MUNGO MacCALLUM. Malcolm Turnbull, accident-prone and careless.

Aug 15, 2016


When you’re hot you’re hot, and when you’re not, you’re not.

Our Prime Minister was hardly responsible for the fact that the Australian Bureau of Statistics site crashed (or, the boffins insist, was pulled down) on census night. Only the very partisan and very silly are saying that it was his fault.

But that’s not the point: he will still have to wear the blame for what has been an embarrassing blooper which not only may have derailed the census, but also will set back the public’s confidence of all forms of electronic commerce – what price internet voting for elections? Forget it.

And while they’re at it, the detractors have enough ammunition to make their case that Turnbull is not only accident prone, but careless. The ABS, like so many government agencies, has suffered severe budget cuts since the last census in 2011, and that has meant the forced retrenchment of many senior staff people. So perhaps the bureau has had to cut a few corners; but that is the government’s fault.

Then there is the demonstrable fact that the succession of very junior ministers nominally in charge of the preparations for the census have been negligent, if not downright incompetent; Turnbull should have been more committed to keeping them on the job. But of course he was busy; he had an election to fight.

And that was his fault too. The buck has to stop somewhere, and in the end it inevitably lands in the Prime Minister’s suite. This may not have mattered so much if Turnbull and his colleagues had been able to react quickly (nimbly, agilely) and to get their stories straight. As it is, we still don’t quite know what went wrong, other than the insistence that it involved “a confluence” of mishaps – or, to use the technical term, a clusterfuck.

Self-evidently the bureau was underprepared; but was it the ABS’s own fault, or was it their technical provider, the IBM company? Was there in fact a real hack attack, and if so, where did it come from? And most importantly, has it meant that the census is buggered – that too many respondents will have either have had their worst suspicions about cyber-security confirmed, or simply pissed off about having to wait around and have decided to give it all a miss?

Turnbull says he is very angry and disappointed about it all and that there will be serious consequences, but in the meantime all he can do is set up yet another internal review, in which it is unlikely at best that many beans will be spilled. But that will not be the end of it – if the damage is too great and census irrevocably marred, it will either mean that the whole exercise will have to be abandoned at a cost of some $300 million, or restarted at much the same privileged price. And this will indeed have to be Turnbull’s choice – this time there is no way he can duck-shove the blame to bureaucrats and consultants.

Embarrassing at best; but that is not the real problem, which is that we are now starting to see a pattern: unready and sometimes over-hasty decisions which either implode, or if they muddle on, end up puzzling and dismaying the electors.

The Royal Commission into the Northern Territory was a commendable idea but a stuff up when it came to implementation. And then we were faced with at least equally serious allegations of abuse in Nauru, emanating not from the despised protectors of human rights but from the reports of the custodians themselves.

Of course Peter Dutton, a man who should not be allowed in a civilised country, let alone in the Australian cabinet, immediately dismissed them as exaggerated scuttlebutt; obviously the inmates were deliberately cutting themselves up and setting themselves on fire because they wanted to be with him on the mainland. And we couldn’t have a royal commission into that bit of detention, because it was a matter for the sovereign government of Nauru. This was obviously bullshit, and seen to be bullshit. As well as denial and procrastination, the Turnbull mob were seen to be both hypocritical and silly.

The decision to rissole Kevin Rudd from contention for the United Nations secretary-general’s job was hugely divisive and whatever its merits gave the impression of being spiteful and partisan. And it was unnecessary; if Rudd was so unsuitable, then his rejection could have been handled by the United nations with no harm done to Turnbull. Once again our putative leader was accused of being a puppet of the hard right.

And then, when the banks refused to pass on the Reserve Bank’s interest rates cuts in full he invited them to an annual confab convened by a committee run by a majority of his own supporters. The bankers agreed enthusiastically, proving that the whole business was a shame and fraud. Turnbull was thus seen as a patsy for them as well.

And right on cue along came Ausgrid and the rejection of its purchase — not only by the sinister forces of Beijing but also the avowedly capitalist megamoguls of Hong Kong. This, said Turnbull bravely, showed that it had absolutely nothing to do with anti-Chinese prejudice or xenophobia, let alone the concerns of Pauline Hanson, Nick Xenophon or, for that matter, Barnaby Joyce – it was all about national security, but unfortunately he couldn’t tell us how or why.

And on that note of bemusement and confusion, the voters were urged to return to the serious business of getting back to their computers in the hope that the ABS site would allow them to complete their census – if any of them still wanted to.

The political amateurism of Malcolm Turnbull and his government is turning out not to be a series of aberrations, but systemic. We can no longer hope that now, with the election out of the way and won – just – that things will improve: that our revivified Prime Minister will finally deliver stability and certainty, and perhaps even a measure of genuine reform.

Comparisons with his last three hapless predecessors are now routine, and none of them lasted a full term as Prime Minister. And time is not on his side. When you’re hot, you’re hot, and when you’re not, you’re Malcolm Turnbull.

Mungo MacCallum is a veteran from the Canberra Press Gallery.

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