A small, figure struggles up the steps of the Vice Regal mansion in Canberra. It is Assistant Cabinet Secretary, Senator Scott Ryan a king-maker in Malcolm Turnbull’s rise to power. Ryan is carrying a bible bigger than Kelly O’Dwyer’s baby as he helps create the beginning of a new week in national politics. He ushers in a new era.
The scene is being set for another swearing in at Government House, or Yarralumla, meaning ‘echo’ well before it was later brought into play to provide visiting kings and queens with somewhere to stay as well as providing shelter to our Governors General and prevented their having to doss down in the rough. No better place could there be to launch a Ministry for the 21st century.
Born or as it was rebirthed ninety odd years later to reign over us and extended many times over the years, Yarralumla is a symbol of our inner Brit, our glorious colonial past and our divinely ordained royal task masters.
Largely vacant most of the time the mansion would accommodate a lot of Syrian refugees or shelter women fleeing domestic violence, had our leaders chosen the path of the Good Samaritan and not that of the passer-by like the priest and the Levi in Ryan’s bible, on the opposite side of the road.
Worthy as they may be these reflections are the least of the ironies which staunch republican Malcolm Turnbull must savour as he acts genial host and enlightened cabinet-maker while Tony Abbott’s knight, Sir Peter Cosgrove prepares to make himself useful, as best he can, on a salary of $425,000 and only a very limited personal staff.
While Ryan lumps his word of God up the steps, other godly folk amongst the new and newly-recycled ministry do a quick check of product labels in the kitchen to ensure for the sake of Cory Bernardi’s senate committee at least that no halal certified products may be sponsoring terrorism amongst the catering.
A quick sweep of the shrubbery has the AFP and ASIO, who are both in attendance, ensure that there are no eco-Green warriors lurking under leaves amidst the skinks and snakes all posed to leap forward with copies of section 487.2 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 to commit an act of what George Brandis calls ‘lawfare.’
Dewy eyed with hope and hay fever, others stand around dazedly blinking in the spring sunshine, yet to grow into their shiny new ministries. Kelly O’Dwyer’s baby Olivia breaks the ice. An avuncular Turnbull smiles sweetly, showing a perfect set of milk-white bottom teeth. His surname Tang Bao, in China is a sweet custard-filled bun.
Monday is a big day for Turnbull and for the nation. Born today is the ‘Sugar bomb’ or ‘Sweet dumpling’ dynasty as Chinese scribes translate Turnbull’s name. Oozing charm, patrician manners and a dab of Clive Christian No. 1 Pure Perfume for Men, the ebullient Turnbull mingles grinning amongst his team, a shark marshalling a school of minnows.
Eschewing anything as crass as ‘Team Australia,’ Turnbull reaches for his advertising copy book. His team will provide ‘strong, confident, imaginative and innovative leadership for the country’s future in a rapidly changing global economy.’
It is as if he is launching a new corporation. Certainly he breathes not a word about compassion, empathy, social justice or any of the qualities which build community; make us human. Ominously he includes the phrase ‘welfare net’ for those of us who can’t quite manage on the high wire of independent living and who must fall upon the cold, stinting charity of the cost accountant.
If all is not pitch perfect on Monday, Sugar bomb has other sour notes in his history. Associates, former employees and many in his own party eagerly volunteer some saltier alternative epithets for Malcolm Turnbull, whose conduct of his career path to becoming Australia’s 29th Prime Minister has attracted more than a few critics.
In 2009, Dr Brendan Nelson diagnosed Turnbull with narcissistic personality disorder because as he puts it, ‘he says the most appalling things and can’t understand why people get upset. He has no empathy.’
To Annabel Crabb, who once harvested yabbies and prepared pomegranates with the old silvertail, the Turnbull of old is a chest-beating Tarzan ‘more comfortable with grand gestures’ than the realities of political compromise.
Fifteen years ago Turnbull’s spin doctor Mark Wesfield noted both the sugar and the bomb in the complex mix that is the man, the corporate lawyer cum merchant banker cum Prime Minister.
‘Perhaps more than any person in Australian corporate circles, Malcolm Turnbull’s name inevitably provokes reaction. He can be courteous, charming and flattering one minute, and bursting with dark volcanic rage the next, depending on whether or not he is getting his way in negotiations.’
For one glorious morning all discord is briefly forgotten, however, as Sir Peter Cosgrove swears in Sugar Bomb’s ‘Ministry for the 21st Century’, a forward looking Mad-men type name for his brand which Turnbull has spun to excite our expectations for change and innovation while hinting at his hopes for its longevity and to disguise its conservatism.
His new crew is only as new as it can be, given the circumstances of the recent palace revolution that has enthroned him and the constraints of available talent. But anything after Abbott looks appealing.
There is also, inevitably, a bit of blood on the carpet. A wounded Kevin Andrews takes his sacking from Defence personally, even announcing his dumping before sweet dumpling could announce it himself in an extraordinary breach of decorum and political judgement. Bruce Billson also whinges and refuses to be demoted to Cities. Billson ends up licking his wounds in his North Frankston office and wondering what he’ll do for a Christmas drink this year. At, least, Frank Madafferi will still send him a case of grappa.
Malcolm’s picks are ‘a new broom’; ‘a talented bunch’ or that is the spin. In reality, Turnbull’s decisions are political. He owes the National Party for its support during his coup. He must also stitch up his foes and reward his cronies. Apart from these minor concerns the new PM has a finger or two in the ministry pie.
He proclaims that every minister is selected on merit, shaming and perhaps putting on notice the proven duds Hunt and Dutton. He hits back at his internal detractors daring them to put up or shut up,
‘No-one could suggest that this Cabinet, this ministry has been assembled on any basis other than merit,’ he tells the AM program Monday morning. Unlike the deposed Joe Hockey, Turnbull has a record of success in litigation.
Critics call Turnbull’s government ‘Abbott-lite.’ Viewed in one light, some see the PM as Malcolm Abbott, from the other, he appears as Tony Turnbull. Unfairly, unwisely they ignore the silver tail and silver tongue. Yet in policy they have a point. While he has some new faces amongst his galley slaves and while Eric Abetz, Kevin Andrews, Joe Hockey have been jettisoned overboard, the ditching of the hard right will cause no change of course.
Hockey it is said to offered Ambassador to Washington, a reward for failure and proof that the age of entitlement is not over yet for the failed treasurer. Hockey will be ‘up in class’ as they say in horse racing, in a competitive field of foreign policy thoroughbreds.
But you can take sympathy for the underdog too far. Some see Joe’s affability as all he needs to make him a hit on the diplomatic scene. Yet some, like Bill Shorten, are stumped by the logic of the appointment and fear it may be read as a calculated insult.
‘You can’t sort of buy peace within your divided party by treating the post to Washington — one of our key foreign policy relationships — some sort of consolation prize for a treasurer who has taken Australia nowhere for two years.’
Some new ministers, such as the special minister for state are not unblemished. Mal Brough, no stranger to controversy has already antagonised the senate cross bench by attacking micro parties. Arthur Sinodinis still has questions to answer at ICAC. Most of the ministers who created problems in the Abbott government, moreover, retain their jobs. Dutton and Hunt ‘the great climate change intellectual of the cabinet’ according to Brandis, on Sunday are duds.
More moderate though it may appear, yet younger and with added women, the all-new ministry is cobbled together from some shop-worn components and may quickly fall short of the sort of performance in the sales pitch Turnbull is giving it. Tony Abbott, of course, sees no difference in the political complexion of the new line up.
In his first interview since his Manly surfside snipe at Scott Morrison, Tony Abbott’s promise of ‘no wrecking, no undermining and no sniping’ is elastic enough to permit him to tell News Corp on Sunday that Turnbull’s palace revolution had led to no change in policy direction. It was an Abbott promise after all. The sclerotic heart foundation of a failed Abbott government in exile gives Turnbull its tick of approval. Or its kiss of death.
‘Border protection policy the same, national security policy the same, economic policy the same, even same-sex marriage policy the same, and climate change policy the same. In fact, the rhetoric is the same.’ Tone intones.
Abbott has a point. The Merchant Prince of Point Piper’s golden galleon ‘The pragmatist’ will continue to steer hard right even on the republic. Let small l Liberals cry into their kale smoothies, if they join the Greens, we’ll get their preferences, says Good Prince Mal who is snug in his neocon life preserver.
Mal’s ministry are not all newbies. Also being re-sworn old hands Pyne and Morrison are rewarded for their loyalty by being fitted up with new ministries to keep them under control. Morrison immediately goes troppo opposing Turnbull’s pause of the tax reform white paper. Morrison will be white papering his way to cutting more spending, against all expert advice and in the face of warnings that such a tack will hasten an approaching recession.
‘Cuts’ Morrison could be picking a fight, undermining Turnbull in the party room with an Abbott era approach to the economy. He is already showing more than a tad of his maniacal defiance of reason that saw him king of our nation’s shame, the offshore detention centres. Who may forget his rabid, foam-flecked attack on the Human Rights Commissioner, Gillian Triggs, for daring to pursue the legality of having children in custody.
Other makeovers include former apprentice Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg and Simon Birmingham who inherits Pyne’s abortive higher education reforms, an Augean stable of steaming ordure. Communications is hived off to Mitch Fifield who inherits a mare’s nest of Fraudband sleight of hand in the rollout of an NBN which is 18 billion over budget, four years behind schedule and already obsolete thanks to Turnbull’s turn at the helm.
Some of the newly anointed are toey. Frydenberg promptly spills the worst kept secret in the coalition’s disastrous, ecocidal, uneconomic, mine construction saga a day later by talking of plans to spend five billion, euphemistically ear-marked ‘Northern Project’ on the railway that will help Adani and Gina Rinehart get their newly mined coal to port. It is another step backwards.
Australia will subsidise coal, petroleum and gas consumption by $41 billion in 2015, the International Monetary Fund said last month, the equivalent of 2 per cent of our annual economic output. A recent opinion poll clearly reveals that most Australians would prefer the money to be spent on Education and Health.
P-plate Treasurer ‘Lead-foot’ Morrison will be left to explain how a $5 billion splurge on a railway for your mates is in the nation’s best interests if it’s not embargoed as commercial in confidence, operational, or given its terminus, an on water matter. His weak argument will be that the sum is an item of already committed expenditure.
Turnbull has created a new Minister for Cities and the Built Environment in Jamie Briggs, who will not be in cabinet but who will work with Environment Minister Greg Hunt, sharing his stash of magic mushrooms, hashish and the other natural hallucinogens which inspired his Direct Action stoner scam.
The drugs seem potent. By Friday, high as a kite, Hunt has bobbed up in a presser claiming we have the ‘best and cheapest carbon emission reduction scheme in the world.’ He boasts also of having vetoed Abbott’s plan to hold an inquiry into the BOM. If only he’d done the same with Direct Action. On Friday, China announced the starting date to its national emissions trading scheme
We have a minister for cities but no minister for disabilities, mental health or housing. Perhaps these will manage themselves in the 21st century, or perhaps the cabinet is too big already without adding extra bleeding hearts. Yet a new analysis of the government’s ‘welfare-to-work reforms’ under Labor and Liberals alike has found that they failed to increase single parent employment in Australia. Instead up to 150,000 disadvantaged single parent families and their children are pushed into poverty.
One Nat is cheesed off. His party’s one cabinet position short, he reckons. David Gillespie, member for Lyne tells ABC Rural his party should technically have gained an extra seat in the Cabinet. Just add water … Turnbull would counsel him. He has added water to Agriculture to stitch up a deal with the Nats. The deal draws David Marr’s criticism. ‘He wanted to be Prime Minister, but was it worth the Murray-Darling basin?’
A large part of the price of Turnbull’s seizure of the Liberal Party leadership will be worn by the nation as it suffers another pragmatist at the helm, a silver-tongued, silver tail who may promise optimism and government to take us into the future. It is early days yet but already it seems as if there is more than a touch of the Dr Caligari than Dr Pangloss in Turnbull’s cabinet. In the end it doesn’t really matter how big the bible that you take to the swearing in if your ministry is as mean and as unfair and as unreal as that of the last heartless bastard.