02 August 2016
by Phillip Coorey

Malcolm Turnbull's new reign gets off to a ratty start

A week ago, Malcolm Turnbull was being lauded for moving so swiftly to establish a Royal Commission into juvenile detention in the Northern Territory.

Now, he and Attorney-General George Brandis are being labelled dunderplunkens because the rush to establish the inquiry failed to anticipate or take into account various factors that resulted in the selected commissioner Brian Martin resigning on Monday.

Martin, a former justice of the NT Supreme Court, stepped aside for two key reasons - a perception of bias and the fact his daughter was been dragged into it just because she once worked for a former NT attorney-general.

There was no actual bias nor conflict but Martin did the right thing by putting himself before the inquiry rather than dig in - like Dyson Heydon.

All of this could have been avoided had the government taken a bit more time, not in the ordering of a commission, but the selection of the commissioners. A brief consultation at least with more indigenous bodies and accepting Labor's idea of one or two indigenous co-commissioners.

There was no ill-intent nor malice on their behalf, but the very the opposite. A desire to get on with it and target the specific horrors shown last week by the ABC.

Dangerous period
But the moment no indigenous co-commissioner was appointed, while at the same time the NT government was embraced as part of the process, people went looking for flaws. The politics quickly became intractable.

Monday's reverse wedgie in which Martin stood down and Brandis then announced Margaret White and Mick Gooda, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Social Justice Commissioner at the Human Rights Commission, would co-chair the commission seemed to calm the horses. Although an emotional Gooda expressed his own clear bias last week when he called for the sacking of the NT government, the actions of which will be the focus of the inquiry he now leads. Nothing perceived about that and it could well be a problem down the track when somebody in Darwin disagrees with any of the recommendations.

What should have been a strong start to a new government has turned ratty. The Royal Commission decisions were made at what was the first cabinet meeting for three months. The same meeting was dominated by the mishandling of Kevin Rudd's request to be nominated as a candidate fot the UN Secretary-General, something that has become another self-inflicted saga. What should have been sorted out before the election or executed quickly afterwards has instead highlighted division and rancour within, and left the Prime Minister further exposed to allegations he is beholden to his party's right wing.

Parliament is not due to sit for another month. That means a two-month election campaign followed by another two months of stasis before the re-elected government gets down to business. It is now a dangerous period in which bad impressions can be created that will improve increasingly difficult to reverse. On that basis, the government is off to a flying start.