The Politics    Friday, April 8, 2016

Devilish timing

By Sean Kelly

Arrium’s pellet plant at Whyalla. Source
What the PM doesn’t control

Norman Rush is an underappreciated author, and there’s a particular quote of his that deserves to be wheeled out often:

There is a school of thought, a heresy from the madhouse of heresies in the ninth century, that says God is good and is in control of every individual thing that happens, every event, but that unfortunately the devil is in control of the timing.

Prime ministers, not unlike gods, can control many events. Those they can’t control can often, to some extent, be foreseen. But precisely when things happen is usually out of their hands.

It is not a huge shock to anyone that the Australian steel industry is facing problems. Manufacturing has been shrinking as a share of the economy for a long time, and in recent years we’ve had a high dollar, a glut of steel from China, and falling commodity prices.

But for Australia’s second largest steelmaker to go into administration weeks out from a probable election is not the timing the prime minister would have wished.

The Liberal party is wedded to the principle of free trade, which is why Scott Morrison was so clear today in saying there should be no compulsion to use Australian steel. It’s a principle that works fine, politically, most of the time, in most of Australia.

But not in South Australia right now, where the problems in Whyalla are a massive issue. Several South Australian seats are on the line at the election, which is why industry minister and unofficial South Australian spokesperson Christopher Pyne said he agreed with Labor that all federal government projects should use Australian steel.

The timing is unfortunate for the Coalition on another front. The government has spent two years reminding voters of Bill Shorten’s union links. Unions are on the nose, and Shorten didn’t always look great in front of the Royal Commission.

But now Shorten finds himself in one of the few situations in contemporary politics when being a former union leader may actually be a strength. With thousands of blue-collar jobs on the line, and the potential for long-lasting damage, he is free to talk on a topic with which he is intimately familiar. Turnbull, on the other hand, is the furthest thing from a natural fit on this issue.

I don’t believe Australians mark Turnbull down for having money, and nor should they. But inevitably the upsides of his success – a reputation for economic competence – are balanced by the downside risks – the potential of looking out of touch. Turnbull must be careful on Whyalla.

Meanwhile the suspicion is spreading that the PM has held himself to ransom with his double dissolution announcement. Yes, he got to prorogue parliament and get the senate to discuss union legislation. He controls the events. But it is the devils in the senate who now decide the timing of the election.

The Australian people are the most devilish of all, having this week handed the PM his worst Newspoll result since he took the job. It might be just one poll, but as Barrie Cassidy explains, it’s a poll with the potential to change the political mood at exactly the wrong time.

Of course, the current difficulties for the government are not all about timing. The things that are in Turnbull’s hands aren’t going very well either. Earlier this week he shone the national spotlight on banks, but didn’t actually say he’d do anything about the problems that made him so angry, leaving the door conspicuously ajar for Bill Shorten to squeeze through today with an proposal of his own for a Royal Commission into the financial services sector.

Also today the PM popped up in Melbourne to talk about infrastructure, but rather than playing to his own strengths on public transport decided to play to Tony Abbott’s old strength of roads. It seemed like an odd decision.

In his column, Cassidy also pointed out that the government has struggled to pull together a winning week all year. This week they struggled to win even one day. It wasn’t a disaster of a week for the government: just drudgingly, consistently dismal. Turnbull better hope the devils of timing get sick of mischief-making soon.


Today’s links

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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