rely specifically on the right to privacy to live as they choose? Why shouldn’t consenting adults be free to live any way they want? Yet we find incest and polygamy abhorrent. Why are these different?

If anything is paid for by the state, then shouldn’t the details be public? What about a medical procedure, particularly an abortion? Where does the boundary of the ‘private’ lie, and why? Mason enthusiastically grapples with difficult issues.

The only way to be confident of your answers is by thinking through a genuine political philosophy. Yet (rather unusually, particularly for a politician) this is something Mason’s done. It helps explain how he makes choices. He has intriguing friends on both sides of politics – not necessarily the obvious candidates, but ones who think and debate issues instead of falling into traditional stereotypes.

After the election Mason was tipped into foreign affairs, where he’s become specifically responsible for Ausaid. I’d spoken to him before news broke about the scrapping of the graduate program, a move that’s accompanied the shrinkage of aid from $8 billion down to $5 billion.

The headlines were, from the government’s point-of-view, unfortunate. The impact on the lives of young people who’d been lucky enough to secure a position was, however, far more devastating. Perhaps this is simply the sort of debacle that occurs when a new government takes office. Changes are introduced without the ramifications being properly worked through. It’s surprising. Mason’s obviously still coming to grips with the intricacies of his new portfolio.

But there’s no doubt he’s driving change through the agency. Aid is now going to be directed in accordance with the national interest, and not simply to provide some warm inner glow. It will still be about sustaining communities, but Mason’s an economic dry. Knowledge is the key.

In opposition, Mason shadowed universities and research, a role he obviously believes in. “Education offers better lives”, he says. He was deeply affected when he worked as a human rights lawyer with the UN in Cambodia in the early ‘90’s. He describes looking at the piled skulls in Tuol Sleng, an old high school that became a killing ground in Phnom Penh. At least 20,000 people died here. Yet he worked to ensure the Khmer Rouge who so pitilessly executed thousands received fair trials themselves.

In his book Mason refers to “parasitic” law. The phrase offers an insight into the way he thinks. He excoriates ill thought out positions; vague prescriptions for a ‘better way’. He’s also a passionate, small-l liberal, who believes in the importance of democratic institutions and knowledge. How he manages to reconcile these ideals with the daily demands of governance will be interesting to observe. 

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