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The Coalition has snookered itself, again

It’s been a bad week for the PM

A friend pointed out to me this exquisite line, from an article [$] in the Australian Financial Review this morning, about the latest banking scandal:

CBA chairman Catherine Livingstone was summoned to Canberra on Tuesday for meetings where she was told the federal government was prepared to “consider all options” when it came to further action against the bank, except a royal commission.

In other words: we are considering everything, except the thing you keep telling us you really, really do not want. If you’re really bad we might make you stand in a corner while we throw balloons at you.

Now, partly this is because the government is still, in some ways, courting the business sector, hoping they’ll advocate more for pro-government causes or throw some fundraising money in the Coalition’s direction. But mostly it’s because Labor got there first.

However, while Labor may have seized the opportunity created by banking scandals, it was Turnbull who opened the door, when he decided to go after the banks himself: “There have been too many troubling incidents over recent times for them simply to be dismissed … The truth is that despite the public support offered at their time of need, our bankers have not always treated their customers as they should.”

That same week it was reported that Labor was considering a royal commission.

Since then, the government has done everything it can to neutralise Labor’s attack, most notably with the bank tax. But of course there’s no winning this one. Until Turnbull announces a royal commission, Labor will say that not enough has been done. And the day after he announces a royal commission, Labor will say the government is just following, as usual.

The government should not have got itself into this situation. Once it had, it could have chosen to follow Labor on the royal commission. It missed both chances.

There was a similar pattern on housing affordability. There were reports that the government was seriously considering acting on negative gearing. Then Labor announced it was going to act on negative gearing. Then, in order to look different from the Opposition, the government decided not to touch negative gearing. Soon enough, Labor became identified as the one party that seemed to be acting on housing affordability.

In the lead-up to this year’s budget, there was hype around a housing affordability package. There were some worthy measures announced, but without negative gearing it just looked, again, as though the government wasn’t willing to go as far as Labor. It was the royal commission all over again.

This type of political snookering happens in other, simpler ways. Last weekend, when asked whether Labor would support a no-confidence motion in the government should Coalition MPs cross the floor on marriage, Tony Burke said no, not on this issue. The Opposition wasn’t under pressure on this. Burke probably could have sidestepped the question. But Labor decided to pre-emptively nullify the issue, ensuring it looked like it was taking the high road, and sending the spotlight back the government’s way.

I’ve written already this week about the opportunities for Bill Shorten and the threats to Turnbull created by the postal plebiscite. A new one emerged today. The Australian Electoral Commission reported that there had been 68,000 enrolment transactions – enrolments or updates of enrolment details – yesterday. On average there are 4000 a day.

It is possible that these will be evenly split between “yes” and “no” voters. My guess though is that many of these are tech-savvy young voters, some of them first-time voters. In other words, they will be more likely to vote yes.

They will also be more likely to vote for Labor or the Greens at the next federal election. Or as the Monthly’s editor, Nick Feik, put it, “Someone at Liberal party HQ is asking what the fuck have we just done.”

This afternoon the High Court heard arguments on whether the postal plebiscite should go ahead. A hearing has been set down for early September. A final decision will not be made until then.

If the postal vote goes ahead, Turnbull will spend the following two months banging his head against a wall wondering what he has just done.

If it is stopped, three things will have happened. First, more non-Liberal-voting young people will have got on the electoral roll. Second, the marriage issue will remain unresolved, waiting to surprise Turnbull again down the track. Finally, Turnbull will have endured this terrible week for nothing, in which efforts to talk about unions, electricity prices and Shorten’s failings were wiped away by Coalition division and an appearance of slow-moving farce. And there are more weeks like this one ahead.

Once again, the Coalition has been snookered. As with so many of these situations, this is partly down to Labor’s nimbleness, and to a very large extent down to the Coalition’s clumsiness. It was the Coalition that set in motion the plebiscite in the first place, moderate Liberal MPs who raised the marriage issue again, conservative Liberal MPs who made the postal plebiscite the fallback option. There have been many chances to stop all this, and none of them have been taken.

This week began with Fairfax papers reporting on terrible focus groups for Turnbull, with the consensus being that he was a “big let down”. Does anyone in the country think better of the prime minister after the past week?

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About the author Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly was an adviser to prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. He is the Monthly’s politics editor.

@mrseankelly
 
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