ERIC WALSH. After Turnbull?

Nov 16, 2017

Will someone please provide Malcolm Turnbull with a fiddle; something to occupy our leader while his party and possibly his government burn.

While Malcolm, as he tells us, is having a whale of a time and  has “never been happier in my whole life”, experienced commentators and growing numbers in his own parliamentary ranks are seriously speculating on his prime ministerial  future short term and their own, come the next election. With his party at a record low in popularity, bitterly divided on the same sex marriage question, with a shadow on further citizenship problems hanging over it and growing discontent with its leadership, it is hard to see why Malcolm remains so contented.

Despite his state of sustained happiness, some in his party are so concerned with his own and his government’s standing that they are taking private surveys speculating on who among them might replace him. Twenty-three successive Newspoll losses – the last three by eight and now a record 10 percentage points (Tony Abbot was shunted after thirty losses, most by significantly smaller margins) –  have forced this course of action on a disturbing number of his colleagues as they look anxiously towards the next election.

Two of the names frequently mentioned are those of Malcolm’s Deputy and Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop and Immigration and Border Protection Minister, Peter Dutton. These are seen by some as among the better performed in Malcolm’s undistinguished ministerial team. If this is so it can only add to the mystery of Malcolm’s continuing sunny outlook.

Any study of the ministerial performance of either of these might leave one wondering just how this growing number of dissidents reached their assessments of the two.

Bishop as Foreign Minister has been awkward almost from day one. Apart from Washington, to whom we continue to outsource our defence and foreign policies, no nation has greater importance to Australia than our major trading partner, China, the world’s second biggest economy and comfortably the leading nation in our region.

In Bishop’s first significant act as newly-minted Foreign Minister back in 2013, she made herself internationally noticed by calling in the Chinese Ambassador for a dressing down over China’s claim of an aircraft identification zone over the East China Sea. This was a measure not contemplated by any other of at least six nations far more involved in the area than Australia.

She became even better known when, some weeks later, she was humiliated by the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi who bawled her out publically for what China considered a major diplomatic indiscretion. It was, according to senior diplomats, the sort of criticism normally delivered in private over a desk, or perhaps in an email. The experienced Chinese, however, were prepared to make an exception for the hapless Bishop, and had it in the open.

Consistent wrong-footing has seen her unable to mend fences with China in the years since. She did not endear herself or Australia to our neighbour by calling on the United States to maintain an Asian presence in the West Pacific to help contain China.

She later said she wanted no power other than the United States dominating in what most now recognize as China’s sphere of influence.

She was ignored when she aired her economic credentials, claiming that China was unable to reach its full economic potential without becoming a democracy. Her in-depth assessment disregarded the fact that the second biggest economy was bowling along at a growth rate of about 7% – a rate which economists say would be about 10% in an economy of China’s size about 12 years ago.

The Foreign Minister  showed  her understanding of the Middle East by declaring that Israel’s West Bank settlements should not be described as being ‘”on occupied land” – as the land, she said, was Israel’s not “occupied”. This caused embarrassment in her own department. She further showed her expertise in the area in a detailed interview in which she seemed unaware that both the United Nations and the International Court of Justice consider the Israeli settlements to be illegal.

She has moved Australia closer to the Cambodian Hun Sen administration at the very time the authoritarian leader is engaged in legally dismantling the National Rescue Party, his main political opposition in the country, and she has set her department on the task of creating a Foreign Affairs White Paper which retired diplomats and several currently active consider to be unnecessary.

She has probably saved her star performance for neighbouring New Zealand. She sat unprotesting day after day in parliament while Malcolm Turnbull demanded that Bill Shorten produce credentials showing that he had no citizenship problems with his occupancy of his Maribyrnong seat. When Shorten made similar demands from Barnaby Joyce regarding possible New Zealand residency and sought clarification on the question, seeking information from New Zealand on their citizenship laws, she declared that as an act of “treachery”. 

When it was revealed that a prominent NZ Labor member had provided information on his country’s laws, she declared it would be difficult for her to deal with a government which might be undermining the government of Australia. Presumably she saw the provision of information on New Zealand’s citizenship regime as aiding and abetting her perceived act of treachery.  At the time she strongly believed there was little prospect of Labor forming a government but, just as her leader had embarrassingly misjudged the likely rulings on these questions by the High Court, she misjudged the political realities experienced by our closest neighbour. When reminded of this serious gaffe on the eventual appointment of a Labor NZ Government, she denied her embarrassing statement when pressed by the media. At one stage, clearly embarrassed, she suggested she was being misquoted by the media and angrily demanded that they refer to what she actually said. What she actually said was: “I would find it very hard to build trust with those involved in allegations designed to undermine the government of Australia.”  What the  NZ Labor Shadow Minister had done was simply explain his country’s citizenship laws.

She has not distinguished herself by her enthusiastic support for her possible leadership competitor Peter Dutton in his handling of the Manus Island refugee fiasco. Again, between them, they have put Australia on the international map for all the wrong reasons. On national television last week she was twice accused of lying (in those words) by Tasmanian Green Nick McKim and political lawyer Greg Barns over statements she made regarding Manus. So far there has been no sign of a defamation suit or even a denial from the putative Liberal leader.

Dutton, of course, is now internationally known for his leadership of what is considered to be the worst refugee policy in the world, but he has other problems too. The department he controls had a budget blowout of $181 million last year and it was recently castigated by the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit for failing to adopt proper cybersecurity processes, despite frequent urgings on the matter.

Dutton’s philosophy, he has shown, is about as good as his departmental bookkeeping. He has declared that for Australian lawyers to use Australian law to assist genuine asylum seekers is un-Australian.

If these two are the best of Turnbull’s team what the hell are the others like?

Hang in there Malcolm.

Eric Wash is a former senior journalist in the Canberra Press Gallery

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