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Strength is weakness

Today was not the day Turnbull thought it was

Malcolm Turnbull did his best today to look strong. Instead, he came off looking very, very weak. That happened in three ways.

The first wasn’t his fault, and actually began yesterday. Nick Greiner, recently elected president of the Liberal Party, did Turnbull an immense disservice with his words on Sky News on Sunday.

Greiner, the former NSW premier, was, admittedly, harsher on Tony Abbott for his constant campaign of sniping against the prime minister.

But Greiner, who had already criticised Abbott last week, didn’t limit his comments this time to the former PM. He said he would go and talk to both men. He urged them to sit down together. He said, “At the end of the day they need to resolve this between themselves.” He said that everyone needed to “be adults”.

In other words, he made the current division as much Turnbull’s problem as Abbott’s.

This is wrong in substance. Abbott has driven a good 90% of the squabbling that we see reported in the papers. Of the rest, should we really expect Turnbull not to respond? To do so would cement his weakness.

It is also a slap in the face to Turnbull’s strategy of recent weeks. Greiner said he had not discussed [$] this proposed meeting with either Turnbull or Abbott, so we can’t assume this is a Turnbull-sanctioned plan.

Turnbull’s troops have been forceful recently in saying, loud and clear, that Abbott is on his own. And Abbott has seemed increasingly isolated, the de facto leader of a shrinking band of conservative misfits. Turnbull’s speech in London last week – while arguably a provocation – was another step towards undermining Abbott’s credibility in offering conservative “thought-leadership”, as Maurice Newman (he of the one-world government) described it [$]. It seemed as though Turnbull had arrived at a strategy, and was pursuing it consistently.

In one move Greiner has basically said, “No, Malcolm, this is your fault too.” He has handed Abbott and his henchmen a legitimacy they do not deserve.

Finally, it creates yet another problem for Turnbull. He can refuse the meeting, but now that will expose him to further claims of churlishness, of being the one bringing problems on himself. Or he can take the meeting, which will give Abbott an even greater platform, and create over-hyped consideration of that thorny question again: does Abbott deserve a spot in cabinet? That is a question Turnbull has made clear he does not want on the table.

Thanks for nothing, Nick.

The second way Turnbull looked weak was in wayyyyy overreaching in his national security announcement. The announcement itself was significant: the threshold for calling in defence troops to deal with terrorist incidents on Australian soil has been dramatically lowered. This may be justifiable – some of the changes reflect recommendations made by the NSW coroner in his Lindt siege report – though we should hope that parliamentary scrutiny is not rushed.

But the announcement looked crazily aggressive. The prime minister stood in front of Special Forces soldiers who were armed and wearing what appeared to be gas masks; behind them stood an inflatable boat. As a former press secretary I sympathise with the need for images that tell a story; but this image had the feel of an image that was trying very hard to tell a very scary story. Confections have the bad habit of looking confected. The story was strong enough without them.

Finally, we have reports (though they are contested) that a massive super-department – the Department of Homeland Security – is about to be created, including ASIO, the Federal Police, and Border Force, and that it will be ticked off by cabinet tomorrow.

With Turnbull having made a cybersecurity announcement on Friday, this will be the third terrorism-related announcement in a week.

It’s true this has a sense of break-glass about it, but the public are understandably nervous about terrorism and it is not surprising the government is acting.

The bigger problem is that – should it go ahead – this new department looks to have been created almost entirely to satisfy Turnbull’s chief Praetorian Guard, Peter Dutton. It has the added political benefit of being against the wishes of prominent moderates like George Brandis.

Last time Turnbull tried looking like a traditional conservative, with his 457-visa announcement closely followed by his citizenship changes, he and Dutton couldn’t make the case for the changes. They were unable to outline a problem they were solving. Turnbull looked inauthentic, and for some combination of these reasons the Coalition was not rewarded in the polls at all.

Turnbull could not explain his cybersecurity announcement on Friday. Labor today has been putting around a sheet of quotations from Turnbull back in 2008, when he strongly opposed a Department of Homeland Security. As such, I’m willing to bet he won’t have a good reason this time, either.

As I said, confections tend to look confected.

In other news


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POLITICS

A simple case of arithmetic

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“What are we to make of his bald declaration that ‘the laws of mathematics are very commendable, but the only law that applies in Australia is the law of Australia’? This is both irrational and totalitarian, straight out of the Donald Trump school of alternative facts. It has been all too common to hear the extremists (or, as they like to call themselves, the mainstream, the core) deny and attack science in any or all of its manifestations, but we had thought Malcolm Turnbull was rather less of a knuckle-dragger.”   READ ON


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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