24 July 2016
by David Tyler

Turnbull is a sitting duck


Turnbull addresses his party room

Cabinet maker, nation builder, architect of our future, seer, Malcolm Bligh Turnbull squints into Monday’s winter sunshine in the courtyard where Tony Abbott used to park his bicycle and proclaims a mandate. A depleted Coalition stares back at him in disbelief.

Eric Abetz is scowling.

The bruising eight week ordeal on the hustings is a solid victory, he says. He has a vision, he insists. MPs will ask him in three years about KPIs, (key performance indicators), because “we have set out our plan”. Even Howard would struggle to be this dull. Not even Abbott would be this transparent.

“This is all about delivery,” he continues, as if addressing Eagle Boys Pizza, a PM who surely holds the record for the most over-promised and under-delivered election performance in history. His authority in tatters, his credibility shot, many MPs doubt Fizza will make it to Christmas.

“He’s a sitting duck and he knows it” one Liberal tells Paul Bongiorno adding that the Coalition’s plan will be to sit parliament as little as possible, planning only seven weeks’ sitting before December. Turnbull’s small target campaign will evolve into a small target parliamentary strategy.

The plan will be to say they have a plan that fixes everything and a mandate.Tactical evasion comes naturally to a leader whose approach to tax reform showed a genius for equivocation and indecision.

“We were fucked by February,” campaign guru Mark Textor confides after the party room meeting to one of the few female MPs to survive. Doubtless there will be no discount to his fee for services to the lost cause.

By Wednesday despite colossal media spin about mandates and plans even ducking and weaving looks risky. Chairman Mal’s heroic victory over the “outrageous lies” of scumbag Labor’s Mediscare dims with news that his government’s “solid majority” of 77 in the House of Reps of the 45th Parliament now amounts to only one seat. Eric Abetz did say, Monday, his campaign was crap.

In a flash of old Malcolm, the PM snaps back. How many members are in the Tasmanian branch? 1200? The senator claims Turnbull is 800 shy of the mark but the point is made. The party ran dead not only because its leader ran dead but also because its grassroots support is dying. Like all true leaders, Malcolm is quick to blame someone else, even if Abetz has a lot to answer for.

It ran out of money. Its policies did not connect with electors. And shockingly to all of us who hold that democracy is not for buying or selling, late in the day, Turnbull dipped into his own pocket.

Just how much Turnbull’s own contribution affected the election result will remain a matter of conjecture. How much proprietary authority it buys him in terms of his own leadership is impossible to reckon. The amount, however, may not be one million as reported in The Australian but two. When ABC’s Leigh Sales presses the PM on his donation he, typically, brushes her aside.

“All of the donations I’ve made in the past to the Liberal Party and any donations that will be made or have been made will all be disclosed in accordance with the Electoral Act.”

The future looks grim. Unlike Labor, the Liberals cannot count on unions or idealistic young people with notions of social justice and community service to build support. And in a glimpse of things to come, in Tasmania recently, some power mad young Liberals seem to have lost the plot.

Eric Abetz had to abandon his address to a hundred bright young things attending the Australian Liberal Students’ Federation dinner in Hobart when students, dressed as security guards blocked delegates, claiming that they had not registered in time to vote for the new executive.

For Turnbull it is the opposite tactic. Rather than make hard decisions in allocating or re-allocating portfolios, or kick up a stink by replacing Liberals with Nationals, he has simply had a bit of a tinker with Environment and Defence and then let everyone in. His cabinet is the biggest since Whitlam. What he gains in patronage, he must surely lose in unworkability.

Gone is any faint hope of authority over his bitterly divided party. Helpfully ABC’s 7:30 Report Friday beats up Bill Shorten’s “factional war” but the Labor leader has just consolidated his leadership while Turnbull has open insurrection and belly-aching back-stabbers to contend with.

Munificent Mal must stare down the likes of gutsy George Christensen who threatens to waddle across the floor over super, in a social media spray two days after Monday’s party room meeting. Gorgeous George sees the proposed changes as Labor-style policies in a Tea-Party worthy swipe.

“It’s not the government’s money, it’s YOUR money. We in government need to remember that.”

Union supporter, maverick Bob Katter has warned that he will not support an ABCC and is quick to tell the PM through the media that he will not stand for any union bashing. ACTU Head Dave Oliver applauds. Katter could be a handful on marriage equality too since he once said he’d walk backwards to Burke if there was a single gay in his electorate.

Simmering on the backbench is a potent brew of confused, imported populism, racism, climate denial, wilful ignorance and confected Trump-style resentment which finds expression in scapegoating all manner of outsiders from Muslims to marriage equality advocates. Some like Cory Bernardi interpret the election fiasco as evidence of a need to shift the party further to the right.

Into this mix, with his double dissolution Turnbull has delivered Pauline Hanson, former 1996 Queensland Liberal Party candidate, populist politician and celebrity bigot who claims clairvoyantly that she “just says what everyone is thinking,” such as – No more Muslims for Australia. Muslims should be prohibited because “like pit bull terriers they are a danger to our society.”

The gift of sensing “what everyone else is thinking” brings with it the delusion that her crackpot notions are mainstream views, an attitude also struck by Cory Bernardi and George Christensen and others whose sexual phobias are nurtured by the propaganda of the Australian Christian Lobby. Claiming to channel the mainstream is a specious bid for legitimacy and Turnbull will need to call her on it, although it is far from certain that One Nation senators will oppose the ABCC.

Turnbull’s capitulation to his party’s lunatic right wing’s witch hunt against Safe Schools suggests that he lacks the means or the will to cut through the toxic miasma of irrationality he has stirred up. Nor does he have much in the way of Liberal party political precedent to enable such a stand.

Despite her disclaimer, Hanson in fact channels prejudices popular amongst small sectors of the Australian community for generations, her incoherent, irrational, wittering discontent is much more closely linked with Liberal Party demagoguery than Turnbull and others voicing public disapproval would care to admit. It is to be heard, for example, in the nonsense expressed by Peter Dutton that migrants take our jobs while simultaneously being a drain on welfare.

It resonates with John Howard’s claim of babies being thrown overboard, an election winning gambit to demonise asylum-seekers as subhuman and unnatural. Hanson also taps the vein of fear nurtured by Tony Abbott who proclaimed that ISIS was “coming after each and everyone of us. She draws sustenance from the militarisation of our duty to refugees in Morrison’s Border Force and the pernicious myth that our borders are somehow under threat those who seek our asylum.

The myth of the dangerous Muslim is reflected in the Abbott government’s decision to offer haven to only those Syrian refugees who are Christian, a stipulation which has led to UN censure and to unnecessary and inhumane delay in our accepting our fair share of the world’s displaced peoples.

A lame duck leader mortally wounded by his deal with the Nats and despised by all for his arrogance; his imperious mien, his fatal combination of overpowering entitlement and poor judgement, the Chairman is now at the mercy of every desperate party renegade with an axe to grind. Reluctantly Liberal MPs gave support to a coup leader they didn’t like or trust in the hope that he would deliver them from certain political oblivion under Abbott.

Now he has doubly failed them. He will seek to appease the rebels over the proposed $500,000 lifetime cap on non-concessional superannuation contributions. Yet the price of peace will be an even less egalitarian society. Morrison is said to be working on it already.

Expect exemptions for when your Dad dies and leaves you a few mill and a farm in the Upper Hunter or for when you make a mozza out of a divorce settlement, as you do, especially women.

“Life events”, these windfalls will be called as if inherited wealth can never be taxable or as if granting tax exemption under duress is not the perpetuation of privilege, inequality and the power of vested interests.

But Turnbull doesn’t let it show; even if he could afford to. Long live Chairman Tang Bao, sweet custard bun! It’s not a backdown on an election commitment, just a bit of fine tuning because that’s what good government is about.

Mad Dog Morrison is fit to kill. On a mission to restore Australia’s AAA rating when experts reckon the ratings agency Standard and Poor’s is not worth taking seriously given its flawed record in the GFC, Morrison wants us to believe that he’ll have us return to balance by 2020-2021.

Moody’s told him in April that budget cuts alone would not return us to surplus. None of the ratings agencies believe his projected iron ore prices nor do they approve of his counting in zombie measures yet to pass the senate. In other words his budget calculations don’t add up.

Morrison’s furious to learn secondhand of Turnbull’s turnaround on Medicare from AMA’s Dr Michael Gannon who’s got the nod from Health Minister Sussan Ley. A $2.4 billlion dollar nod over four years according to Labor’s Parliamentary Budget Office costings.

“I would be gobsmacked if the government took an ongoing freeze to the next election. They got the scare of their life on health, and that was probably the policy which hurt them the most,” says Dr Gannon leaving a smiling Ley who also says “consultative and collaborative” for the camera.

“Loose lips” Morrison is left out of the loop again, as he was on the date of his first budget. The Great Helmsman clings to the tiller of the ship of state, his knuckles whitening.

Bad news from the Sombrero Belt midweek threatens to throw Chairman Mal off course. Herbert’s electors may fail in their duty to return sitting member, LNP’s Ewen Jones.

Voters do not embrace a tax cut for the rich – key to the great Economic Plan for jobs and growth on which our nation’s prosperity depends. One in five young people in Townsville is unemployed.

Worse, Labor’s Cathy O’Toole may be elected instead. Hawk-eyed Attorney-General George Brandis is urgently dispatched to scrutineer in frantic over-kill, doubtless, an early example of a good, stable government in action.

Herbert is instantly downplayed by national media outlets and the ABC, whose news packaging assumes that Herbert will come to its senses following a recount of all of its 104, 181 ballots.

Should Labor win the seat, leaving the Coalition with a majority of one, Ayatollah Turnbull will be utterly at the mercy of his back bench. Unable to muster numbers on a no confidence vote on same sex marriage, for example, could see his term of office over by Christmas.

Earning the nickname “The Ayatollah” for his autocratic management style in merchant banking, the PM is no natural negotiator. He is going to have to learn more than the hand chopping body language he has recently picked up if he is to master the requisite consensus forging skills to survive. Luckily he is able to play Father Christmas and buy some support as he hands out a record number of ministries.

Turnbull is a model of largesse and jobs and growth in action as he creates the biggest cabinet in forty years, with jobs nearly half the party. Only Eric, Kevin and Tony The Incredible Sulk Abbott are left to cool their heels in the corridor and plot mischief.

Promoting conservatives Matt Canavan and Zed Seselja and putting Christopher Pyne in a new role as defence means a hard right turn in policy with a left back twist in protectionist submarine building in the Turnbull government’s new ministry, officially Australia’s 71st as the million dollar PM boosts the Nationals and rewards his own backers over Abbott faction members.

An anti-abortion campaigner, Canavan doubts climate science is settled while Seselja will abstain from voting should the marriage plebiscite go ahead while the appointment of the conservative Josh Freydenberg to a combined energy and environment portfolio is the kiss of death to those who have been hoping for a progressive approach to either.

But like the jobs and growth slogan itself, this cabinet is no new era in policy or government or anything else much beyond an attempt at appeasement; a calculated buying of time and support so that the man who would be Prime Minister can achieve his dream.

Even if the rest of the country goes to hell in a handbasket, if the economy nose dives and the social contract is torn up while rabid right wing nut jobs argue the toss, Turnbull will be able to claim that he was an elected Prime Minister. Even if he has Buckley’s chance of lasting until Christmas.

Historians will take the view that like his predecessor, Turnbull never had what it took to be a Prime Minister but that his tenure represents the last desperate gamble of a Liberal party which came to have no effective popular support base and no clear idea of what it stood for above servicing the requests of business, a party which spent its political capital as freely and unwisely as it did the proceeds of the mining boom leaving no-one fit to mind the shop and the barbarians an open gate.