The Politics    Thursday, June 29, 2017

Politics or Pell?

By Sean Kelly

The daily tussle can distract us from much bigger changes in society

There’s been a lot of political gossip-mongering this week. An abundance of quiet phone calls to journalists. A veritable mountain range of speculation.

All of this matters, insofar as it is becoming increasingly likely to lead to the ultimate downfall of Malcolm Turnbull.

One of the calls in recent days that I haven’t yet dwelled upon is the demand by conservatives for a reshuffle of Turnbull’s ministry. Send George Brandis overseas, they say. Take away Christopher Pyne’s parliamentary job. Promote more conservatives. Give Tony Abbott a cabinet spot, even if he might not deserve it, they stage whisper.

I don’t want to spend any more time on this other than to say: don’t do it, Malcolm. Reshuffles always seem like a good idea. Journalists will throw around words like “refresh” and “renewal” and “energy”, quickly followed by “burst”. But they’re almost always very, very bad ideas. You never make friends in politics; you only defer the date on which people become enemies. And a reshuffle mostly speeds that process up. Revenge desires spring up like weeds after rain.

Plus, as others have noted, nothing will satisfy Abbott and his cronies. Throw them a bone and all it will do is give them the scent of blood. Soon enough they’ll come after you for the entire carcass.

As regular readers know, I have long called for Brandis to be sacked. He is a terrible politician and a worse attorney-general. Today there’s this. So my plea for Turnbull to wait is not made lightly. Brandis is a liability, but not as much as a reshuffle would be right now.

The other thing I should mention is that Pyne apologised last night for his leaked comments. The idea that Pyne should apologise – as opposed to the person that recorded Pyne then leaked the tape and all the people who have tacitly given approval to those low acts by capitalising on them is ridiculous. But that’s where we are.

All of this political scurrying is likely to fade, soon, for a little bit. We’re not at the peak quite yet, but rather in the cyclical section where crisis comes and goes. Partly, too, a much bigger news story has come along: the charging of George Pell, Vatican official and Australia’s most senior Catholic, with historical sexual assault offences.

He has only been charged, and we have no idea what will happen in court. Pell has denied everything and pledged to defend himself strongly.

It is days like this that remind you that day-to-day politicking plays a very quiet second fiddle to structural forces in society. It is hard to imagine someone of Pell’s stature even being charged several decades ago.

This is wrapped up with many other changes. A greater awareness of the social prevalence of sexual assault. Changes to our police forces. A disentangling of various institutions from one another.

Prime among these changes is the shrinking role of religion in both private and public life. This week, census results showed that those holding no religion had overtaken Catholics as the top religious category in Australia. This trend is likely to increase.

This will have many impacts over time, and it is difficult to guess at what they will all be. Certainly, the gradual secularisation of our society has contributed to national policy debates over marriage, euthanasia and abortion. In the past week the prime minister succeeded in introducing a new schools funding deal that saw the amount of funding going to Catholic schools decrease when compared to what the sector expected. That, too, was quite recently difficult to imagine.

Pyne, Abbott, Brandis and the rest are not unimportant – but there are always much bigger events afoot. The difference is that daily events are immediately visible; the others, only at a distance of decades.

In other news


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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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