The view from Billinudgel

Fire man Sam
Dastyari’s China-related missteps have been a gift for Turnbull – one that the PM hopes will keep on giving


There is an old science-fiction story about a totalitarian state that regularly paraded dissidents before a packed arena bent on retribution and punishment.

Led by a professional hate master, the crowd was encouraged to take its anger and resentment to a hysterical level, until the force and heat of its hatred actually caused the victim to catch fire and be burned to death, to the cathartic delight of the mob.

Now, obviously Malcolm Turnbull is hardly a full-time hate master; the lawyer–banker is far too suave and supercilious for the role. But having said that, it is just as well Sam Dastyari is fireproof. As a war lord of the New South Wales Right, and its chief bagman, he has had to be.

But the problem is that while the miscreant senator may not be flammable, he, like asbestos, can still be potentially lethal to those around him. Which is why Bill Shorten, who is the real target of the prime minister’s vehemence, is in serious trouble because of his longstanding association with one of his main men.

The Opposition leader has reluctantly demoted Dastyari – twice. But of course that is not enough for Turnbull, who wants him expunged from the parliament, if not the nation. This is simply not in Shorten’s power, even if he were inclined to try – which he is not.

Dastyari was elected by the people, and cannot be removed except as a result of a long and tortuous process in which he would have to be shown to be guilty of very serious offences. The government is now planning to widen its authoritarian net to include any future malefactors, but the legislation will not be retrospective and may, in any case, be insufficient for a successful prosecution.

So, for the moment, Dastyari can hang on until at least the end of his parliamentary term. Shorten could try to persuade the Labor Party’s executive to expel Dastyari from its ranks, but he is unwilling to take such a drastic step – the consequences would be unpredictable and potentially catastrophic. And Dastyari shows no signs of resigning of his own accord – from anything. So Shorten will have to wear the albatross around his neck until it eventually drops off, and Turnbull is determined to keep it hanging there, getting smellier and smellier, for as long as possible.

Indeed, despite all the bluster and ranting, it is not in Turnbull’s interest to see Dastyari smoulder away into a pile of ashes: the scandal over the senator’s association with a Chinese benefactor linked to Beijing is a rare and welcome pre-Christmas gift to be cherished and protected.

Turnbull can celebrate the totally foreseen win in New England and, outrageously, even claim some of the credit for it; he can cheer that his Newspoll standing has finally edged forward, and that the numbers foretell a crushing defeat rather than a complete wipe-out. But his party room wanted to see claret flow – bring back the biff! And Turnbull, given the easiest of targets, is happy to try to oblige. When do you kick a man? When he’s down.

Sam Dastyari is well and truly down, but the real bonus would be if he tried to get up again. It is not time to bring him to ignition point just yet – there is much more hate to be unleashed until the final conflagration.

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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