The PM’s “Turnbullian” master stroke, as his early election gambit was hailed by Annabel Crabb, of Canberra’s press claque, barely a month ago, looks more like an Abbott’s captain’s call each week. Media polls, with all their flaws, point to an ebbing of popular support for the LNP and its hapless leader. Around the nation posters depicting Turnbull’s face are appearing with but one word, Fizza.
Fizza is the work of Sydney graphic artist Michael Agzarian who says he is inspired by Paul Keating’s 2007 description of Malcolm Turnbull as a “big red bunger on cracker night … the one you light and then there’s a bit of a fizz but then nothing, nothing.”
Government strategy has advanced beyond dead cats on tables, or tactical diversion and is now officially out of control as flagged by Turnbull’s public rebuke of his deputy, Barnaby Joyce, for provoking the Indonesians.
Joyce may just have been taking his cue from Scott Morrison or Peter Dutton who were encouraged by captain Abbott to thumb their noses at Indonesian sovereignty as they turned back twenty boat-loads of asylum-seekers into Indonesian waters since 2013 without telling anybody, according to Amnesty International.
Joyce should model his gaffes on Scott Morrison’s black holes. The Treasurer has a black hole in his black hole in his presser Tuesday. He starts out with $67 billion and ends the conference with $35 billion by using some creative accounting based on commitments he thinks Labor might be about to make in Foreign Aid. Until they prove otherwise. His Finance Minister has trouble remembering his PM’s name. Yet, somehow, Morrison claims a type of victory.
The entertainment value of the stunt proves a runaway success and quickly earns a twitter cult following. The Cormann Morrison routine takes the award for the most bizarre election side show of the week for its preposterous logic.
It elects to publicly improvise Labor costings which Labor must then disprove using the dodgy ploy, as Gareth Hutchens writes in The Guardian, that any proposition is true until proved otherwise or Argumentum ad Ignoratiam. Labor takes the bait, dropping its $4.5 billion School Kids Bonus and its Pension Assets test.
Carnival barker, ScoMo revels in Labor’s back down and crows over flushing Labor out. What is at stake, however, apart from his own credibility and authority, is costing. The government will not debate what it is vital for the country to invest in. There is no room in this campaign for what we might truly need.
Yet the Coalition knows it can get mileage out of twitting the opposition’s arithmetic. Bill Shorten gets a makeover as Willy Wonka in The Daily Telegraph, the Liberal Party’s free propaganda organ. No-one presses Morrison on the flimsy guesswork behind his budget’s projected revenue which relies on fantasising about the price of iron ore and the amount the government will get out of multi-nationals – let alone the $1.2 billion it says it will “ claw back” from Centrelink beneficiaries and other welfare fraudsters.
The Black Hole tack is effective. Media focus shifts to Coalition territory and away from health where Labor continues to outpoint the government. AMA doctors help. They are mounting a media campaign to end the Medicare rebate freeze. They argue it amounts to a co-payment by stealth. Health Minister Ley admits that she would end the freeze but has been overruled because she can’t find more cuts to Health.
Barnstorming Barnaby Joyce, the Hannibal Lector of LNP’s PSYOP division, (psychological operations) he reckons, is messing with Johnny Depp’s mind. Or so he says. Joyce takes fool’s cap and bells from Peter Dutton this week for his linking of the live cattle trade with asylum seekers. Turnbull quickly issues a denial. If sending in the clowns is the answer, the government is asking the wrong question.
Week three has Seven’s Reach-Tel poll putting Labor ahead 52-48, two-party preferred nationally with respondent-allocated preferences to Labor while others have the two major parties neck and neck or with Labor slightly ahead. The impression, nevertheless, given by the trend of the polls is that the LNP may run out steam given the length of the campaign.
The TV nightly news image of a happy Malcolm Turnbull on the obligatory pollies’ Puffing Billy ride cements his party’s love affair with coal and the age of steam, whence its funding cuts for education and CSIRO, its privatisation of Medicare, its subsidies for miners and its deregulated labour market goal seek to return us with just a hint of a steep uphill track ahead. He seems to like not having to steer, too.
Turnbull’s punt on an early poll before his earlier appeal fades entirely may prove as much of an error of judgement as his backing of a dodgy email from Godwin Grech in 2009 or his indulgence of Peter Dutton’s views that illiterate migrants take Aussie jobs and bludge off our luxurious welfare system, or, more recently, his failure to deliver a high speed national broadband on time.
Unlike the NBN fiasco – and unlike the brave Dr Peter Young, who sought the truth on Hamid Khazaei’s shameful death from neglect on Manus Island, however, there is no national security gag handy.
A random midnight police raid on dissenters, with media accidentally happening upon the scene although it was out of their way and way past their bed times, can help to shut off the oxygen and smear your opponents. But even that’s not guaranteed in this campaign.
Sadly, for the PM and Commissioner Andrew Colvin’s crack team of plumbers, reports of the raid serve only to validate the copious leaks. Further confirmation was given on Saturday in some incredible spin from the Dr Ziggy Switkowski, whose migrant background has not prevented him making Telstra and Kodak what they are today.
Continuing the coalition’s one-bust-and-you’re-guilty approach to justice and doing his bit to brand leakers as thieves, Ziggy broke all protocols to become judge and jury in Saturday’s SMH.
“They cannot give voice to their preferred ideology by passing on stolen documents.”
It was, moreover, according to Dr Switkowski, rumourtrage, or the practice of leaking damaging rumours to cause a drop in stock price for commercial advantage. He also portrayed NBN staff as demoralised, something which never happened it seems when Telstra jobs were outsourced to cheaper offshore labour contractors.
Switkowski did not say how he knew that “stolen” documents were seized. Seizures are supposed to be in secure policy custody and held under parliamentary privilege. Unless the AFP-appointed NBN deputy sheriff took photographs.
Switkowski’s extraordinary pitch rivals last Wednesday’s Canberra Press Club debate when Environment Minister Greg Hunt swore on a stack of censored UN environment bibles that Direct Action would never ever lead to any form of carbon trading. Or that we lead the world with our carbon abatement programme. Or that we can afford to pay polluters indefinitely.
Telstra’s stocks are up but it is not due to Ziggy’s broadside or his assurances that everything about the NBN is going according to plan. Telstra’s boost comes from news that the government will outsource Medicare patient details and other sensitive personal data to a vast, impersonal corporation guaranteed to outsource the work to underpaid over-worked operatives in an offshore politically volatile nation with even fewer labour and security safeguards than in Australia.
The NBN’s cost blow-out, its slow speed and its failure to meet its schedule were all spectacularly confirmed in the Keystone Copper to the home raid on Senator Conroy and a staffer’s premises. Abbott appointee, Commissioner Andrew Colvin, who two years ago, appeared on ABC Radio National AM spruiking for the government’s proposed metadata retention and Internet spying laws, refused to rule out the AFP’s abuse of new security laws to trawl through journalists’ metadata
Turnbull of course invented metadata. Now he finds himself spurned, scorned, a hapless caretaker PM whose style is so far distinguished solely by his alarming capitulation to the breath-taking ignorance of his party’s arch conservatives who yet again upstage their leader as a barnstorming Deputy dog Joyce claims that Indonesia re-paid Australia for our ban on live cattle exports by exporting more asylum-seekers.
While even Turnbull has to publicly decry the remark, his belated assertiveness does nothing to halt his slide in opinion polls. Should the downward trend continue, he is on track to overtake Abbott’s capacity to alienate an entire nation well before 2 July. As it stands his net negative approval rating of 12 per cent makes the great white hope now as equally unpopular as Bill Shorten.
Nothing is working. No-one appears unduly fazed by Crosby-Textor’s confected hysteria that Labor is soft on border protection or national security, weasel-words to conceal our calculated cruelty in inflicting punishment on those already driven mad by the trauma of dispossession, enforced exile and despair.
Yet the campaign plan is to publicly parade our lack of empathy; harden our hearts yet again against unfortunate victims of conflict and upheaval. Men, women and children, just like us, no matter how much we try to demonise them, who have risked everything, lost everything, now throw themselves on our mercy in their desperate search for asylum.
Instead of compassion, our leaders have succumbed to a vile sickness; a puffed up triumphalism that we “stand strong on borders,” a stance which demeans and discredits all of us.
If anything is a race to the bottom it is this campaign’s competitive denial of humanity as the LNP seeks out Labor’s Achilles heel, a bizarre state of affairs where to have MPs express compassion for refugees and asylum seekers is deemed a kind of dangerous weakness.
Expect to hear much more from the LNP about Labor’s fatal disunity on punishing refugees and asylum-seekers by means of indefinite, offshore detention in poorly run, unsafe camps. Expect to hear offshore processing, the weasel words for a gulag.
As well as being traitors on border protection, Labor of course, we are told, are economic vandals for tinkering with negative gearing or wanting funds for education and health. While the Shadow Treasurer gives a good account of himself in some dull electioneering masquerading as a debate, the real question of what will sustain us is lost in a flurry of competitive predictions and claims about costs.
No-one on either side really talks about the Australian economy. The ongoing petty dispute which takes the place of debate is wittering on about costing and twitting about black holes. To rephrase Oscar Wilde, it is about demanding to know the price of everything yet knowing the value of nothing.
The debate is won comprehensively by the IPA and the hordes of other lobby groups that preach austerity and while holding that investing in our future education and health is a scandalous waste of public funds.
Deflecting any real inspection of its record, especially its spending, the Coalition has plumped for the cunning plan of getting its more colourful characters to make outrageously ill-judged, ill-informed and provocative assertions to derail Shorten’s increasingly successful campaign about caring about ordinary people.
Coalition HQ repeatedly sends in the clowns, a Dutton here, a Joyce there who not only offer catharsis, they can get away with all manner of outrageous bigotry, prejudice and racist nonsense such as Dutton’s claim, supported by his leader, later, that refugees are illiterate and innumerate.
Sending in the clowns also diverts attention away from vulnerable topics such as education and health but it is not without certain risks to both sides.
One risk is that the campaign is stuck somewhere in Australian waters off the Ashmole reef. Discourse degenerates into how we must crush the cruel people-smugglers’ business model. Avert catastrophic deaths at sea by submitting those who beg our asylum to torture. Or we lock them up indefinitely in conditions which cause them to take their own lives.
Q&A audience member, Rhys Whitelock, tells Innovation and Science minister, Christopher Pyne, that he was missing the “old Malcolm”. The Turnbull with moral convictions, who believed in climate change and gay marriage without a plebiscite, he says.
“I want the old Malcolm back,” he protests. “The old Malcolm who was more socially progressive, the Malcolm who crossed the floor on the emissions trading scheme, the Malcolm who was for marriage equality.”
No-one is rude enough to point out that he is dreaming. The old Malcolm is a form of wishful thinking assisted by some shrewd posturing from a man in a leather jacket who would never stoop to mindless slogans about boats.
Well, hardly ever. When asked during Rudd’s government, by a Liberal back-bencher why he was forgoing bipartisanship on asylum-seekers, Turnbull replied, “it’s all we’ve got.”
Perhaps this time, Australians will show him how much his reply disqualifies him from any kind of political leadership at all, let alone becoming an elected Prime Minister.