The view from Billinudgel

All jokes aside
The Trump impression is just another eggshell for the PM to walk on

Let’s face it, it was hardly surprising to find Malcolm Turnbull taking the piss out of Donald Trump. For starters, just about everyone does it – indeed, for much of the time, The Donald seems to be doing it himself.

But we are warned (in the Murdoch press, if nowhere else) that this is yet another black mark against our prime minister, a reckless and self-indulgent gesture to the reptiles of the left-leaning Canberra press gallery, a gratuitous insult to Australia’s vital interest.

And it means nothing that the Americans themselves dismiss it as harmless good humour: the lunar right in Australia know better. Greg Sheridan thunders that it is an unbelievably, staggeringly bad call, and given that he was, and still is, a staunch defender of the war in Vietnam, he has some form in such assessments.

The problem, of course, was not that Turnbull made a joke at what was absurdly billed as an off-the-record function, it was that the speech was leaked, and, for that, Turnbull must indeed share a touch of the blame. Given the history of similar events, it was hardly likely to remain secret, especially when Laurie Oakes, the scourge of the Chatham House Rule on confidentiality, was hovering.

Oakes did the job of Paul Keating’s leaked press gallery dinner speech of 1990. The headline then was Keating’s personification of himself as Plácido Domingo, but the political fallout was his assertion that, unlike the US, Australia had never had a great leader.

Bob Hawke, who aspired to be a great leader himself, was not amused and called Keating in for a lecture on the virtues of John Curtin, Hawke’s own hero and role model. The result was the breaking of the Kirribilli pact that would have seen Hawke giving way to Keating before the next election. The breaking of the pact started a war between the two that damaged Labor considerably until Keating eventually prevailed.

Turnbull, of course, is already inextricably entangled with his own internecine wars within his party, so it might be assumed that it is unlikely to get much worse, despite the enthusiasm of Sheridan and his mates. But it won’t help, either; such are the eggshells our leader has to negotiate on a daily basis.

And in this context it is absurd of Sheridan to imply that the leak was clearly the malice of “Trump-hating, left-of-centre journalists”. The room was also full of politicians, lobbyists and sundry hangers-on. If the aim was to damage Turnbull, as Sheridan gloats, it most likely came from the right.

It is a pity that what used to be an amiable piss-take can presumably no longer be part of the amiable piss-up. Oakes has every right to say he doesn’t want to play, but when he can find snoops and sneaks to feed him his tidbits, he loses nothing.

For the rest of us, we can only lament that what was once a convivial evening among peers has become a semi-public charity extravaganza in which the needs of both journalists and politicians have been subsumed by the social media devastation.

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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