Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly

Form follows function
To have any chance of recovery, government MPs need to remember what side they’re on

Source: Sky News

Explaining the point of the PM’s floated income tax cuts, Paul Kelly wrote [$] in the Australian: “The bigger play from Turnbull to both his party and the public is that a functioning government can win the economic debate against Labor, a stance that remains his last best hope.”

It’s an important idea, but I want you to note a particular adjective. For Turnbull’s tax argument to have the impact he needs it to, his government must be “functioning”.

Kelly’s column appeared this morning – as did an article from Sharri Markson at the Daily Telegraph, which carried the news that cabinet had discussed backflipping on the government’s opposition to a banking royal commission. Normally you’d have to pause to consider whether a leak is accurate, not because a journalist has got things wrong, but because politicians serve their own agendas. This time, the treasurer as much as confirmed it on radio a few hours later: “You wouldn’t expect me to go into what the deliberations of cabinet are, but you also wouldn’t find it puzzling that cabinet would from time to time consider these sorts of issues, of course they would, and to talk these issues through.”

The person responsible for the leak either has no sense of irony at all, or else the greatest sense of irony in history, because they talked about ministers being annoyed with backbenchers who are “consumed with selfishness and prepared to hang their colleagues and the government out to dry”. Unlike, say, people who leak from cabinet. (Perhaps this sort of thing is catching: just last night Tony Abbott complained of the “toxic egos” of people who “put themselves first and not their country”.)

Of course, we don’t know who the leak is from, or the reason behind it. My first reaction was that perhaps it was designed to soften the ground for a backflip on the banks. I think this might have worked, by the way. Backflips are never pretty, but nor are they all alike. If you backflip from an unpopular position to a popular one, you’ll weather a bad day, but in the end voters will be glad you did it. Go the other way and you’re toast. Anyway, that doesn’t seem to have been the case: on the Today show, the prime minister left himself no wriggle room: “Karl, there is not going to be a banking royal commission.”

So perhaps it was to burnish the “sensible” reputation of Scott Morrison, who remains opposed to an inquiry. More likely it was to help Peter Dutton, who is opposed “in principle” but is open to it anyway, which would please the troops. Or perhaps it was just generally to stir up trouble. Or, charitably, maybe the leaker is just genuinely anguished by unhelpful backbenchers, and hoping to send a message that they are threatening the government’s survival.

On this, the leaker would be right: they are threatening the government’s survival. Right now it’s a few Nationals MPs on banking, but that’s only the most recent problem. The ill discipline of backbenchers – including but not limited to Tony Abbott – has been a constant problem for this government. Think of section 18C, or Safe Schools, or superannuation, or the various attempted extortions of George Christensen, Abbott, and Cory Bernardi before he left.

In case you doubt me, Laura Tingle wrote about this problem of self-indulgence 14 months ago [$]. Discussing the subject, as well as Labor’s determination to disrupt the parliament, she stated: “The prime minister and his ministers have little choice but to plod along, hoping they can gradually build some authority by governing reasonably well and, if an opportunity presents itself, exploit a transformative episode that allows Malcolm Turnbull to put his stamp more firmly on the government.”

At that point, the government and Labor were even in the polls. Since then there have been some moments of good government, but they haven’t lasted, and they certainly haven’t helped the political situation.

Meanwhile, the parliament heads towards a transformative episode of sorts, though not of the sort Tingle was talking about. Another senator, of Nick Xenophon’s stripe, resigned today over the citizenship mess. Xenophon said he expected others would be in trouble when the disclosure date rolls around. 

It’s pretty clear by now that he’s right. I will be shocked if that is not the case. I will be surprised, too, if more government MPs aren’t caught out. Labor has been unfailingly confident, but I can’t imagine every opposition MP will avoid trouble either. How many byelections does it take to make an election inevitable?

The answer to that question will depend, to some extent, on whether or not the government appears to be “functioning” by the time of mass resignations, or when the High Court has its say. Some of that is up to the PM – who’d be best to avoid own-goals like postponing parliament. But much of it is up to the many other MPs who are, though they often seem to forget it, part of the government, too.

In other news


‘The Sparsholt Affair’ by Alan Hollinghurst

A subtle, ambiguous achievement by the author of ‘The Line of Beauty’

Stephanie Bishop

“An uncertain and reserved character, Johnny, like many of Hollinghurst’s leading men, is a nervous outsider – an observer of those who move with greater confidence and panache. Hollinghurst has long been celebrated for his grand narrative structures and the Jamesian poise of his prose. In The Sparsholt Affair these signature features reappear, supporting the subtle development of Johnny’s interior life.”read on


A true hipster

Remembering Grant McLennan

Robert Forster

“Through all of this we stayed good friends. There was something special about our friendship that we could take deep into our work, making crucial creative decisions along the way and never flaring up or tearing at each other. We operated on two rules: each was to have the same number of songs on every album, and we both had to agree on something before we did it. Our confidence in what we could do was amazing. It was as if being in The Go-Betweens gave us an invisible shield, allowing us to believe that nothing could knock us out. Grant was central to this. Every album was ‘our best so far’, and any time I dipped in confidence he was there to pick me up. He was a great working partner. Not only the songs – ‘Cattle and Cane’, ‘Bachelor Kisses’, ‘Bye Bye Pride’, ‘Streets of Your Town’, ‘Finding You’, ‘Boundary Rider’ – but also as an up-close inspirational artist in my life.” (July 2006)READ ON

Sean Kelly

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


The Monthly Today logo

In-depth analysis of the moments that define the day from Paddy Manning.
Free to your inbox every afternoon.


The Monthly Today

Pub test: ‘Who?’ for Wentworth

The stakes are ridiculously high in tomorrow’s by-election

What Price the Pacific?

The environment minister’s gaffe exposes the Australian malaise

Green backs carbon price

After five years of Coalition climate policy failure, it’s time to re-evaluate

It’s OK to lose a by-election

The Coalition is all over the place on race politics ... and the rest

From the front page

Pub test: ‘Who?’ for Wentworth

The stakes are ridiculously high in tomorrow’s by-election

At the gateway to Cape Fear

After the storm, North Carolina is a glimpse into a climate-changed future


Feliks Zemdegs, Rubik’s champion

Meet the world’s fastest cuber

Image from ‘The Insult’

The personal is political in ‘The Insult’

Ziad Doueiri’s tense film excavates Lebanon’s violent past