MUNGO MacCALLUM. Malcolm Turnbull and Barnaby Joyce

Feb 27, 2018

Incredibly, it is being counted as a win for Malcolm Turnbull. He has got rid of his errant deputy – Barnaby Joyce will retire to the backbench, just as the Prime Minister advised him to.  

Well, up to a point; Turnbull indeed advised him to reflect on his position, and after a few more days of headlines and the inevitable dwindling away from support from his National colleagues, Joyce eventually did so.

In the process the entire process of government, and not least Turnbull’s Washington love in with Donald Trump, was disrupted, there was conflict and bitterness between the coalition partners and internally with both of them, and any hope of a political renaissance for the government’s fractious troops appears to have been scuttled for the foreseeable future.

But hey, it was a win for Malcolm Turnbull. He has stood up for his principles, or at least one of them: his anti-extramarital bonking principle. This is what passes for leadership in these troubled times.

Of course, the principle is not against all extramarital bonking – just the bits that become embarrassing when they are revealed. Turnbull insists that Joyce did not tell him that he was having an affair with his staffer – I’ll bet he didn’t and I’ll also bet Turnbull did not ask hm. But there was no need to: it had been common knowledge for weeks if not months and had even been discussed by the coalition heavies during the New England by-election.

This, surely, was the time for Turnbull to worry about the shocking error of judgment and the appalling harm to all involved. But instead Turnbull, as is his wont, decided to ride it out, to hope that plausible deniability would be more effective than honesty. But as always, the attempted cover up proved more lethal than the original sin, and when the deceit unravelled, Turnbull snapped.

Even from the frozen fastness of Tasmania, where I had retreated to recuperate from a tough year, the howl of frustration was unmistakable. Our beloved prime minister had finally had it up to here with his dopey deputy.

This was not the usual lawyerly diatribe, the confected outrage directed against his real opponent, the insufferably smug Bill Shorten. This was the real Malcolm Turnbull, the one we saw an ugly glimpse of after he nearly lost the 2016 election.

He had suffered the reactionary bumpkin blowhard for years, putting up with Barnaby Joyce’s convenient conservatism, with his increasingly outrageous demands, with his gaffes, his missteps and downright contradictions. But enough was enough. So Turnbull unleashed, apparently unconcerned at the consequences.

When he suggested that Joyce should reflect on his position, he meant out. The words were traditionally an ultimatum: the victim was handed a loaded revolver with the invitation to step into the study and not to come out of it. But there was always a problem with such ultimatums: if they turn out to be sheer bluff, what is plan B?

Kim Beazley could have warned Turnbull: back in 1991 the then senior minister and long time supporter of Prime Minister Bob Hawke decided, with deep regret, that it was time for a change of leadership. He was part of a delegation of ministers who agreed to front Hawke and ask him to make way for Paul Keating.

His close adviser, Gary O’Neill, who urged caution: “What if he just tells you to piss off?” said O’Neill. “Oh, he wouldn’t do that,” replied Beazley confidently, and set off. He came back despondent. “He told us,” admitted the minister, “to piss off.” And this, of course, what Joyce did: the immovable object effortlessly deflected the efforts of Turnbull’s easily resistible force.

The coalition’s apologists called this a confrontation between two strong personalities, and if by that they meant a clash of two pig-headed egomaniacs, they were no doubt right. But it does not explain why Turnbull, normally the most cautious and risk-avoidance of leaders, should have chosen a fight that he was never likely to win.

It was still conceivable that the situation could have been managed and massaged, but that is now impossible: Joyce will join Tony Abbott’s mob as yet another member of the wrecking squad and a potentially more dangerous one. Of course he has said that he will not snipe from the backbench – where we have we heard that before?

And Joyce is regarded as the best retail politician in the country — meaning he is a master of spin, bluster and bullshit; and his supporters still praise him as a master in delivering benefits to the rural community – meaning he is a pork-barreller par excellence, with even less restraint to be placed upon him now that Turnbull has been humiliated.

The vast majority of voters – Australians – wanted him gone: from the leadership, the parliament, the party – anywhere. Eventually even his National Party claque had to admit that the situation was, as everyone was saying for days, untenable, especially after the Western Australian branch leaked the information of a complaint of sexual harassment; there were other rumours around of Joyce’s inability to keep it in his pants, and the media blitz had to be staunched.

And so it was, with Joyce still railing about a witch hunt and pointedly not informing Turnbull of his defeat – he had submitted, and Turnbull was still standing. But the wash up will be pretty ugly, and Turnbull’s role in it, and particularly his incendiary moralistic outburst, cannot and will not be ignored by a despairing party room.

It is surely ironic that Turnbull, having buckled under the demands of the right for so long; has chosen to go to war over extramarital sex – there are so many more productive (as opposed to reproductive) issues to pursue.

But perhaps he had simply suffered the fools and incompetents surrounding him for long enough.

Back in Washington, Turnbull continued to schmooze, nodding in furious agreements with The Donald about terrorists, North Korea, and company tax cuts, although he failed to get anywhere about the Trans Pacific Partnership and he skipped delicately around the gun laws debate. But even in the midst of all this diplomacy, a touch of double entendre could not be avoided. Turnbull urged Trump to embrace the Australian tradition of mateship. Given the events of the last fortnight, POTUS may feel that the mating rituals of some Australians at least should be avoided.


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