When Sam Dastyari was promoted to the shadow ministry earlier this year, Bill Shorten was unable, because of the opposition’s salary cap rules, to give him a pay rise.
But now Dastyari can surely apply for a lavish bonus from Malcolm Turnbull, because his stuff up in accepting money from a Chinese firm was the only thing that stood between his stupidity and a week of total humiliation for the government.
It was not only the defeats on the floor of the House of Representatives in the dying hours of proceedings; these were a fitting climax to a shambolic two days in which the Prime Minister was constantly on the back foot, driven by Shorten’s agenda to the extent that his own program – the great political, economic, moral issue of budget reform was barely visible.
And when it was visible, it, too, was a stuff up. When Scott Morrison launched his much-vaunted omnibus bill on Wednesday, it immediately showed a $107 million dollar hole – a simple arithmetical error. In the grand scheme of things this should not have mattered much, but in the circumstances it looked careless, even slapdash – another case of the government desperate to get something, anything, on the table without seriously considering what it was really doing.
And then came Thursday, with Tony Abbott firebombing what was supposed to be a conciliatory meeting with backbenchers about just how the government’s once iron clad changes to superannuation were to be negotiated. Abbott slammed Morrison over the whole package, demanding that not only should the rich be left unscathed, but the poor should be dudded in the process.
It won’t happen quite like that, but it would have made it clear to Morrison, and more importantly to Turnbull, that Abbott was now claiming the de facto leadership of the conservatives, and by extension of the party. There is no overt challenge – yet. But Abbott is on the move; his very public love in with Pauline Hanson would not have improved Turnbull’s mood either. In a horrible week for Turnbull, it was yet another warning that he will have to watch his back, as well as his front and his sides.
In the meantime, Shorten was remorselessly pursuing his own platform, initially for a royal commission into banking. Turnbull, he said, was running a protection racket for the banks. Turnbull replied that Shorten was echoing crass populism in the style of the old Labor renegade Jack Lang, and that a royal commission would provide no solace or compensation for the victims of the banks’ shenanigans and would cost a fortune in a lengthy lawyers’ picnics.
Which may well be true, but it isn’t the point. The aim of a royal commission is not to provide cheap and instant gratification and relief, but to examine and expose more deep-seated malaise. This is precisely why Turnbull himself instituted a royal commission into the abuses of the Don Dale detention centre in Darwin; it is also, ostensibly at least, the motivation behind Abbott’s royal commission into the trade unions.
Turnbull insists that all is now well; the palliative nostrums he has already proposed will do all that is needed. But apart from the fact that they self-evidently won’t – that a far more forensic approach to the multiple offences rooted in the culture of the Big Four is clearly required – Turnbull’s message is simply not being heeded.
The public believes that the belated bandaids he is offering are no more than subterfuges, excuses to avoid the real issue. Turnbull may not actually be running interference for the banks, but he is certainly not taking them on. His lawyerly approach is not what the voters want; he is pursuing the wrong brief. So even before Shorten’s Thursday night ambush, Turnbull had all but lost the battle of the banks.
And in the background, there are two other ongoing skirmishes he will have to confront. One is the needless kerfuffle over the racial Discrimination Act. Turnbull has repeatedly declared that the government has no intention of abolishing it or amending it, but his conservative rump refuse to accept the verdict.
The senate, centred in the person of the recalcitrant Cory Bernardi, is determined to bring it on for debate. He knows he will lose of course, but that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that it will embarrass Turnbull; it will be an open act of defiance and rebellion. And it will not be the last. Bernardi and his allies, egged on by the couch crusaders of The Australian, want blood and they will not be satisfied until they get it, preferably in bucket loads.
And after the smoke and dust clears over that warzone, the same sex marriage plebiscite is still waiting. It is clear now that the plebiscite, while a useful delaying tactic by the conservatives, is only the first step. They want control of the question to be asked and the funding to be allocated, and if they cannot stymie it cold through publicly funded propaganda, they will take the next step; a refusal to accept a result which does not suit them.
The case for a plebiscite was always spurious, as Turnbull once pointed out: the parliament is the right forum for changes to the marriage act, as it was for changes to homosexual law reform, abortion reform, divorce and all the other so-call moral issues which obsess the god botherers.
But Turnbull, driven by ambition, surrendered the high ground in his quest to surmount Abbott and agreed to the plebiscite. He could have still moved, especially after the election, but remained in thrall to the rump. No principles, no convictions, no guts.
Which is why he should be grateful for Dastyari; but even the senseless senator may not be the blessing he would hope. The Dastyari affair has reopened the can of worms that is election funding and the potential corruption that is involved in a deliberate lack of transparency. The Liberals have always resisted disclosure in any meaningful sense.
Turnbull may yet have to fight on yet another front before the ongoing war gives him enough breathing space to get round to his own program which was – remind me again – oh, yes, the economy, stupid.
Mungo MacCallum is a veteran journalist who worked for many years at the Canberra Press Gallery.