MUNGO MacCALLUM. Malcolm Turnbull’s end of year report card.

Dec 20, 2016

It may well be that even if Turnbull has the will and nerve to try and move his ministry … finding convenient places to accommodate them without serious disruption will prove impossible. 

Malcolm Turnbull has ended the year in a morass of negatives, and we’re not just talking about economic growth, consumer confidence and employment statistics, dire as they are.

Perhaps the more worrying downer is that of the polls — not only is his government failing to make any headway against what is universally regarded as a pretty lacklustre opposition, but his own negative popularity is continuing to plummet.

So what is to be done in the way of draining the swamp, as his new best chum likes to call it? Well, that piece of serious infrastructure has already been ruled out – too expensive, too difficult, like almost anything else.

But it may, just may, be possible to get rid of some of the more primitive and incompetent life forms that inhabit the cesspool. It would be tempting to start with the leader himself, whose devolution has descended almost into fossil form: no policies, no ideas, no convictions, no courage. Charles Darwin would almost certainly marked him as unfit to survive, doomed to extinction.

However, that epochal breakthrough is clearly not going to happen, even if is even more saurian rival, Tony Abbott, may still dream of return to the land. So we will have to make do with some of lesser organisms, and there are at least some signs that they are finally passing their use-by date.

Chief among them, of course, is the amphibian George Brandis, totally out of depth even in the shallows of the senate. Only his puffed-up vanity has kept him afloat – that, and Turnbull’s reluctance to disturb what is left of the political ecology. But surely his time has finally run out: the Bell Resources conspiracy or stuff-up, call it what you will, has at last rung the bell.

And it is also rumoured that his upper house colleague, Nigel Scullion, is also for the heave-ho. Scullion’s blindness, whether wilful or negligent, over the atrocities in the Don Dale Detention Centre is now being dragged through a Royal Commission which Turnbull, having instigated himself, can hardly ignore. And we are also told that Marise Payne’s invalidity may become permanent at the hands of the ever voluble Christopher Pyne.

But there, it appears, is where it will stop – if, indeed, it ever starts, and given Turnbull’s reluctance to do anything that might offend anybody, friend or foe, business (or the lack of it) may still prevail. Our Prime Minister may prefer to keep wallowing, assuring us that he has a really terrific ministry, many of whom can be trusted to tie their own shoelaces, and they all have his fullest confidence.

But the sad reality is that even his current heroes have, on examination, not all that much in the way of useful action. Take Scott Morrison – please, take him. Apart from blaming the Labor Party for everything in the past, present and presumably future, he has actually achieved very little. A nibble around the deficit, only to promise that it will get much worse before it gets better. A refusal to countenance spending even on the brink of recession, a total aversion to raising revenue, a determination to reject any suggestions that come from anyone else, even those within his own bureaucracy.

Julie Bishop, of course, is not going anywhere. Not now, not ever. Then there is Michaelia Cash, who has replaced the failing Kelly O’Dwyer as Turnbull’s current Wonder Woman. Cash gained much political kudos after negotiating the industrial changes through the senate, but very few people cared apart from the ideologues, and then they turned on her when he gave away so many concessions that very little of their bone-dry agendas was left.

And the same applies to Turnbull’s spokesandroid, Matthias Corman, widely praised for his communication skills (which means repeating the same slogans over and over again); he is given credit with negotiating with the unruly crossbenches to deliver outcomes, regardless of the worth of what is actually delivered. Simon Birmingham has flung himself into the Education maze but offered no real way out. Christian Porter has decided that the safest course is to go on fighting the war on dole bludgers, although it turns out most of them are pensioners.

Josh Frydenberg has dropped from being golden boy to lead balloon for being too indiscreet – or honest, as some would call it. Even Peter Mutton Dutton is regarded as a success, apparently for being the kind of one dimensional thug who used to give the Queensland Drug Squad a bad name. And along with Pyne, who talks a lot and does very little, few of the others have struggled to achieve even cursory recognition.

These are thy ministers, oh Malcolm; a true prophet would cast them down, but then a true prophet would never have elevated them in the first place. And short of convenient asteroid, there is no prospect of swift obliteration; they will have to be naturally selected for removal individually, shunted off to the kind of cosy sinecures that are currently being prepared for George Brandis.

The problem is that there is something of a shortage of well-padded asylums for them all to go to. Alexander Downer is shortly to vacate his comfy chair in the Court of St James, but that, we are told, is already reserved for Brandis. And is these straitened times the government cannot simply invent new diplomatic posts, as was the traditional method of ejection.

There are plenty of lobbyist positions available (the assumption of Labor’s Stephen Conroy as a gambling czar is the most recent and egregious example) but the true grandees see hanging on to the public teat as their entitlement – and of course, would probably not survive in private enterprise anyway.

So it may well be that even if Turnbull has the will and nerve to try and move his ministry a few steps up the evolutionary ladder (a highly dubious proposition in itself) finding convenient places to accommodate them without serious disruption will prove impossible. Just another prime ministerial dilemma: so much swamp, so little refuge.

Mungo MacCallum was formerly a senior journalist in the Canberra Press Gallery.

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