Friday, November 3, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly


Groundhog year
2018 is likely to be just as bad for the PM as this year has been

Supplied by ABC News

There is a story that has been told in recent weeks, and it goes something like this: for all the pain the government has suffered this year, it will soon be over. Malcolm Turnbull will have dealt with the issues most likely to divide his party, which are also, not coincidentally, the issues most damaging to his own reputation: same-sex marriage and climate change. The citizenship farce will have ended. Turnbull’s enemies are not all that: Bill Shorten is an insipid public performer who has never captured the imagination of the public, and Tony Abbott has worn out his welcome everywhere. The prime minister will have his path cleared and he will stride, triumphantly, into 2018, roses strewn at his feet, blue skies above.

This was not just government spin. It was clearly Turnbull’s own plan: difficulties could overlap as long as they were dealt with this year. According to Niki Savva, ministers had convinced themselves it was possible [$]. And, for the record, I too thought it was at least plausible, if loaded with obstacles.

But there is a problem with the story, and it lies in a simple question: if you put aside the specific issues – marriage, climate, and citizenship – what is it, precisely, that you think will be different in 2018?

In order to get to grips with that question it will be necessary to very quickly rehearse the events of the past 24 hours.

Deep breath:

Yesterday afternoon it emerged that Stephen Parry, who had recently resigned as Senate president, had in fact told a cabinet minister about his citizenship concerns months beforehand, and had been advised to keep quiet. Soon after it emerged that that cabinet minister was Mitch Fifield, though his advice on keeping quiet seemed a little ambiguous, and he was only one of several ministers who Parry told. It was also reported that Bill Shorten was now open to a citizenship audit of all MPs, which Shorten confirmed this afternoon. Importantly, Victorian Liberal president Michael Kroger [$] has also said he supports an audit. Not too many hours after that, we found out that Liberal cabinet minister Josh Frydenberg’s citizenship may also be in question [$], though Frydenberg vigorously contests this. There was a story [$] that senior people in government were considering making anyone who falls into the citizenship trap from here on pay back their salary, a clear threat to ensure the debacle ends now. Today, that story was denied [$]. It also came out that the government was considering an inquiry into citizenship, though the PM this afternoon again rejected calls for an audit. 

And, not precisely on citizenship, but pretty clearly related: the Australian reported that Turnbull’s supporters were moving away from him [$], and Liberal MP Kevin Andrews pointed out that Turnbull was prime minister “at the moment” [$], while saying the problem with the government had persisted over “months”.

What does all this tell us about the government, the political landscape in which it exists, and the chances of any of this changing by next year – which, of course, is only two months away?

First, it tells you that something is deeply wrong with the mechanics inside this government. It is incredibly strange that Parry did not alert the prime minister’s office much earlier. Not just this: that none of the ministers he told, including a cabinet minister, told the prime minister or his office. Assuming we are not being lied to, then what this means is that the Turnbull government is operating without a central political clearing-house. The consensus, it seems – shared by at least several ministers – is that when a problem arises, even one as large as the Parry issue, it is better dealt with alone.

The problem with this is that government is immensely complex. Nobody ever has every bit of information. But those at the centre of government are more likely to have more bits of information, and to be able to make a decision on how those bits interact. That the government has abandoned this belief is both concerning for its future operations and damning of the current set-up.

Though managing the information that gets to a prime minister is difficult, the mood within government will not have been helped by revelations [$] in Savva’s column that Turnbull read the Parry news online on Tuesday, despite George Brandis having asked his staff to let Turnbull’s staff know on Monday. They will not help, either, with questions raised last week about whether Turnbull’s office knew more about the Michaelia Cash issue than Turnbull appeared to.

Or to put this another way: the poor political instincts and political management that have always haunted Turnbull are still there. Why should that change in 2018? At the same time, Shorten’s instincts are as cynically sharp as ever. If Labor was genuinely confident in its own MPs’ credentials, it could have supported an audit a long time ago. What has changed now is that the pressure is intense: an audit has become almost inevitable. Predictably, Shorten moved to background his support before Turnbull could.

That Turnbull is no fan of an audit is partly because of his numbers in parliament. Another byelection could shatter his government. That is being seen largely within the context of Barnaby Joyce being absent right nowBut even once Joyce has been re-elected, that will still be the case next year. Right now, Turnbull has only lost his working majority, and that temporarily. But should a byelection occur in a marginal seat he could lose majority government altogether, and for the rest of this term, however long that might be.

The final point to note is that it is the predictable conservative suspects who are calling for an audit that might bring down Turnbull’s government: Eric Abetz, Kevin Andrews, Craig Kelly. This is boring, sure. But let’s come back for a moment to this idea that once climate change and marriage are out of the way things will change.

There are two reasons those issues stand out. The first is that the right of the Liberal Party is implacably opposed to the position of the party’s moderates. The second is that they are both symbols of Turnbull’s inability to deliver on what the country believed were his own moderate beliefs.

Now, it’s true that those particular issues will go away. But does anyone really believe that some other cultural touchstone issue won’t come along in a few months? Safe Schools wasn’t an issue, until the right made it one. For a long time it seemed as though the marriage debate would be over once a survey was held: now the conservatives are gearing up for a fight over “religious freedoms”. The issues will be manufactured. And if Turnbull keeps doing what he is in the habit of doing – largely rolling over – his credibility will be hurt, again and again.

I am not saying there is no way out for Turnbull. I am saying that there is no way out unless he comprehensively changes the way he runs his government. Perhaps that is not possible – his slim parliamentary majority may ensure that. But he must try. If things continue the way they are, this government will not last long. 


In other news


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We had a bad flu season this year. The wards were full of people with
Influenza A rasping, ‘But I had my flu shot!’ It wasn’t because this year’s strain was especially virulent. It was mainly because this year’s vaccine didn’t provide good cover for the main strain of Influenza A that ended up in circulation: a type (H3) that’s hard to grow in labs, more inclined to ‘antigenic drift’, more likely to affect the old and the very young.” read on


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Manus in the balance

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“Australian officials have promised to fix the roads – when it suits them. They are again – still? – primarily concerned with building the infrastructure to service their interests and comforts. It’s a perpetual complaint in PNG, underlined in a 25-year-old warning in this year’s batch of declassified cabinet papers. ‘Australian investment and commercial activity in PNG, while being officially encouraged, is yet often perceived as exploitative, too heavily weighted in Australia’s favour, detrimental to national, environment or customary land owners’ interest,’ counselled the then foreign minister, Bill Hayden.”
(February 2015) READ ON

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.

@mrseankelly

 

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