MUNGO MacCALLUM. Malcolm Turnbull will do anything to secure an outcome.

Dec 6, 2016

Malcolm Turnbull’s experience in negotiation has been in the boardroom of Goldman Sachs, but the atmosphere of the Senate crossbench is more akin to that of the Istanbul Souk. 

One of Malcolm Turnbull’s many boasts is his business acumen.

Part of his credentials for being palsy-walsy with the previously loathsome (Turnbull’s term) Donald Trump is that the two would have a lot in common, because before they became politicians, they were both businessmen.

Given Trump’s reputation for rip-offs, bankrupting his companies and dudding his creditors this may not be the most appealing analogy, but it is presumably the best he can do: our Prime Minister has the soul of a wheeler-dealer, a horse trader, a haggler.

The problem is that while he may have the will he does not always have the technique. His experience in negotiation has been in the board room of Goldman Sachs, but the atmosphere of the Senate crossbench is more akin to that of the Istanbul Souk.

The rough and tumble of serious dickering, in which bargains are offered and then withdrawn, in which the last price is seldom actually final, in which everything is on the table and then, just as abruptly, off it, is as foreign to him as a grudge match of rugby league in the western suburbs. And it shows – he gives in too easily, he will do anything to secure an outcome, even if he ends up giving away more than he receives.

Naturally, Turnbull rates the last week as a triumph – it justifies his gamble on a double dissolution, it has proved that he can make the parliament work, and now he is delivering – just like the boy from the Pizza Hut. And unlike that ambitious youth, he does not expect a tip – indeed, he is willing to pay just about anything to secure the idea of delivery, even if the substance may be very undernourishing indeed. Thus various wild and wacky ideas have been accepted by a wild and wacky cross bench, many of them totally unrelated to the bills they are supposed to inspire.

The results have not been all bad: the promise of serious and widespread protection for whistle-blowers engineered by Nick Xenophon and Derryn Hinch is welcome and long overdue, even if its connection to the Registered Organisations Bill is, to say the least, tenuous.

But the demand from David Leyonhjelm that the ABC and SBS become entangled in additional red tape by hosting superfluous community forums is not only irrelevant to the Building and Construction Commission, but also abhorrent to real libertarians, among whom Leyonhjelm professes to number himself. The idiosyncratic senator says it is to compensate for the lack of freedom imposed by the ABCC, but the logic is impenetrable.

Similarly Xenophon made a non-negotiable demand for more water for South Australia, and then backed off – or did he? It will be interesting to see the outcome. The ABCC Act eventually passed after Hinch and Xenophon negotiated a raft of amendments to which the government agreed, rather than suffering the humiliation of defeats through the alliance of Labor and the Greens. According to two of the weird sisters of The Australian, Judith Sloan and Grace Collier (and can the third, Jennnifer Oriel, be far behind?) the Commission has been gutted to the point of impotence – “ an appalling mish-mash of inconsistent and unworkable provisions that completely undermines any benefits that could flow,” to put it in Sloan’s terms.

It must be said that the rant is hardly surprising; Sloan and Collier would never have been satisfied with anything short of a return to feudalism. But the compromises – capitulations – were not what the conservatives either wanted or expected. And the large burst of protectionism which was tossed into the mix is completely against the government’s free trade mantra. The tough cop on the beat became a real pushover once the crossbench applied the heat.

Which brings us to the Backpacker Tax, apparently orchestrated by the Keystone Kops. When the government woke up after the budget, the Nats in particular finally realised that the tax rate of 32.5 per cent which they had snoozily passed into legislation, was not quite what their constituents wanted. So there was a frantic rethink, and with the Farmers Federation they arrived on 19 per cent.

But Jacqui Lambie undercut them: 10.5 per cent was the competitive rate her constituents wanted, and immediately Labor and the Greens backed her in. The money men, Scott Morrison and Matthias Corman, were adamant: 19 was the rate, it was all the budget could afford and it would not change – well, until Barnaby Joyce put an armlock on Turnbull, and our fearless Prime Mister told them that actually, the compromise of 15 per cent suggested by Pauline Hanson, of all people, was not such a bad idea.

So, back to the drawing board: but Hanson’s rebellious sandgroper, Rod Culleton, Hinch and Leyonhjelm lined up with Lambie and that went down too. So the Dutch Auction proceeded: how about 13 per cent? Never, fumed Morrison and Corman; but given that this was what they had said four days ago about 19 per cent, it was hard to take them seriously.

And then, over the horizon galloped the ignored and reviled Greens, offering a face-saving 15 per cent – but only after superannuation concessions turned it back into an effective 13 per cent, and they trousered $100 million for Landcare as a bonus. As Shorten and his colleagues pointed out, the government’s preferred solution produced higher tax rate with less money for budget repair; Turnbull had been hit with a custard pie.

But he didn’t mind: the point was that his side had won the senate vote and Labor had lost, and that was all that mattered. So his tattered colleagues could pick up what was left of the pieces and retire for a what they devoutly hoped would be a relaxed and comfortable break. But not before Turnbull could be asked a Dorothy Dixer from an obsequious backbencher asking his to parade the government’s achievements. He responded at some length: an extended diatribe about how awful Bill Shorten is.

And that, it appears, is the only delivery that has not been either a wide or a no-ball. Merry Christmas. There is no need to wish Malcolm Turnbull a happy new year – as he repeatedly assurers us, he is the happiest prime minister of them all. Just like the other residents in Fantasyland – the happiest kingdom of them all.

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