Duck­ing out for an Old Dart

The Saturday Paper - - Comment - Paul Bon­giorno PAUL BON­GIORNO is a colum­nist for The Satur­day Paper and a reg­u­lar com­men­ta­tor on the ABC’s RN Break­fast.

One of the prime min­is­ter’s clos­est al­lies, Se­na­tor Ge­orge Bran­dis, was up­beat as he bid farewell to his col­leagues in the joint party room on Tues­day. He re­minded them that ev­ery­one had writ­ten off the Howard gov­ern­ment in the run-up to the 2001 elec­tion. “Good judge­ment and lead­er­ship turned that around and can do so again,” he said.

But not ev­ery­one lis­ten­ing thought Bran­dis had much con­fi­dence in that feat be­ing re­peated. He con­cluded his re­marks by say­ing, “I’ll be think­ing of you, but not of­ten.” Bran­dis didn’t ex­actly slam the door on his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer but a few of his col­leagues see his dash to the Old Dart as our high com­mis­sioner in Lon­don as the ul­ti­mate vote of no con­fi­dence.

“Why would he quit his ca­reer pretty well at the top of his power and in­flu­ence if he didn’t think the odds were against us win­ning the next elec­tion?” was the wry com­ment of one Lib­eral.

In­deed there is spec­u­la­tion that the next se­nior min­is­ter to seek greener pas­tures will be the for­eign min­is­ter, Julie Bishop. This could en­sure that her Western Aus­tralian col­league Chris­tian Porter – with lead­er­ship am­bi­tions – could move into her ul­tra-safe seat of Curtin and out of his much more mar­ginal seat of Pearce. Bishop dis­misses the talk, say­ing she is en­joy­ing her “job of a life­time”. Other Lib­er­als aren’t so con­vinced, but again it’s an in­di­ca­tor of the pes­simism many Lib­er­als and Na­tion­als share.

If you be­lieve some of the gov­ern­ment’s more fer­vent back­ers in the me­dia, how­ever, Turn­bull is surg­ing back. The lat­est Newspoll showed a one-point im­prove­ment in the two-party-pre­ferred rat­ings af­ter the sum­mer break and had the prime min­is­ter ex­tend his lead as “bet­ter PM” over Bill Shorten at the same time as he halved his own dis­sat­is­fac­tion rat­ing. The lat­ter is neg­a­tive, though, on mi­nus 13. Ac­cord­ing to one wit, it’s gone from “ab­hor­rent to bad”. But this move­ment may be the be­gin­ning of a re­ver­sal of the trend to La­bor dur­ing the past 18 months. There are just four more Newspolls be­fore the omi­nous bench­mark of fail­ure set by Turn­bull reaches 30.

Still, there is ev­ery rea­son to think that things may well set­tle back to the busi­ness as usual of a los­ing po­si­tion. The fun­da­men­tals haven’t changed. Tony Ab­bott is still there and still nig­gling. At the party room meet­ing, he tack­led Julie Bishop over her depart­ment’s pro­mo­tion of “mod­est Muslim fash­ion”. She as­sured him this was no ca­pit­u­la­tion to unAus­tralian mores. No one was say­ing “this is what women have to wear” but rather it is an ex­port op­por­tu­nity into Muslim-ma­jor­ity In­done­sia and Malaysia. The cul­ture wars are never far from the gov­ern­ment’s in­ter­nal power plays.

They flared on the day one of Ab­bott’s com­radesin-arms to re­form the New South Wales Lib­eral di­vi­sion, Jim Molan, was sworn in to the Se­nate. Molan’s ar­rival marks another vote for Ab­bott in the party room and he is just as ded­i­cated to wrench­ing con­trol from Turn­bull’s mod­er­ates in their home state. So he is not to be un­nec­es­sar­ily pro­voked. This was on stark dis­play when the prime min­is­ter re­fused to pull Molan into line over anti-Muslim videos the new se­na­tor posted on Face­book last year.

Shorten seized on Turn­bull’s as­ser­tion that “ev­ery mem­ber of the gov­ern­ment has ab­so­lutely zero tol­er­ance for racism” by ask­ing if the prime min­is­ter would “di­rect Se­na­tor Molan to take down the racist and big­oted ma­te­rial he is shar­ing?” Turn­bull avoided the ques­tion but rounded on Shorten for want­ing to de­scribe the for­mer ma­jor-gen­eral and Iraq War vet­eran as a racist. “This is de­plorable. It is dis­gust­ing.”

For his part, Molan was not apol­o­gis­ing – un­like US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, who of­fered an apol­ogy for post­ing sim­i­lar ma­te­rial from the same white su­prem­a­cist web­site, Bri­tain First. The for­mer ma­jor­gen­eral in­sists he was try­ing to alert peo­ple to vi­o­lence and an­ti­so­cial be­hav­iour and gen­er­ate de­bate. He claims he was un­aware of the pedi­gree of the web­site and ap­par­ently didn’t no­tice the videos were pur­port­ing to show Mus­lims were the per­pe­tra­tors of vi­o­lence in Europe. His Face­book friends weren’t so in­no­cent. There were replies call­ing for the men to be de­ported back to their “shitty coun­trys [sic]” and say­ing “we’re meant to be tol­er­ant, ac­cept­ing and wel­com­ing of this breed in our coun­try”.

La­bor’s Se­nate leader, Penny Wong, said, “this is not about gen­er­at­ing de­bate, it’s about gen­er­at­ing ha­tred and di­vi­sion. Prime Min­is­ter Mal­colm Turn­bull must join La­bor in telling Se­na­tor Molan his ac­tions are un­ac­cept­able.” The next day, Turn­bull told the House Molan re­gret­ted the posts and had taken down his old Face­book and Twit­ter ac­counts. But that was not be­fore the Greens’ Richard Di Natale, in an ex­tra­or­di­nary at­tack in the Se­nate on Mon­day, ac­cused Molan not only of be­ing a racist but also of par­tic­i­pat­ing in a war crime for his se­nior role in an at­tack on Fal­luja dur­ing the Iraq

War, a sen­ti­ment picked up by his col­league Adam Bandt out­side par­lia­ment the next day, for which Bandt then apol­o­gised un­der the threat of be­ing sued for defama­tion.

The Greens, of course, are gear­ing up to wrest the seat of Bat­man from La­bor in the by­elec­tion called for March 17. St Pa­trick’s Day could be a good omen for the wear­ing of the green. Their can­di­date, Alex Bhathal, will be hop­ing it’s sixth time lucky. The so­cial worker has in­creased her vote at ev­ery elec­tion, top­ping the poll in 2016 only to be thwarted by Lib­eral pref­er­ences that pushed La­bor’s David Feeney across the line. The bum­bling Feeney has done his party a favour by not seek­ing re-elec­tion fol­low­ing his fail­ure to pro­duce proof he had re­nounced his Bri­tish ci­ti­zen­ship. For­mer ACTU pres­i­dent Ged Kear­ney is a bet­ter fit on paper. She’s from La­bor’s Left and is on the record as be­ing highly scep­ti­cal of the con­tro­ver­sial Adani coalmine in Queens­land. As union leader she has been an out­spo­ken critic of the gov­ern­ment’s treat­ment of refugees on Manus and Nauru.

The Greens’ Adam Bandt is ner­vous enough to warn vot­ers to “take every­thing La­bor says over the next few weeks with a grain of salt”. He says La­bor can­di­dates come to Can­berra and “cut sin­gle par­ents pay­ments, dig up more coal, sell off our as­sets and lock up refugees”. Cory Bernardi in­tends to run an Aus­tralian Con­ser­va­tives can­di­date to fill the void left by the Lib­er­als and is weigh­ing up whether to pref­er­ence La­bor or is­sue an open how-to-vote card. It may not make much dif­fer­ence, though: the sort of peo­ple who vote Lib­eral in these in­ner-city seats, as last year’s North­cote state by­elec­tion showed, are a lot greener than non-La­bor vot­ers else­where.

The gov­ern­ment seems con­vinced that the by­elec­tion will drag the rel­a­tively un­pop­u­lar Shorten to the left and it will dam­age his cred­i­bil­ity, es­pe­cially over Adani. The Na­tion­als are par­tic­u­larly con­vinced that if fed­eral La­bor walks away from even its tepid sup­port for the project, it will dam­age the party in Queens­land. But La­bor looks to the ex­pe­ri­ence of the Queens­land state elec­tion, where Premier An­nasta­cia Palaszczuk shored up sup­port in south-east Queens­land by re­fus­ing to sup­port tax­pay­ers’ money fund­ing a rail line for Adani.

Na­tion­als’ leader Barn­aby Joyce told the party room the by­elec­tion is “the crazy left ver­sus ut­ter lu­nacy”. Shorten is more con­vinced the lu­nacy is in sup­port­ing a project that, ac­cord­ing to an Aus­tralian Con­ser­va­tion Foun­da­tion poll, 65 per cent of Aus­tralians re­ject out­right. There’s a firm­ing view that the project is falling over any­way and it’s not worth pre­tend­ing it’s the an­swer to jobs in north Queens­land.

Shorten says he’s be­gin­ning to won­der if peo­ple are “be­ing led on with this prom­ise of fake jobs and they’re never go­ing to ma­te­ri­alise”. So far, Gau­tam Adani – the bil­lion­aire with his Cay­man Is­lands ac­counts and his record of en­vi­ron­men­tal van­dal­ism in In­dia, and new doubts about the com­pli­ant op­er­a­tion of his Ab­bot Point port in Queens­land – has not come up with the money for the project. Twenty-four banks, in­clud­ing Aus­tralian fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions, have re­fused to lend to him.

The ci­ti­zen­ship im­broglio that pre­cip­i­tated Bat­man rolls on. Turn­bull and Leader of the House Christo­pher Pyne are de­ter­mined to play hard­ball. They are re­fus­ing to shunt any more Lib­er­als off to the High Court but are tar­get­ing La­bor MPs. Their prime fo­cus is Queens­lan­der Su­san Lamb, who gave an im­pas­sioned de­fence of her sit­u­a­tion in par­lia­ment. She tear­fully ex­plained how her mother aban­doned her when she was six, cre­at­ing a life­long es­trange­ment. She has doc­u­ments show­ing her ef­forts to re­nounce any en­ti­tle­ment to Bri­tish ci­ti­zen­ship and three le­gal opin­ions to show she has taken “all rea­son­able steps” to do so.

The gov­ern­ment is un­moved but Barn­aby Joyce, who dealt this week with the pub­li­ca­tion of news he is hav­ing a child with a for­mer staffer, says they will let Shorten “stew in his own juice”. This tac­tic can only in­di­cate they are not sure of the wis­dom of a “hos­tile” re­fer­ral to the court. La­bor says it will only agree to send any of its mem­bers to the court if the Lib­er­als agree to send those from their party who are un­der a cloud.

Turn­bull says this will be the year of de­liv­ery. The plan is to be in elec­tion-win­ning shape to face the peo­ple in

• early 2019. His col­leagues are yet to share his op­ti­mism.


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