The view from Billinudgel

The Bishop? In the cabinet room?
Staunching a leak will do little to allay the federal government’s troubles

Julie Bishop on the ABC’s 7.30

The government of Malcolm Turnbull has now transcended mere dysfunction – it has lapsed into anarchy, total chaos.

It was incredible enough that a very senior member of cabinet – one who has acted as prime minister, no less – would feel the need to tell her colleagues that she was not a leaker, and to have demanded an investigation to determine who was.

But it was beyond belief that she would have repeated her outrage on national television. This is surely the point of no return for the Liberal Party’s deputy-for-life, Julie Bishop.

Certainly, she has been provoked: for years there has been suspicion and innuendo that she had been feeding titbits to compliant media sources, either to enhance her own position or to damage rivals. The right-wing commentator Andrew Bolt, a close ally of Tony Abbott, once openly accused her of having “resumed her leaking ways”.

But by going public with her exasperation, she has thrown a bomb into the innermost places of government, which cannot now be defused. There is a rat in the ranks – at least one rat.

From now on, both the ministers and the media will spend much of their working hours on speculation and accusation. Trust, never exactly a priority in Turnbull’s team, is now irrevocably shattered.

Obviously Turnbull is not about to launch an investigation into the epidemic of leaking that has threatened to engulf the processes of his administration. What if it produced a culprit? The results would certainly be schismatic and probably terminal. Far better to keep quiet and attempt to move on.

But now the accusation has gone public, and from one of Turnbull’s closest allies, the posture of blissful ignorance can no longer be contained. And already the Sherlocks are on the case. Peter Dutton, with his Queensland copper’s instinct, thinks he may have the answer; perhaps he might take the suspect into a locked room with a bright light and persuade him or her to assist with inquiries, with the traditional aid of a length of rubber hose if necessary.

Bishop’s judgement has long been questioned, as has her loyalty; her seamless transition between her various leaders to retain her position as number two suggests political pragmatism that has more than once spilled into opportunism.

But perhaps history is on her side, for others – undoubtable underminers and opportunists – have risen further. Many years ago there was a very senior Liberal, reviled and derided by his fellow ministers for his reputation as an unashamed leaker, who ran regular dispatches from the cabinet room to Sydney’s Daily Telegraph. One fellow minister, the revered Paul Hasluck, called him a “treacherous fellow” and “a dirty little bastard”. His partyroom colleagues, and indeed the wider public, referred to him simply as “Billy Liar”.

William McMahon was a despised figure, a national joke; but in the end the Liberals became so desperate that they made him (briefly) prime minister. So perhaps there’s hope for Julie Bishop – even if she is unmasked as the phantom cabinet leaker. Oh the times, oh the Liberals.

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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