When the going gets tough on the campaign trail, Australians discovered last Wednesday, the tough may just get up and leave. Golden dummy spit award this week goes to caretaker PM Malcolm Turnbull, former Siberian gold prospector, barrister, property investor and sometime man about western Sydney who left town hell-bent on rescuing a nation from reckless spending on health and education, lower house prices, a bogus Labor tax on carbon and other dark forces of unreason including misty-eyed sentimentality for asylum-seekers.
It was a hell of a call but he would rise to it. On week one of his union-busting, work interning, corporate tax-cutting election campaign proper, the PM was out to convince an increasingly sceptical electorate – and anyone else who might show up to his show down – that he has the ticker to win.
Turnbull positively thrives on high stakes conflicts. Kerry Francis Bullmore Packer and he once threatened to kill each other over the takeover of Fairfax in 1991, according, at least, to Annabel Crabb’s 2009 Quarterly Essay.
Yet sometimes the plan is too big for the man. When media took more interest in whether the local candidate, Liberal MP Fiona Scott, supported his deposing of Tony Abbott and voters wanted to talk about his cuts to education and his plan to cut taxes for the rich, he asserted decisive, unequivocal leadership. And pulled the pin.
When the chips are down, the PM showed the nation, he can turn things around. Or, himself. At least, he may be counted upon to wimp out and catch the next train back to his minders and his mansion in Sydney.
It began not so badly. “This seat (of Lindsay) is absolutely critical for the future of Australia”, he declared, his tone aloft with a touch of overstatement if not big-noting, self-importance. Clearly, there was a tad riding on his pin-striped shoulders as they rubbed up against ordinary working class commuters so taken by his common touch that some had no idea who he was. It was to prove a political train-wreck of a whistle-stop.
Carrying a designer hold-all referencing a bookie’s shoulder bag, a smartphone and bearing a fixed grin which rivalled the rictus of a Patagonian tooth fish, Malcolm Bligh Turnbull, as ever, more mouth than trousers, rapidly collapsed into bathos when called on to explain exactly how why Lindsay was a bellwether seat.
“It’s critical because if we hold this seat, then we will be returned to government, and then we will be able to carry out our national economic plan,” he claimed, baring his bottom teeth in a gesture common to seasoned politicians, merchant bankers, carpet-bagging insurance touts and other roles he has played effortlessly in his past lives.
Most of Turnbull’s electioneering follows this pattern. Not that he’s underprepared. Turnbull’s man bag is big enough to house a whole library of classic texts including his well-thumbed Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War and a huge vat of his feed-the-rich trickle-down magic pudding tax mix .
Turnbull’s Tardis of a carry-bag must also contain a vast National Economic Plan, another historical borrowing, lifted from the political genius of George W Bush and supply-side economics whence comes the classic Jobs and Growth, a timeless slogan which accompanied the destruction of the economy of the richest nation in the world.
Hapless cabinet secretary and PM’s confidante, “Amnesiac” Arthur Sinodinos may also have been in the bag; an accidental stowaway given his urge to crawl cat-like into confined spaces, a natural and understandable behaviour, given ICAC – and now a senate committee – still demand he explain what he’s forgotten about illegal donations to the NSW Liberal Party.
Yet none of this was visible to the untrained eye. A model of cultivated charm and passable insincerity, Mr Turnbull blended awkwardly into the built environment, whose needs he no longer tends so assiduously since Jamie Briggs fall from grace has seen the Cities etc. portfolio dumped with him. He slumped over a smartphone, his thumbs blazing to scotch unwarranted media interest in his fondness for offshore companies. If only a start-up would develop an app to deal with nosy journos.
Re-assuring those Australians who were alarmed to discover that their nation’s PM was once again associated with Star Mining, another offshore company set up to solely to evade tax, Mr Turnbull said that there was, again, nothing to see here. Happened way back in the 1990s. Never made a profit and if it did it would pay tax in Australia. No-one asked why it was not set up in Sydney, then.
Star Mining, later Star Technology, generated an eighty per cent return for Turnbull and his partner Alan Doyle and the venture may be placed alongside his play in Solomon Islands logging concessions. Neither of these entrepreneurial ventures merit a moment’s reflection according to the PM in a report to the AFR because there was “no suggestion of any impropriety whatsoever.”
Nor should there be. Yet there is always the matter of principle in the embrace of means to evade tax and elude questions, especially from a PM who leads a party preaching transparency and accountability. And there is the matter of the public good. Shareholders keen to learn what became of Star Technology’s major asset of $100 million, would be stopped by one phrase “Controlled entity not required to be audited under British Virgin lsland requirements.” Its major asset was never audited.
Awaiting Mr Turnbull were the legendary charms of member for western Sydney seat of Lindsay, Fiona Scott, whose sex-appeal is on public record thanks to previous PM and chick magnet Tony Abbott. Scott, who has an MBA, has done things as a marketing manager for Westfield that doubtless have changed the face of Penrith.
Scott also left her mark when she suggested in 2013 that asylum seekers were causing road congestion and hospital delays in western Sydney, a call which Tony Burke awarded silliest comment of the election campaign.
All of this was ignored by reporters who were keen to air the matter of Scott’s treatment at the hands of the Abbott faction, or the Delcons, who have branded her a traitor for her support of Turnbull in the leadership ballot.
Irritated by questions seeming to require the candidate to revisit not only his knifing of Tony Abbott but the vexed matter of cabinet leaking, Turnbull turned on his heel and abruptly cancelled the rest of the walkabout. A planned visit to Westfield Penrith was abandoned. Turnbull’s act upstaged any campaign rhetoric. He sent a vital message about his own need to engage with the people only on his own terms to all keen democrats on the trail.
Peta Credlin, enjoying her new post as agent provocateuse or chief Delcon rear gunner on airship Sky swung into action. She deplored his walking away from his planned walkabout. Very helpfully, she highlighted Turnbull’s chief credibility gap: the great wall of wealth which insulates the PM from the people. To Credlin, walking away from the walkabout was unthinkable.
“If it’s known that you were going to do a street walk in Penrith, the last thing you want to do, Mr Harbour-side Mansion, is look like you don’t know and you’re not welcome in western Sydney.”
In her opinion, Turnbull was not up to snuff. If Scott wasn’t pump-primed, they should have moved the visit. Logistics expert, campaign veteran and HR talent, Ms Credlin was very clear what she would have done in the same position, even more stage management, which may shed some light on why Tony Abbott was elected with less policy detail than you could jot on the back of a QANTAS ticket for two to the south of France.
Itching to make a bid for silliest 2016 campaign comment, Dawson’s George Christensen used social media to throw his weight around about the millions of Syrians who would flood into his electorate and take Aussie jobs.
“I’ve advised the Assistant Minister [for Multiculturalism] that the Mackay region won’t be able to handle an influx of refugees given the state of the regional economy,” Christensen wrote in a Facebook post on Tuesday. He seems to have accepted as true an urban myth about a workers’ camp in the town of Sarina. Sarina is in the neighbouring seat of Capricornia, about 37 kilometres south of Mackay.
The myth that refugees are a burden also fails to match the reality. Nhill’s economy, for example, is booming since 2010 when 200 Karen refugees from Burma settled in the Wimmera, a small agricultural town in Victoria which is located half-way between Melbourne and Adelaide. Other sources such as ABS figures indicate that migrants are more likely to be in work and less likely to be on welfare than Australian residents.
Yet gorgeous George did get something right. Christensen confirmed the power of certain right wingers over the PM. Turnbull did not pause to tell the National MP to check his facts but instead took time out from his lunch at The Athenaeum, a club for wealthy white blokes. He indulged George’s Scott-like delusion about being overrun with refugees while glossing over the MP’s lack of respect for process or his leader’s authority, claiming the MP’s:
.“… concerns lie in the lack of jobs in the area due to the downturn in the mining construction boom.
What he’s saying is because there aren’t a lot of jobs around, it’s better for refugees who come in the humanitarian program to be located in places where there are more opportunities for work.”
Amazingly asylum-seekers became Labor’s problem when on Tuesday North Queensland’s Cathy O’Toole, Labor candidate for Herbert was reported to have attended protests about her party’s immigration policies three months ago.
The Australian was delighted to report that O’Toole had “derailed Shorten’s campaign” and published a comment from Peter Dutton on how this indicated that Labor would be a hopeless government when it came to border protection.
This is in stark contrast with his own government’s brilliant record, roundly criticised by international humanitarian agencies and the UN which now includes an urgent need to find somewhere for those in ‘open detention’ on Manus Island, a centre PNG wants closed.
Recent reports of asylum seekers’ suicides in response to their punishment by indefinite captivity abuse and neglect in poorly-run off-shore “processing centres” which form a type of gulag for which neither party will accept responsibility.
After fifteen years of the politicisation of our humanitarian responsibility to refugees it is bizarrely, according to a range of mainstream media, Labor which must get its act together in the first week of an election campaign which is all about Turnbull’s need to get himself re-elected before his dwindling popularity vanishes completely like the Cheshire cat leaving nothing but a toothsome smile behind him.
Asylum seekers were not an issue for the 100 swinging voters who declared to Galaxy that they were undecided at the leaders debate staged by Sky at the Windsor RSL Friday. The event plays to the myth that voting is compulsory and that Australian elections are decided by voters exercising a rational choice between sets of policy offerings from parties they remain open-minded about.
Given that we are far more likely to vote for a party we have an allegiance to surely we could dispense with much of the theatre of the election show in favour of having our candidates face more open and direct questions from voters. The current media product appears calculated to alienate, especially younger voters.
In fact, if last election figures are a guide, many Australians have already voted by opting out of the system as Michael Taylor points out. 1.22 million which includes 400,000 young people, nearly half of all eighteen and nineteen year olds who did not bother to register to vote last election.
Young people are the most unrepresented. Half of all 18-year-olds and a quarter of 19-year-old Australians are not yet enrolled to vote in this election a total of 350,000 votes that will not be cast by young people in 2016. About 608,000 Australians 25 years and older are also not enrolled. Already there are a million marginalised, missing voters or almost six per cent of eligible voters who won’t be going to the polls.
Although it doesn’t fit the plot of mainstream media’s Election Show, most Australians are doing it hard. While powerful business lobbyists press for tax cuts for businesses and the abolition of penalty rates, average Australians are increasingly excluded from participation in a free and just society; enjoying the fruits of their labours.
ACTU president Ged Kearney sees a:
“deliberate shift away from a full-time, secure employed workforce to one that is precarious and underemployed. It’s part of the process of financialisation: moving all the cost and responsibility for employment away from the employer and the state and onto the individual.
So eventually you have a workforce that has no paid leave, no sick leave, quite possibly no workers’ compensation. Workers are insuring their own equipment, which they’ve bought. And many of these people are precariously employed, so they don’t have the benefit of knowing that they’re going to get an income week to week. It builds a very shaky house of cards.”
In the meantime, Turnbull’s long campaign off a short runway continues leaving him to cling to powerful backers and vested interests while treading carefully around the reptilian brain stem offerings of the party’s right wing. Shorten’s Labor Party which has not completely turned its back on its origins in the trade union movements of the 1890s is presenting itself as a people’s party which is pledged to invest in health and education.
The most eloquent and most profound voice of the week, however, is that of Melinda who approached the PM with an economic plan for all Australians as he left a business in Moorabbin to tell him:
“The cost of school is going up and up and up and yet we’re not getting any more money and now you’re going to take the family tax benefits away. It’s not just single mums you’re hurting,” she said.
“Give them [our children] an opportunity to make something of themselves, please.”