MUNGO MacCALLUM. Poor Malcolm.

Nov 13, 2018

Just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean people don’t hate you. It sometimes seems that Malcolm Turnbull is being pursued by that old Andy Capp character Joe Btfsplk, who brought bad luck to everyone near him. 

Not that he has any lack of real persecutors to contend with: on what will be presumably only the first of his farewell Q and A tours, he named nine of the most dastardly and was only prepared to give limited absolution to the real beneficiary, his successor Scott Morrison. 

It was supposed to be the stuff of headlines – the zinger to kybosh whatever benefit Morrison’s Queensland non-bus trip may have achieved. But then along came Luke Foley, providing the slavering media with redder, rawer meat than Turnbull could ever offer. 

Foley’s self immolation dominated the headlines, with his pleas for self justification relegated to the bottom of the page – except, of course, in the letters page of The Australian, when the triumphant bile regurgitated against Turnbull continued unabated. And in a sense this was fair enough, because Turnbull’s big occasion was something of an anti-climax. 

He made great play of the economic legacy – the vindication, as he saw it, of his Jobs and Growth slogan. But as was the case with so many of his predecessors, this; was the result at least as much of good luck as good management in the 21st century middle-sized domestic economies are invariably hostage to international conditions. 

Australia’s success – built firmly upon the achievements of Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan in avoiding the worst effect of the Global Financial Crisis – has benefited hugely on the rise in commodity prices, over which no government in Canberra has any real control. 

And more interesting was what Turnbull did not boast. There was no serious mention of the ongoing inadequacies and blow outs of the NBN,  which he had personally taken charge at the behest of Tony Abbott. The fiasco of energy policy was brushed aside and climate change barely got a look in. 

He claimed credit for same sex marriage, but failed to admit that he vigorously opposed the plebiscite which was finally thrust upon him. And overall he ducked the crucial question of why he had made such grovelling capitulations to the Nationals and the mad right of the Liberal caucus. 

No one expected a mea culpa – such humility is not in the man’s make up. But a proper apologia pro sua vita would have been nice. Instead,  we  got, as so often from Turnbull, self-serving waffle: his genius is surely there for all to see, so any criticism of it – let alone the kind that leads to open opposition – must by definition be insurgency, madness.

So no apple carts were upset, few if any beans were spilled, the event could hardly be described as a smash hit. But nearly a million people watched it and many of them will be hoping impatiently for another episode; Scott Morrison may be assuring  them that it is all over, time to move on, business as usual, but they know better. And unless the culture wars within the right moderates and the reactionaries can come to a truce – an outcome as likely as Turnbull and Abbott performing a same sex marriage – the government will continue to struggle its way towards defeat. 

Morrison has, at last, had a bit of luck in Foley, and at the end of the week in a terrorist attack in Melbourne and will undoubtedly promote them in his most vigorous marketing style, but most of the advantage to those will go to his state colleagues. 

The prime minister has also resumed full attack mode over Labor’s long-running policy to kerb negative gearing on new investment properties; taking an opportunity to stoke fears of a falling property market he has gone back to the line that Bill Shorten would take a sledge hammer to hard-working mums and dads to their savings, their residences, to their very livelihoods – a hyperbolic absurdity that didn’t work in 2016 and is unlikely to work now. 

But this is the kind of belligerent negativity that the warriors of the right are urging, while on the other side the moderates are talking up the lessons of the Wentworth by-election and the need to reclaim the centre from the mythical base. Morrison may be the neophyte leader, but in practice he is still trapped in the vendetta between his two predecessors, Turnbull and Abbott- and their zealous followers. 

Abbott says his job is done; he has vanquished his enemy and the war is over so he will go back to being an unobtrusive backbencher. Turnbull says he has resigned from parliament and only wants to go back to business – he is finished with politics. The trouble is that no one believes them for an instant, and even if they were momentarily sincere, as soon as one of them slipped in a real or imagined provocation, the other would be back in action with all guns blazing. And the media can’t wait, dealing out lures and baits designed to prolong the reliably newsworthy conflict and chaos for as long as possible. 

In one sense Morrison is correct: this debate should be in the past. The undeniable fact is that both Abbott and Turnbull have been rejected as leaders by their own party. We can argue about how and why it was done and whether or not these were wise moves but they have been done – it is  irrevocable; only the seriously delusional (ie Tony Abbott) think there is any chance of a comeback. 

But the state of current politics, particularly among the mad right, suggests that delusion and reality are closely entwined. 

No wonder that Morrison has gone down to the old, tried and true formula: Islamic extremists pose the greatest threat to Australia. Of course last week the greatest threat to Australia was the likelihood of a Shorten government, but hey, if you’re into marketing you have to refresh the brand from time to time. And in any case, most Liberals, both in and out of parliament, know the greatest threat to Australia has always been either Malcolm Turnbull or Tony Abbott — take your pick. They call themselves conservatives, so why change now?

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