Let’s face it, it was hardly surprising to find Malcolm Turnbull taking the piss out of Donald Trump. For starters, just about everyone does it – indeed, for much of the time The Donald seems to be doing it himself.
But, we are warned (by the Murdoch press, if nowhere else) this is yet another black mark against our Prime Minister, a reckless and self-indulgent gesture to the reptiles of the left-leaning Canberra press gallery, a gratuitous insult to Australia’s vital interest.
And it means nothing that the Americans themselves dismiss it as harmless good humour: the lunar right in Australia know better. Greg Sheridan thunders that it is an unbelievably, staggeringly bad call, and given that he was and still is a staunch defender of the war in Vietnam, he has some form in such assessments.
The problem, of course, was not that Turnbull made a joke among what was absurdly billed as an off the record function; it was that the speech was leaked, and for that Turnbull must indeed share a touch of the blame – given the history of similar events it was hardly likely to remain secret, especially when Laurie Oakes, the scourge of the Chatham House rules on confidentiality, was hovering like a cloud no smaller than a man’s elephantiasis.
Oakes did the job of Paul Keating’s Press gallery Dinner speech in 1990. The headline was Keating’s personification of himself as Placido Domingo, but the political fallout was his assertion that unlike America, Australia had never had a great leader.
Bob Hawke, who aspired to be one himself, was not amused and called in Keating for a lecture in the virtues of John Curtin, Hawke’s own hero and role model. The result was the breaking of the Kirribilli pact by which Hawke would give way to Keating before the next election, which started a war between the two which damaged Labor considerably until Keating eventually prevailed.
Turnbull, of course, is already inextricably entangled with his own internecine wars within his party, so it might be assumed that it is unlikely to get much worse, despite the enthusiasm of Sheridan and his mates. But it won’t help, either; such are the eggshells our leader has to negotiate on a daily basis.
And in this context it is absurd of Sheridan to imply that the leak was clearly the malice of “Trump hating. left of centre journalists. The room was also full of politicians, lobbyists and sundry hangers-on. And if the aim was to damage Turnbull, as Sheridan gloats, it most likely came from the right than the left.
But whatever, it is a pity that what used to be an amiable piss-take can presumably no longer be part of the amiable piss-up. Oakes has every right to say he doesn’t want to play, but when he can find snoops and sneaks to feed him his tidbits, he loses nothing.
For the rest of us, we can only lament that what was once a convivial evening among peers has become a semi-public charity extravaganza in which the needs of both journalists and politicians have been subsumed by the social media devastation.