The view from Billinudgel

Who’s in charge?
Malcolm Turnbull still doesn’t seem to be calling the shots in Canberra


In the first week of the new parliament we saw a number of government members clock off early. Malcolm Turnbull was incensed; they were severely counseled (whatever that means) and were told never, ever to do it again.

But at the start of the next week, they must have wondered what the fuss was all about, because the senate – the so-called senior chamber – had absolutely nothing for them to do.

In order to keep the place going, government members and even ministers were required to waffle and filibuster for several hours. Naturally, they tried to blame it all on the Labor Party; the opposition in the House of Representatives had played silly buggers so there was no legislation for them to consider.

True enough, but that isn’t the point. As we have been assured repeatedly over the last few days, it is not the opposition but the government which is charged with running the place. So just who is steering the ship of state? And perhaps more importantly, where are they heading?

Well, at the moment, they are still galloping madly off in all directions, as a noted humorist once put it. The revised omnibus bill for budget repair, as negotiated by Bill Shorten and the opposition, has now passed, an undeniable plus. But a pitifully small one: $6.3 billion sounds substantial, but in the context of the ever-rising debt and deficit, it is a mere pittance.  

The struggling treasurer, Scott Morrison, has now gone back to the Productivity Commission for help. Good luck with that: the real task is not to convince the bean counters, but the fractious politicians. And they remain fractious, despite the somewhat confused signals in which a few minutes of smooching quickly gives way to a tirade of abuse.

Thus it was with the first piece of attempted legislation, the doomed bill to secure the same-sex marriage plebiscite. This may actually have been set up to fail simply to get rid of the troublesome issue, but however Turnbull seeks to blame the Labor party for the defeat, it will remain the government’s problem, yet another piece of political dithering which has gone horribly wrong.

And even when Morrison produced an almost acceptable fix to the superannuation shemozzle, the headlines were not about how skillfully he had managed a compromise between the far right and the moderate centre, but the fact that it was yet another cave-in.

For weeks Morrison and Turnbull had played the tough guys, the economic hardheads who were not for turning. But last week it all collapsed in a tangle of flexibility. However this can be spun, it is certainly not leadership.

But there remains one theme to the government’s disordered symphony:  Sam Dastyari. The shonky senator has been omnipresent; no effort has been spared to drag him into every speech, every answer to every question, every interjection. Dastyari has become the bogeyman with which the politicians try to scare the voters if they become restless or disobedient.

It can’t last, of course; eventually our hapless prime minister will have to do more than repeat horror stories and counsel his troops. But for the moment it seems to be all he’s got. Happy anniversary, Malcolm.


Footnote: While we’re talking about the ALP’s right-wing warlords, we should also celebrate the retirement of Stephen Conroy. He will be remembered best for the devastating put-down from his fellow Victorian Simon Crean: “Stephen’s not really so bad – until you get to know him.”

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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