The Politics    Friday, September 1, 2017

A serious problem

By Sean Kelly

Predictions have a bad habit of coming back to bite you

“New Zealand is facing an election. Should there be a change of government, I would find it very hard to build trust with those involved in allegations designed to undermine the government of Australia.”

Julie Bishop must have thought she was on safe ground. There was, at that point, little chance that the New Zealand Labour Party, way behind in the polls and led by a 37-year-old, would make up enough ground to get into government.

To be fair to Bishop, that initial statement was pretty hedged – she was only saying she wouldn’t work with the particular New Zealand Labour MPs who had asked questions about Barnaby Joyce’s citizenship. As it turned out, there was only one of them.

But a couple of questions later, asked to clarify, she went much, much further: “I would find it very difficult to build trust with members of a political party that had been used by the Australian Labor Party to seek to undermine the Australian government.”

And that was it. The foreign minister of Australia had just declared that, should Labour be elected in New Zealand, she would find it difficult to work with the New Zealand government.

Bishop, ever composed, may have shuddered, just slightly, when she read the news that that unlikely 37-year-old, Jacinda Ardern, had taken Labour from 26% to 43%, ahead of the prime minister’s party. The improbable scenario of a Labour government has become entirely possible.

Predictions are a hazardous business, perhaps especially in politics. It’s one reason politicians frustrate us so with their waffling: a caveat sprinkled on top of a qualification on top of a hypothetical. But there is some sense in this, because getting predictions wrong can make you look like an absolute mug.

Jacindamania may yet fall away, but if not, Bishop has plenty of embarrassing bilaterals to look forward to.

The New Zealand farce had a flavour all of its own, but the bloody certainty with which Bishop approached it has a parallel in Malcolm Turnbull’s recent predictions of High Court decisions. He has said, on the postal plebiscite, that “we are confident” about the High Court finding in the government’s favour. To be fair to the PM, what else would you expect him to say? Nevertheless, if he’s wrong, his confidence will look a little silly.

Though not nearly as silly as he’ll look if he’s wrong about Joyce. Pushed on Joyce’s citizenship, Turnbull said the deputy prime minister was “qualified to sit in the house and the High Court will so hold”. That’s pretty definitive. If Turnbull is wrong, we’ll hear that grab over and over and over.

The common strain in the Bishop and Turnbull stories, besides bolshy prognostications, is the desire for short-term political gain. That’s not unique to the Coalition – every politician wants any political gain they can get.

But one of the things you sometimes observe in a struggling government is the tendency to put those small gains over the need for serious governing. The mentality is understandable. In a siege, you don’t give your opponents an opening of any sort. It is born of desperation to survive.

The cost, though, is twofold. First, it’s not good for actual governing – for example, sparking a minor diplomatic incident for the sake of a few useful headlines. But it’s not that great politically, either. Voters can look past a couple of ragged days. But a government – and a prime minister, and a foreign minister and deputy leader of her party – cannot afford to give up the sense that they are serious men and women, engaged in serious work.

The High Court may yet agree with Turnbull. He could come out looking fine. That doesn’t mean it was a risk he should have taken. Has it really gained him that much? He could easily have argued Joyce should have stayed in cabinet until the High Court made its finding, whatever that turns out to be. It might not have been convincing, but nor has his actual reasoning been.

Things may yet become more difficult for Turnbull and his government. He and his senior colleagues must forget about winning every tiny battle, if it involves the risk of looking foolish. If they do not look like they are taking government seriously, voters will not take them seriously. When that happens, it will all be over.

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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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