Thursday, February 2, 2017

Today by Jim Middleton

Do you believe it?
Turnbull’s day of misses and own goals

Timing is not everything in politics, but get it wrong and the results can be disastrous.

Just ask Labor’s Sam Dastyari or former health minister Sussan Ley.

They were victims of bad judgement, but sometimes events themselves will take the wind out of a leader’s sails, if not blow them away entirely. Right now, Malcolm Turnbull is suffering both from poor political instincts and the consequences of the Trump ascendancy in Washington.

A brutal account of the prime minister’s Sunday conversation with the new president has emerged in the Washington Post, demonstrating that Trump has no respect for the historic bonds that have tied the US and Australia together since World War Two.

“The worst deal ever” was the way the president condemned the resettlement deal that Turnbull secured with the Obama administration for refugees languishing on Nauru and Manus Island, according to US officials quoted by the Post.

It was also, declared Trump, “the worst call by far” before hanging up less than halfway through what was scheduled to be an hour-long conversation. That is saying something when one of his other phone calls was to none other than Vladimir Putin.

Turnbull invested much personal time and effort last year in fashioning the resettlement deal on the assumption that anyone but Trump would become president. It is little wonder that the prime minister’s office refused to go on the record on Sunday about the contents of the conversation, or that Turnbull himself did not talk about it publicly for 24 hours and then only to blandly assert that the discussion had been “constructive”.

“I am not a political hack. I’m not a political animal in the way that some of my rivals on the other side of the chamber are,” the prime minister declared in what he hoped would be an agenda-setting appearance at the National Press Club in Canberra yesterday.

The fact is plenty on his own side of the chamber would prefer him to be a bit more of hack, more of a political animal. Not just because they think he invested too much time and personal capital on the refugee deal but also because of his maladroit handling of his huge personal donation to the Liberal Party.

More than a few Coalition figures believe that leaving asylum seekers to rot on an Australian version of Devil’s Island will win them more votes than any humanitarian gesture, however quixotic. They remain frustrated that Turnbull refused to engage in a wholehearted wedge of Bill Shorten over the public misgivings of numerous Labor candidates about offshore processing, and they believe that the paper-thin election victory was the result.

Now, it seems even more unlikely that the refugee deal will see any meaningful number of refugees resettled in the US, especially after Trump’s tweet.

The PM may be a victim of Trump’s narcissistic disdain for his country’s longstanding strategic responsibilities, but Turnbull’s management of his $1.75 million Liberal Party donation is simply an own goal. If it had not been emerging as a political problem he would not finally have come clean on the ABC’s 7.30 last night.

Reports of a personal gift of $1 million first emerged in the Australian [paywall] just days after the July election. It should have been dealt with then, and he could even have been made a virtue of if it had been accompanied by a commitment to clean up Australia’s opaque donations regime.

At the National Press Club, Turnbull declared that he had no problem with greater transparency and timeliness in the declaration of political donations, but then he stonewalled when asked about his own contribution. His obfuscation reminded voters of his wealth and reinforced the jaundiced view of the electorate that politicians as a class will say what they need to get themselves off the hook rather than take action that might affect them.

Unfair as it may be, the idea that their prime minister has the wherewithal to make a mega donation will reinforce the view among many voters that “he is not one of us”. To make matters worse, Turnbull decided, unprompted, on 7.30 to remind voters of one of the most devastating three-word slogans of the election campaign.

“Bill Shorten wants to go after me all the time. He says I’m ‘Mr Harbourside Mansion’.”

Yes, he did. But only after Peta Credlin, former chief of staff to Tony Abbott, gave Shorten the idea on Sky News. And now Turnbull’s providing unnecessary, undisciplined reminders himself.

Trump’s nativist telephone rant may cost Turnbull no skin, given widespread doubts within the Australia about the new president’s character. Voters’ entrenched impressions of the prime minister, however, may prove harder to shake.

Today’s links

Oh, and Beyoncé’s having twins.

Jim Middleton

Jim Middleton is a Sky News correspondent and a vice chancellor’s fellow at the University of Melbourne.


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