28 February 2016
by David Tyler

Turnbull invites chaos as he attempts to ape Abbott.

As parliament resumes Monday, spectators discover an oddly familiar negativity and intellectual vacuity, not to say a little madness, perhaps even a re-run of that Abbott-era day time TV classic “good government”.

Is it just because Newspoll puts the parties each on 50 per cent, two party preferred? Peter Dutton warns the press: “The prospect of Bill Shorten leading the country is now in play.” Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce calls it a “wake-up call”. Has Turnbull’s mob dropped its bundle on its first dud poll result? Surely not.

Could it be policy? Never. “Modest, incremental reform” as a killer of a Liberal platform. It just reeks of passion and excitement.

Yet something is seriously awry for Scott Morrison to stand up to his pal Ray Hadley at 2GB on Monday. Ray understands. Being PM or treasurer is harder than it looks; wanting the job and being able to do the job are not the same thing, he says. Thanks, Ray.

Is it Gorgeous George Christensen reading members a text on “penis tucking”? No, that happens at Tuesday’s party room meeting. Morally aroused George claims he clicked on a Safe Schools link to a link to a link on another website which linked to an “adult services” site and that this proves that safe schools grooms young people for paedophiles.

The Queensland MP’s homophobic shock tactic gets the PM to promise to review the program. Assisting Gorgeous George are Senator Cory Bernardi, Tasmanian Senator Eric Abetz, Tasmanian MP Andrew Nikolic, Western Australian MP Andrew Hastie and Queensland Senator Jo Lindgren who worry, they say, it could be disguised funding for “minorities”.

Bernardi is moved to decry a Marxist agenda of cultural relativism behind the program but not even George can explain what he means. He’s shocked to hear such language from Cory. The ANZACs didn’t die for rainbow posters in class rooms.

Is the Monkey Pod collective holding a wok-around-the-clock policy stir-fry? No. But there is a hint of monkey madness afoot amidst the cherry blossoms abroad. Veteran cultural warrior, elder statesman and US pet “Tamagotchi” Abbott waits until Saturday to sumo-wrestle China out of our Pacific hot tub. We may trade with China, but Japan is our one true love, he sighs.

Speaking in Tokyo, after a banquet of scientifically killed whale, in his own typically resonant but opaque tribute to Kabuki, Abbott praises Japan and Australia’s “special relationship because it’s not based simply on shared interests, but also on shared values”.

A Kabuki touch also informs Abbott’s view that Turnbull’s “biggest challenge will be to retain popularity” “once he has a credible narrative of his own”. He could have said everybody hates you even when you stand for nothing but he did promise no sniping. The non-sniping, supportive analysis will be published by News Corp soon.

None of these rich pickings from a week in a Turnbull government at work are the cause, however. A fish rots from the head down. Monday’s whiff of the past is our PM aping his predecessor. It is unbecoming and wholly unconvincing but the PM is going the full Tony.

Even his flatulent speech slows as he wanders aimlessly through a week, his only plan to bag Labor’s plot to destroy us by changing negative gearing rules. Is he rattled or has he been rolled? Whatever the cause it’s contagious.

Before week’s end, many MPs race to follow him downmarket. Optimism is swapped for shock and horror. Evidence-based government is nowhere in evidence as the government’s right wing tail wags its mascot junkyard dog. A fear vibe goes viral.

By Wednesday, Cory Bernardi is heckling Bill Shorten during the opposition leader’s conference on Safe Schools, “at least I’m honest, Bill”. And you are a fraud”. The program seeks to encourage acceptance of difference; protect children from homophobic bullies.

Bernardi wants Tony Abbott back as Prime Minister. Badly. So too do the twenty MPs whose dinner with Abbott this week helps keep talk of a fantasy comeback alive and doubtless nurtures the latent lair in Bernardi.

“At least I’m not a homophobe”, Shorten fires back, lowering further the tone or “raising the Tony”, in a week of ridicule, name-calling and a massive government vote-buying defence spending spree masquerading as national security and patriotic duty.

“I don’t see it as a choice,” Defence Minister Marise Payne tells Leigh Sales, on Thursday’s 7:30 Report when asked why her government is borrowing to spend up to $150 billion to acquire and run twelve new submarines at $12.5 billion a pop over thirty years while denying schools and hospitals the $80 billion they need to keep open today.

Payne does not explain why the cost is now three times the estimate of the government when Tony Abbott was PM. The new vibe helps Payne assert a moral relativism that sweeps defence spending out of scrutiny.

Payne isn’t asked to explain why there is no case for this number. It is just a target from the 2009 White Paper which has just been repeated. We can’t crew twelve subs and Defence probably could only deploy six. Nor is she asked about the consequences of a likely winning Japanese bid tying our defence policy to that nation at the expense of any independence in the Pacific.

Five state of the art $2.5 billion hospitals could be built for the cost of just one sub subsidy. But it’s not just a troubling priority, it’s a huge blind spot in government industry policy. Submarine building, like all defence spending, involves massively expensive industry subsidies however many Australian flags you cloak it in.

Having closed down Australia’s car industry the government scrambles to tip buckets of money into an industry just because it is marked “defence”. Few Australians will benefit.

With $31.8 already allocated to be spent this year, defence costs taxpayers dearly for little direct return . Much of the money spent goes into overseas companies’ coffers. The extra $29.9 billion defence spending over the next ten years, just announced, will mostly benefit US multinationals, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics and Raytheon.

Happily, national security enthusiast and Victorian wool-grower, glad-handed Dan Tehan is to be Minister for defence materiel. Multinational reps high five each other. He’ll look after them. So, too will extreme right winger, Tasmanian Andy Nikolic who cruises into Tehan’s old job as chair of the joint intelligence and security parliamentary sub-committee.

Nikolic caused a stir last year when he claimed that civil liberties should be suspended given the national terrorist emergency Australia faced.

Not all observers are enthused. Electric Frontiers Australia is concerned that the former brigadier’s “hard-line” views on national security issues and his “apparent disdain” for civil liberties suggest that he is unlikely to bring a balanced and objective perspective to the work of the committee. Perhaps such critics wilfully miss the politics of the appointment.

Butch does not sit easily with the PM’s original image. Turnbull MKII is an alarming, if not dangerous, departure from his previous hit role as Mr Slick, an urbane inner Sydney sophisticate, equally at ease with an international finance deal or a bloodless knifing. This week, the Member for Wentworth is a hard act to swallow. He achieves a bad parody of a PM who frequently parodied himself.

“Vote Labor and be poorer” one of Turnbull’s turgid slogans of the week appears to be, sadly, a bad Abbott.

Tax reform has collapsed under its own inertia. A skittish backbench has jumped on the table with everything on it causing its collapse . Little remains of any economic policy let alone a tax reform program. Much as Turnbull loves to point out how his love of rail differentiates him from Abbott, states who expect infrastructure funding for railways must give up money for something else.

There is no new money. No new plan. Even the PM’s wimpy negative re-gearing is under attack from the same MPs who put the kybosh on the GST. They shrewdly outsource the people’s voice. Private consultants are engaged to make a case to the PM.

Liberal and Labor swap routines. The Government acts the role of a beleaguered, badgering opposition reduced to beating up the threat of Labor’s tax plans. Labor, it screams, would send the economy into “free-fall” in a time of dire national emergency.

Gone now is his pose of enlightened rationality and vision. The member for Wentworth speaks slower, reaches lower as he unleashes his inner junkyard dog. It is not working. Turnbull cannot hope to reproduce all the slavering, captious, capricious negativity of his predecessor, a politician who in 2012 blocked Rudd’s Malaysian solution in order to create a build-up of boat people to enhance his own campaign.

Turnbull could never proclaim himself minister for women to show his macho contempt for the principle of gender equality and to symbolically re-enact the injustice and the exclusion the portfolio seeks to redress.

Nor should he try. The PM is ill-advised to continue his bad copy of a dodgy Abbott original. Why rebuff those who were captivated by his earlier cameo roles? Articulate, sophisticated Super-Mal wowed us all with his urbanity and vision; his difference from Abbott. According to the polls. Yet in parliament this week he mimics Abbott as if his life depends on it. King Canute spots a rapidly rising red tide.

“Labor will ruin us all”, he rants. If we don’t ruin ourselves. Like all bad actors, he is oblivious of how close he is to ludicrous incongruity; self caricature and travesty. His credibility, legitimacy and authority suddenly look very flaky.

It is a bid to bolster the PM’s rapidly diminishing authority over a deeply-divided party, a last-ditch attempt to boost his prospects in an election he knows he must call before 11 November, an election which he is being pressured to hold as early as he can, even risking a double dissolution. Not that all his strays come to heel. Indeed, some seem encouraged.

Gone, all gone, is the PM’s positivity. His airy promises of innovation evaporate. It is out with reason and in with the politics of fear. Evidence based government and respect for the electorate’s intelligence are abandoned in favour of a scare campaign around Labor’s proposal to reduce tax concessions for property investors. Yet the campaign soon falters.

He said they would fall. She said they would rise. Assistant Treasurer Kelly O’Dwyer pops up on the Seven Network’s Sunrise show mid-week only to contradict her PM’s claim that Labor’s proposed changes to negative gearing would “smash” house prices “like a wrecking ball”.

The government’s new fear-mongering is clearly a work still in progress. Capital gains tax is now also only a definite maybe. Turnbull tells the house Monday there are “no changes planned” before being forced to admit the next day that his government was looking at getting superannuation funds to pay more CGT.

We will all be ruined. Labor’s proposed changes to negative gearing rules will cause prices to rise. No. Our houses will become worthless overnight. OK. It will be bad, anyway.

Whatever else is going working for the Turnbull government, its own cabinet is confused about the PM’s new attacking vibe. The Turnbull who promised evidence based policy and decision-making is now swinging from the same branch as the monkey-pod messiah, Tony Abbott whose absurdly alarmist warnings that Whyalla would be wiped off the map and that a lamb roast would cost $100 under Labor’s carbon tax brought him well-earned ridicule but his campaign helped trash Labor’s hopes .

So far Turnbull’s lowering of his act has only encouraged Bernardi and Christensen and others of the right wing whose participation looks more like upstaging than sharing. Channelling Tony Abbott has won Turnbull no new supporters, brought no greater unity. Their own bizarre preoccupations can only expand to fill his policy vacuum and have damaging consequences. No amount of defence White Paper and reference to external threats can distract us from his lack of effective leadership.

Who needs an opposition? Turnbull is trashing himself and his brand as he flails about wildly at a small target. Experts suggest that Labor’s negative gearing changes might reduce house prices one or two per cent. It is a poor base upon which to build an entire campaign or even part of a campaign.

As he loses control over the right and as he is seen to propose fewer and fewer real policies, the PM’s strategy could deal a serious blow to his re-electability. But it does offer a great invitation to the Monkey Pod nutters to get in on the act. Expect a carnival of chaos as a PM who can’t even lead his party tries to lead an election campaign.