Monday, October 16, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly

When is a crisis not a crisis?
What happens next is up to MPs, not the PM


On any count, Malcolm Turnbull should be panicking today. Let’s run through the litany.

A new Newspoll came out today [$] showing Labor at 54, the Coalition at 46, as they were three weeks ago. That’s over a period in which the government has focused on what are supposed to be its strengths – national security and economic security – including power prices.

The bad news didn’t stop there. The only really significant movement came in the PM’s approval, which dropped seven points. The even worse news came in looking at the trend in the preferred prime minister rating. This is regularly held out by commentators as Turnbull’s one polling protection, the measure on which he remains consistently ahead of Bill Shorten. He’s still ahead, but since early September the gap has fallen from 17 to 8. It’s been worse before, but that’s never the type of comfort you want, is it?

The High Court will report back soon on dual citizenship, perhaps even tomorrow, and if things go the way Coalition MPs are increasingly worried they will, the government will be off to a byelection. The more dangerous news for the government is that it will temporarily lose its parliamentary majority, leaving it in minority government, a scenario Turnbull spent some time railing against before the last election, which is a point you’d imagine Labor will make on the hour, every hour.

If the court decides to knock out the other Nationals, Fiona Nash and Matt Canavan, that could create some extra political problems for Turnbull, with their replacements set to be Liberals. That might not seem like a big deal – two Coalition MPs replaced by two Coalition MPs – but under the formula dictating cabinet and ministry positions, it should mean the Liberals get more spots at the expense of the Nats. There has been talk that one of those Liberals, Joanna Lindgren, could help avoid this by sitting in the Nationals’ party room, but there are more recent suggestions [$] she’ll be having none of that, actually.

While the PM is distracted by the difficult task of crossing all of his fingers and all of his toes, Tony Abbott is making news by the not-very-difficult path of appearing on his regular 2GB radio slot and not denying he would ever return to the prime ministership, though he did say the scenario was next to impossible.

To his credit, the PM has been doing as much as he can to convey the impression that he is getting on with business as usual, but he’ll be hampered a little this week by the likelihood of his signature big business company tax cuts going nowhere, and his signature citizenship law changes falling off the agenda altogether. Oh, and Labor has said no clean energy target, no end to the climate wars. (I should note here, for completeness, that Labor has not said they’ll revert to their more stringent policy of an emissions intensity scheme.)

But the answer to the riddle in today’s headline is super simple. When is a crisis not a crisis? When a government bloody well decides it isn’t.

Not the prime minister – it’s not up to him. All he can do in the immediate short term is avoid obvious mistakes and look calm. Whether all of the individual waves combine into a tsunami is a decision for everybody else in the Coalition. Do they panic? Do the minnows of the parliament use their power in a minority government to temporarily become whales? Do they burnish their egos by slipping anonymous quotes into news reports? Do they become overly exercised by questions like the Liberal/National balance in cabinet?

And the biggest question: do any of them start talking seriously about leadership change as an option?

My strong feeling is that they would be mad to. The next three months are likely to be difficult, one way or another. That is built-in. The smart thing would be to stay quiet and give Turnbull the cleanest possible chance at recovery in 2018. The reality is that we still don’t know whether, in the present media environment, it is possible for a leader to recover from poor mid-term opinion polling, because nobody’s been given the chance. My bet is that it is. Could Turnbull be the one to do it? I don’t know, but neither do Coalition MPs.

To be fair, most of the Coalition knows this already. Tony Abbott and Eric Abetz are troublemakers, and George Christensen’s approach to his party is as selfish as Cory Bernardi’s was, but regarding the rest of the Coalition, I’ve been both surprised and impressed by the fact that the long-term doldrums have not, at any point thus far, seemed about to precipitate a genuine leadership crisis. The longer that remarkable calm continues the more comfortable the public will become with the idea that Turnbull is here to stay. That will make the public more willing to pay attention (why would you stop to listen to a dead man walking?) In turn, that may help the Coalition’s numbers.

The attitude of Coalition MPs will get an important trial this fortnight, as Turnbull’s new climate policy is tested, first in the cabinet – which is solidly behind Turnbull – and then in the party room. Abbott today warned the policy should not be rushed through the party. And so the choice before the party will be very clear: are you listening to Tony Abbott, or to Malcolm Turnbull? If the fortnight is a harrowing one for Turnbull, then the government’s long-term discipline is not to be relied on. But if climate policy passes easily, and panic stays away, then perhaps Turnbull still has a chance.  

In other news


Painting the picture

Audio describers bring theatre to life for the vision impaired

Paul Connolly

“It’s not an audio describer’s job to lead the witness, or to actively evoke emotion in their listeners, of whom there are six tonight. ‘I try to make sure I tell people everything they need to know to follow the story. But I’m not there to interpret the story or become part of the show,’ Williams, a law student and former actor, tells me later. ‘It’s like I’m a camera. So if someone walks onstage looking super excited, I don’t say that. I say what leads me to think that: that they are walking on with a big smile on their face.’ ” read on


Names have been suppressed

Attempts to encourage censorship and deliberate amnesia seldom work

Mungo MacCallum

“Certainly journalists indulge in self-censorship occasionally; there was a time when the private affairs (and particularly the sexual ones) of politicians were regarded as off limits, although this practice has fallen into abeyance – the turning point probably came when Laurie Oakes made public what insiders had known for months: that Gareth Evans and Cheryl Kernot were getting it on.” READ ON

‘Artists in Conversation’

Readers in Victoria can register for free tickets to artist conversations as part of Melbourne Festival, led by the editorial team of The Saturday Paper and the Monthly.

The conversations will feature Melbourne Festival’s artistic director, Jonathan Holloway, and artists from the festival program, to discuss their work and its place in the world. The conversations will take place at the Forum Theatre on Saturdays from 12.30 pm.

To register, simply click the link below and enter your details in the form provided. More details on the conversations and terms and conditions can be found here.

Saturday, 21 October – A Chronicle of Life

Hosted by Nick Feik, editor of the Monthly, Jonathan Holloway, and artists from Germinal and EVER.

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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