Friday, August 18, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly

Turnbull’s mental challenge
It’s been a terrible month for the government


It has been a truly horrid two weeks for the government, as has been widely noted.

What should worry the prime minister more is that it’s actually been almost a month of awfulness.

Since a brief flurry of activity around national security, Malcolm Turnbull has had to deal with Tony Abbott, questions around whether he’d have a cup of tea with Tony Abbott, Matt Canavan’s citizenship, Newspolls, same-sex marriage, a leaked transcript of a phone call with Donald Trump, same-sex marriage, postal plebiscite details, Barnaby’s citizenship, Julie Bishop, and now the citizenship of what seems like the entire membership of the Nationals.

Not all of that is Turnbull’s fault, but that’s the thing about government: external things will always go wrong, so you must try to get enough of your own stuff right to achieve a balance.

Is it any wonder then that, as the impeccably sourced Phil Coorey wrote this week [$], “Liberal MPs despairing at the mounting crises plaguing the government are starting to question the political judgment of the Prime Minister’s office and whether the Coalition can win the next election.”

At some point in the past two months, the press gallery began to write things like “if, as now seems likely, Labor wins the next election”. That de facto assumption jumped a couple of levels this week to speculations about the beginning of the end. Laura Tingle wrote [$] that the manoeuvring around Joyce “is likely to prove the point from which history may come to judge that it entered into a death spiral from which it could not recover, if every single thing doesn’t now go the Coalition’s way”.

For those of you hanging your heads or rubbing your hands in glee: that caveat at the end shouldn’t be entirely overlooked. Michelle Grattan outlines two divergent scenarios today, one in which everything goes wrong for the government, and one in which everything goes right. It is important to remember that everything may yet go right.

I am trying to remind myself of this, because I’ve been damning of the government in the past fortnight – it has deserved it – and it is all too easy to become sucked into the vortex of your own opinions, and miss the shifting of the wind. I am trying to remain alert to the possibility of recovery.

But, to be honest, that’s a comparatively easy task for a commentator. I watch from the luxurious position of outside. The people who will find this hardest, and for whom it is also most important, are the pessimistic MPs Coorey spoke to. The ministers, too, who must lift themselves, those who are currently in the process of giving up.

Many things that “go right” or “go wrong” from here will be external, like High Court decisions. But some will be decisions of the government. A government that has given up will get those decisions wrong, because it is not trying anymore.

Prime ministers are always the last to surrender. But a prime minister in denial is equally unlikely to recover. To return from here, Turnbull must acknowledge just how far down the abyss he’s fallen, while maintaining a belief that he can still climb out. That’s a difficult combination to pull off.

Julia Gillard returned to 50–50 in the polls after an equally terrible run. Whether Turnbull is as resilient as Gillard remains to be seen.

Labor, meanwhile, seems unlikely to tie itself in mental knots. The going is too easy right now. Perhaps it will get too cocky and make mistakes. That is one of the things Turnbull will need to go right, as well.

In other news


Looking for Joseph Merrick

Malthouse Theatre’s ‘The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man’ runs the risk of erasing its protagonist

Alison Croggon

“The story of Joseph Merrick, popularly known as the Elephant Man, has a huge absence in its centre: Merrick himself. Ever since his death, aged 27, in 1890, imagination has rushed to fill in that missing subjectivity. The latest offering is Tom Wright’s The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man, which has been given an overwhelmingly beautiful production by Matthew Lutton and his team at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre.”  READ ON


Joker in the pack

On the road with the irrepressible Nick Xenophon

Anne Manne

“Before meeting Xenophon I wondered if he might be an entitled Little Prince grown up. One of those boys who are placed on the throne by their mother, and ever after have that special dose of confidence. But Xenophon doesn’t strike me like that at all. He’s an empath. He has an ability to completely swing his attention to others. If anything, he seems, as he dashes from one appointment and issue to the next, to have too keen a sense of his responsibility for the world.” (November 2015)  READ ON


Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for Fairfax and a former adviser to Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.



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