“Ministers and assistant ministers are entrusted with the conduct of public business and must act in a manner that is consistent with the highest standards of integrity and propriety.”
Malcolm Turnbull Statement of Ministerial standards 20 November 2015.
There’s never been a more exciting time to be my Cabinet-Valentine, coos Malcolm Turnbull, a ministerial speed-dating app flashing late into the night on his golden iPhone.
It’s the one time in his career he can get people to say yes without reservation, although some old hands beg to differ. Everybody knows everyone finds the PM’s pitch irresistible, ABC Insiders’ guest The Guardian’s Katharine Murphy “hack-splains” on Sunday. He could “sell ice to Eskimos”.
Notwithstanding, Murphy’s “hacks-planation”, Turnbull’s spin is wearing thin. The week attests to the PM’s failure to persuade, discern or negotiate. His cabinet has not lasted six months. He can’t sell a bigger GST and he can barely control Scott Morrison, his treasurer, a bull at a bigger tax gate, with his eyes on the main prize. Now he is in damage control, plugging gaps, plying the snake-oil and repairing the façade of unity by extolling the virtue of growth.
‘An organism that stops growing dies’, he says in a spray of facile spin and grin, “growth is good”; ignoring cancer.
Oddly, despite being freshly ordained World’s Best Minister by the Emir of Dubai, at the behest of an appreciative petrochemical industry, Environmental Pollution Minister, Greg Hunt, who has put in a cheeky bid for Trade, does not receive even a text. Nor does the agile Erich Abetz, Former Employment minister who just knows his country needs him. Somehow The Mercury is moved to protest that “no Tasmanian is included in the new cabinet”.
It’s not true and it unfairly raises expectations about representation when the PM must meet other needs such as rewarding supporters and appeasing an angry and destabilising right wing.
Incumbent Tasmanian Cabinet member, Senator Richard Colbeck of Devonport, Minister for Tourism and International Education and assistant Minister for Trade and Investment since 2015 is somehow missed in the tally by the once-proud Tassie paper. He is from Devonport. Perhaps a trade visit to China to raise his profile is in order. Once he’s fixed the rogue colleges fleecing foreign students with bogus degrees.
“orderly, respectful government”
The PM could use a fixer. Having seen fifteen changes since promising “orderly, respectful government” in September, Turnbull must be hoping for better luck now as he woos a few hapless over-ambitious, under-qualified younger men and several token women into accepting cabinet positions they have no hope of mastering in the six months before the election. Some have form.
Then Assistant Minister for Health, Senator Fiona, “Let them eat junk”, Nash was censured 5 March 2014 by the Senate for pulling a health energy rating website on the prompting of her adviser, Kraft-Cadbury spokesman, Alastair Furnival, who co-owns with his wife a confectionery and soft drink lobbying firm.
Since then Nash has made a healthy comeback. Trust the Nationals, the voice of the farmer, the mining industry and the tobacco lobby to overlook a mere Senate censure. Would either of the major parties been so keen to allow her to enter a leadership ballot?
Would her past actions pass the Turnbull test? MSM ignores the discrepancy between Stuart Robert’s treatment and the judgement meted out to Nash, to say nothing of her remarkably forgiving return to high office.
The Minister is in rude good health. So much so that she promised last week on ABC Q&A to forgo her private medical cover. Concern for the public good has since, sadly, forced her to renege on her pledge because, she claims, her stunt would displace a more deserving member of the public from obtaining a hospital bed. Nash has no problem, moreover, it would seem, with the $6bn taxpayers must pay each year to subsidise private health insurance.
New Trade Minister Steve Ciobo, dobbed into his new job by Robb, however, is no stranger to bed disputes or dog-whistle politics. Labor back-bencher Nick Champion would “slit Julia Gillard’s throat if he could”, Ciobo helpfully added to the public debate on political leadership in 2013, a phrase Peter Reith repeated, albeit with a twist. It is an ugly, violent and disparaging image which cannot help but fuel those predisposed towards violence against women.
Entitlement has raised its ugly head…
Then Minister for Women, Tony Abbott, brushed aside complaints about Ciobo as “merely metaphor”, a dismissal as short-sighted and partisan as his espousal of the right to vilify in seeking to remove section 18C of the racial Discrimination Act 1975. Turnbull’s new trade minister will doubtless expect he is entitled to the same level of support from his new PM. Entitlement has raised its ugly head before.
Four years ago, while on exchange to the US, Ciobo booked into a hotel when DFAT was slow to honour his request for a two bedroom flat for his wife and child incurring a bill of $8000 which he refused to pay. Was his dummy-spit a display of entitlement or the need to “disrupt”? Turnbull has clearly given him also the benefit of the doubt.
Disruptive, suddenly seems a less attractive buzz-word, however, to the PM, now that it is his government suffering the disruption. His promised orderly, respectful, government proves no different to Abbott’s “good government”.
“The government is now so deeply split between so-called moderates and the RW nutters that it can’t decide the time of day”, veteran Mike Carlton chortles. His restraint is admirable given the yawning ocean trench now threatening to swallow up PM Turnbull’s love boat on its extra-virgin, maiden voyage. No need to frighten the horses.
Stuart Robert is thrown splashily overboard but the boat fails to rise. Utterly rudderless, it leaks and lists to starboard. The tax reform table with everything on it must also go. If only someone could lift it! All hands look over the side. Robert’s nob, bobs idly amidst a wet, black crush of ministerial hats afloat a rising sea which laps hungrily along the gunwales of the PM’s ship of Theseus. Like Theseus’ ship, Turnbull’s cabinet has had so much of itself replaced that experts will debate forever whether it is the same ship.
…the PM can hide effortlessly in its shadow…
Stuart Robert has had to go. A bull in a China trade show, Robert is attacked in parliament by matador Shorten and picador Dreyfus . Pass after pass is made. Shorten fans go wild. Finally, he is gored beyond redemption. Nothing can be done, however. The PM has done all he can by referring the matter to its proper place, the desk of Dr Martin Parkinson which looms so big all week that the PM can hide effortlessly in its shadow. Turnbull just looks weak and crafty.
In the end, Robert is given no estocada (final, fatal sword thrust) in a Parkinson’s report which finds him in breach of the code but recommends no dismissal leaving Turnbull with no choice, he claims, but to remove him from the ministry.
Not only has Robert breached the ministerial code of conduct, the Minister for Being in China only on Personal Business has made a farce of question time by eagerly leaping to his feet to rush the despatch box only to decline to answer. All he’s done is helped his mate Marks get a good deal. OK, the Chinese thought he was there as a minister. OK his presence may have helped seal a deal. OK he does have shares in Marks’ company. But how was he to know? It was a trust.
Robert, of course, chooses to say nothing in the house. Endlessly he refers questioners to his previous response, itself a referral to a previous response, in a recursive series of diminishing returns. Surely the tactic will become known as the Robert-Droste stone-wall. His example, however, will prove a difficult legacy for Turnbull to manage. Sadly, clearly, he has been persuaded that the PM would spare him. Keep his word. Yet there is no shortage of help to be rid of him.
Liberal party leaks help Labor. Bill Shorten gives one of his best ex tempore speeches yet, which shows what he can do when he’s given the right material.
Turnbull’s indulgent, patronising smile turns into a fixed, rueful, rictus under the onslaught . Abbott’s faction has all the ammunition necessary to Roberts political overkill. And more. Who can doubt that the MP’s register of pecuniary interests will get another workout soon? Who will be the next hapless accidental tourist?
Perhaps the PM regrets that he has, last week, allowed Abbott a senior advisor for twelve months and an assistant ‘in keeping with the duties of a former Prime Minister’. Such as not sniping. The leaks can only continue.
Old hands sniff an early election. Some think it will be later, especially if the electoral office is to have time to publish the new senate voting rules, if they got through the current senate .
…the first fortnight of the phoney war…
Others hear all the flatulent garrulity of a lower house barely into its second wind in the first fortnight of the phoney war that is the prelude to the campaign proper. Warren Truss is oblivious, having at last handed the National’s tiller to Mr Barnaby.
Many are unsettled by the prospect of Barnaby Joyce being a heartbeat away from being Prime Minister, to say nothing of the yoking together in the show-ring of an agrarian socialist, Sinophobe, climate denier and a multi-millionaire, free- trade-is-my-religion merchant banker. The hayseed and the spiv may not be an election-winning image, it is feared. Christopher Pyne dubs them Yin and Yang, in a novel take on Taoist complementarity.
Wokka Truss, a National Murray Grey, for years forced to sleep uncomfortably on a front bench, is finally, mercifully led out to pasture. Or such pasture as remains after CSG frackers and coal-miners have taken their whack of the family farm.
Veteran blue heeler, Joyce is left as uncontested champion of the paddock and confirms his leadership as Nationals and Deputy PM by yapping a defence of Robert on the very morning of the day Turnbull announced that despite veterinary advice from Dr Martin Parkinson, Robert was to be put down.
The Abbott faction has been after Stuart Robert’s scalp to avenge his betrayal of his former leader, turning at the last minute, it seems, to follow Morrison into the Turnbull camp. Now Morrison is in the gun with Turnbull and with the Abbott factions over being far too bullish over a GST hike that he hopes to ride to victory over his critics. Turnbull is forced to bring forward the issue Treasury analysis which confirms that a 50% GST rise would be an economic downer in case Morrison declares it policy on Monday at the National Press Club lunch.
…cabinet rejects, failures and other has-beens…
Sweet Custard Bun as he is known in China, Malcolm Turnbull is on full-charm, grin and spin alert all week as party unity is well-nigh destroyed under the continuing assault of aggrieved right wingers, cabinet rejects, failures and other has-beens who cluster around the former Prime Minister in the Monkey Pod Room. Stuart Robert is paid back for his perfidy in defecting from the Abbott to the Turnbull camp in last September
It is a fantastical week in politics. Greg Hunt’s gong for Best Minister in the World is rivalled only by Philip Ruddock’s appointment as Australia’s special envoy on human rights to the UN. Both are upstaged, however, by Barnaby Joyce’s ascension to become deputy PM of Australia while in the background the Abbott faction continues to surprise a beleaguered PM with all manner of sniping, leaking and sundry other forms of creative disaffection and disruption. Saddled with a tax reform agenda it has lost control of and riddled with tensions and rivalries, the Turnbull ship is making very heavy weather of its maiden voyage.