Monday, December 4, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly

Turnbull and Shorten are making the same mistakes they usually do


Imagine yourself six years into the future, looking back from the vantage point of the third term of the Turnbull government. Remember how Malcolm Turnbull seemed finished, you might say. But then there was that odd confluence of events.

Barnaby Joyce stormed home in an utterly predictable but still morale-boosting byelection. Same-sex marriage became law, with none of the shenanigans so long feared. That cowardly conservative, George Christensen, withdrew yet another threat to bring down the government – this one made via Andrew Bolt, without even Christensen’s name to it – plus backed down on a threat to vote against the government on penalty rates [$]. Doubt was raised over the citizenship status of a Labor senator. And two separate polls showed the government behind 53-47 which, in other circumstances, might have been disastrous, but given how bad things had been was widely seen as a win. And how was it that Bill Shorten still couldn’t overtake Turnbull as preferred PM after the weeks that bloke had had?

Now imagine that, in addition, the Dastyari scandal somehow widens. And then a few more Labor MPs fall foul of the citizenship rules. And, remarkably, no more Liberal MPs do.

The things in the first paragraph have all happened. The things in the second paragraph are plausible. So could the almost unimaginable come about?

Well, banal answer: anything’s possible, especially in Australian politics. For what any prediction is worth – i.e. nothing – I do think it’s possible that Turnbull stages a fightback. But it also remains unlikely, and the reasons why are also ominously present.

There was a bizarre leak to Phillip Coorey [$] at the Financial Review. “Bizarre” because its intent – though these things are difficult to guess – seems to have been to indicate that the government was not in thrall to the banks, who, many had suggested, had effectively designed their own terms of reference. “We did not, and will not, consult with the banks,” a source told Coorey. The terms of reference had in fact been worked on for a long time because “we knew this was inevitable”.

I understand why that might be an important point to make. But the leak also highlights, again, the question of why on earth the PM was still ruling out a royal commission two days before he announced one. Mark Kenny’s column today makes that point even more strongly: “A tight group of economic ministers knew about the backflip days before it occurred – Turnbull, Bishop, Scott Morrison, Kelly O'Dwyer, and Mathias Cormann.” Turnbull’s decision to rule out a commission already looked foolish – now it looks full moron.

Of course, the aim of the leak may have been to damage Turnbull, or to damage Morrison, who, Coorey’s source said, did not see the terms of reference until Tuesday afternoon. So we have a leaker either malicious or silly. Neither is encouraging.

Kenny points out as well that the decision to hold a commission was kept to a tight group in order to prevent leaks. Given recent cabinet leaks, that makes sense. But it also creates a massive problem that goes far beyond media management. This is exactly what happened in the most destructive days of the previous Labor government. Decisions were made by smaller and smaller groups in order to prevent leaks. The smaller the group, the fewer people to contest groupthink, and the fewer facts brought to bear on a discussion – which in turn means more mistakes will be made.  

Finally, you have Turnbull’s crowing about the Joyce byelection. I have nothing against the PM trumpeting a success – he’d be silly not to. But, as usual, the PM used language that could come back to bite him not in years, but within days. This “wasn’t a Newspoll”, he said, this was “a real poll”. If Bennelong goes against him he can expect to be reminded of those words. Why does the prime minister insist, always, on doubling down when humility is just around the corner?

So Turnbull is still prone to being Turnbull. On the other side of the house, Shorten too shows remarkable consistency. He is politically agile, but this is also what often comes across: that he is only acting for political reasons.

And so we had Labor attacking the government for promising to use its numbers in the lower house to refer Labor MPs to the High Court. Labor was correct on this: it would have been a misuse of parliament, and have set a dangerous precedent of governments using parliamentary numbers to weaken Oppositions. So it was good that the Liberals agreed to a change in the rules, meaning the manager of Opposition business can refer MPs too. But why were we even in this situation? Because Shorten had so far refused to confirm that he would refer Labor MPs under a cloud.

The reasoning is obvious: Labor has been playing a game of brinkmanship, hoping to force the government into minority status without losing any of its own MPs. The government pushed back as hard as it could. And so Turnbull has been acting from a position of weakness, and Shorten has been acting from the motivation of gaining political advantage. For Turnbull to break out of the rut he has been in, and build on this week’s small burst of good news, he needs the former to change, and the latter to stay the same. 

In other news


When the politics got personal

Gillian Triggs’ culture shock

Margaret Simons

“Given her lack of speciality in human rights, Triggs was not an obvious candidate for the AHRC presidency. She believes that her nomination came because of her broad skills in international and commercial law, and her reputation for conservatism. Her predecessor, Catherine Branson, had just completed a report on the internment of people smugglers who claimed to be children. Triggs says that the Labor government was looking for someone who would take ‘a strictly measured, legal approach and not be a sort of public bleeding heart’.” read on


Nats in the ranks

Turnbull may have an ally in Barnaby Joyce, but the Nationals are a broad church.

Mungo MacCallum

“But this may be wishful thinking. Even during his temporary exile in his New England electorate, Joyce mused that the incipient revolt over the banking inquiry might not be such a bad idea. He knows, better than anyone, that his troops want more independence, more clout – and, it follows, less Turnbull.” 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.



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