Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly

In denial
The government jumped right back into conspiracy land


Governments in trouble – and yes, I’m speaking from experience – sometimes console themselves with the idea that what the press gallery sees is very different from what middle Australia sees. “Oh yes, every man and his dog wrote that we’re hopeless, but the people of Logan and Parramatta will see things very differently.”

Sometimes those governments are correct, of course. There are moments of mobthink and mass delusion in the press gallery, and politicians must sometimes stick to their guns. One of the things that makes governing so difficult is that when you spend so much time in Parliament House it can become tricky to tell the difference. (To all those Labor people laughing right now, this won’t seem so funny if you win.)

So a Coalition optimist right now would tell you that the government has played its cards well and is displaying courage under fire. I can’t imagine there are too many Coalition optimists right now, but there must be some, because the government jumped right back today into the absurd conspiracy land of yesterday.

Never mind that Laurie Oakes had called the government’s claims “laughable” and “irresponsible”, that Michelle Grattan said it was a “diplomatic own goal”, Dennis Shanahan a “disaster”, Paul Kelly “a bad situation for the government made to look even worse as well as absurd”. This morning, the foreign affairs minister, Julie Bishop, reinforced her attacks by wondering aloud (inside voice, Julie, inside voice!) which other governments Bill Shorten might be conspiring with.

Perhaps the government meant to reassure reporters as well as its backbenchers – and perhaps even the public – that it knew what it was doing, that it would not be embarrassed into backing down. Let me say, politely, that if that was the intention, it did not succeed.

By Question Time, one can only presume that the same brilliant brains trust that came up with the foreign conspiracy slamdown had found time to meet again, because the prime minister had a new tactic to show off.

Requesting indulgence from the parliament, Malcolm Turnbull launched into a speech attacking Yarra Council for deciding not to celebrate Australia Day, and for moving its citizenship ceremonies from 26 January.

Let me put that more simply: the prime minister of the country opened Question Time by attacking a local council.

This will not receive the same level of coverage as yesterday’s distraction attempts, for the reason that “patriotically” defending Australia Day is a tired political tactic rather than an obvious act of lunacy, but it was just as revealing of the levels of desperation at the highest levels of government. The whiff is strong and getting stronger. Visitors to the ministerial wing should probably be given complimentary pegs.

Apart from the spectre of a sixth-form boy picking on a kindergartener (sorry, Yarra Council), Turnbull’s attack was remarkable for several reasons.

The date of Australia Day should be changed, but the fact the PM is not keen to change it is not remarkable. It is disappointing, but realistically he has enough fights on his hands. Shorten, too, does not want to change it, and goodness knows he has fewer excuses.

It was remarkable because it did not need to be done. The attempt to change the subject by way of starting a culture war was so barefaced that I suspect it will be largely ignored. It was an obvious tactic, executed badly.

Part of the poor execution was that Turnbull did not in fact try to make the case. He uttered a lot of platitudes about Australia being great, and Australia Day being therefore important, but gave not a single reason for the assertion that this celebration had to happen on 26 January. Given that was the entire point of the speech, this was an impressive omission.

There are times it is hard not to assume this level of political incompetence is planned.

The other reason I found it remarkable is simply that I continue to expect better of Turnbull. The debate around Australia Day is a debate about race and about history. I continue to believe, on the basis of his long career in public life, that Turnbull is fundamentally decent, and more thoughtful than many of our representatives. That he would use the sorrow of Indigenous Australians, and the guilt of many non-Indigenous Australians, as a prop to defend Barnaby Joyce from a problem entirely of his own making disappoints me. That he made ample references to Indigenous history does not make the attempt better, but worse. It was an act of the keenest cynicism.

After tomorrow, the government has two weeks away from parliament. It must do what it can to get through tomorrow quietly. If Labor wins the day, so be it; better than offering more signs of desperation, or risking more self-injury. The prime minister and the team around him should then give themselves some time to think. The last two weeks have been crazy. Senior ministers and staff will be tired, but they will also be angry and frustrated, and while people often want to make decisions in such circumstances, it is a very bad idea.

Attention must then turn to figuring out a way of setting the agenda, and running their own race. Everything over the past fortnight has been driven by others. The government seems out of control because it is. Control must be reasserted, quickly but methodically, and before the next sitting, where Labor clearly has superior skill. The situation right now is awful. It stinks. It is, worst of all, ridiculous. If the government is consoling itself by pretending that voters don’t see it that way too, it must stop now, or there is no hope of recovery.

In other news


Foresters of the skies

The grey-headed flying fox faces a perilous nightly journey

Arnold Zable

“‘I love them,” says Pope. ‘Over the ages they’ve been a persecuted animal, subject to mass killings. They evoke all kinds of emotions. They are a living continuity of Australia’s ancient history, and our response is to make them want to go away? To see them as a nuisance? Yes, I’m angry. This is a poverty of thought, of imagination. We have lost over 95% of the population since 1900. It’s a beautiful, intelligent creature with a key role to play in Australia’s botanical flourishing.’”  READ ON


Misogyny floats

The second season of ‘Top of the Lake’ once again battles male sexual and psychological violence

Steve Dow

“The deep vein of misogyny unsettled me early in Jane Campion’s new miniseries, Top of the Lake: China Girl, in which Elisabeth Moss reprises her role as Robin Griffin, a detective whose mission, once more, is to battle male sexual and psychological violence, this time around inner Sydney. This sequel is faster paced, grittier and wittier than Campion’s original series, filmed in New Zealand and released in 2013, and uses its wry humour to deliver profound insights into men’s privilege.”  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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