MUNGO MACCALLUM. Turnbull ship still laden with barnacles

Dec 27, 2017

The renaissance of Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership proclaimed with such jubilation by John Alexander after regaining the seat of Bennelong lasted just 24 hours.

Then Newspoll arrived with its all too familiar message: the government was still stuck in the doldrums six points behind Labor in the two party preferred vote. Twenty five gone, and counting. Back to the dark ages.

However our perennially cheerful prime minister had ducked and weaved his way through Christmas  with the merry message  that things were now on the up and up: he had scraped off three persistent barnacles from the ship of state and once again he could get on with the real issues. But a closer examination reveals that the barnacles have not been scraped off at all merely temporarily sedated until parliament resumes.

They are, in order, same sex marriage, energy policy and the dual citizen saga, and none of the three can be considered settled, let alone scraped. Same sex marriage, of course, is now law, to almost everyone’s great relief. But there is an aftermath – the review from Phillip Ruddock and co into what is euphemistically called religious protection. This may be kept under cover for a while, but has the potential to be just as divisive and dirty as the lengthy debate it spawned.

If there was any doubt, the Christian Lobby and the other churches, along with their willing evangelists in the parliament, have made it clear that this is where the real battle begins. And they have no shortage of firepower: the Catholics’ response to the findings of the Royal Commission into Child Abuse, which was essentially that they would obey the law only when and where it suited them, was unequivocal. Rome will be a bloody big barnacle.

And as for energy – well, the bills (which is what the voters really care about) will keep going up – until, ironically, more wind and solar power come on line in several months – certainly not in time for the long, hot summer. A reduction in the wholesale price of gas will be unnoticeable, and Turnbull’s beloved Snowy Hydro 2.0 is not yet even a hole in the ground.

Turnbull says sustainability of supply is now secure, and he had better be right: a serious blackout in any of the major cities would destroy whatever credibility over the issue he has left. Just keep scraping.

And as for dual citizenship – Turnbull apparently intends to unilaterally refer his suspected opponents to the High Court, while maintaining, in a curious echo from Bill Shorten’s ill-advised bravado, that all his own are squeaky clean.  It is a sure bet that the media will not be assuaged, and a likely bet that more problems including some on his own side, will be turned up.

And by throwing the crossbencher Rebeka Sharkie into the mix, he has ensured that her support for no-confidence motions is no longer guaranteed.  He obviously believes that with the return of Alexander and Barnaby Joyce this is no longer vital, but he has left another barnacle nonetheless.

But undeterred, Turnbull has embarked on another round of barnacle scraping in the form of a drastic reshuffle, in which four limpets have  been more firmly despatched.   George Brandis is to retire his pomposity to the Court of St James, and while he will not be greatly missed – after all, his exit has been signalled for more than a year – he has been a staunch Turnbull ally in a party room where there are all too few of them.

The same applies to Arthur Sinodinos, who has had his travails over corporate donations (linked, dare we say it, to Eddie Obeid among others) but was seen as one of Turnbull’s main men until sickness has sidelined him.

Darren Chester can be considered unlucky; he has hardly revolutionised the infrastructure portfolio, but he has done little wrong – except, of course, for voting for same sex marriage, an unforgiveable sin in the eyes of some of his National Party colleagues. And he was particularly off side with his leader, Barnaby Joyce.

But what struck him down, we are told, was not his stand on human rights, but his place of residence: Chester is a Victorian, and the party wanted more Queenslanders in cabinet. Or so they say: the other who has been turfed, Keith Pitt, is a dead-set Queenslander, but apparently he doesn’t count. The Nats will not countenance affirmative action for women, that would be discrimination, politicians must succeed on their merits. Except, of course, those north of the Tweed: they don’t have enough of them to qualify.

And there was still just enough time to crow about the national accounts figures, which shaved an insignificant amount and probably temporary from the deficit. Jobs and growth, trumpeted Turnbull, is not just a slogan but an outcome.

Well, perhaps some of it. A lot of jobs have indeed been created, although many of them are low paid and given the current stagnation over wages, they are not likely to become much more attractive. But economic growth has actually been forecast to decline from 2.75 per cent – no bonanza in its own right – to 2.5 per cent.

Naturally, this manifestly inadequate result was yet another win for the government, said Treasurer Scott Morrison. In fact actually most of it came from a fortuitous rise in commodity prices and cuts on welfare.

Despite the demands of an ageing population, the numbers of welfare recipients are the lowest in more than 40 years, which Treasurer Scott Morrison obviously thinks is a good thing.

This is not a view that is necessarily shared by the victims – old age, disabled and single parent pensioners, to name but a few. And now that the senate has jacked up against further cuts, Morrison will resort to the mean and tricky device of using regulations to defy the clear will of the parliament of Australia.

Turnbull now admits that he regrets including Newspoll as a reason for ousting Tony Abbott – but then, he never dreamt that he would be in a similar, or even worse, position. However, at least he has survived the killing season – Christmas comes but once a year/ To fill our leader’s heart with fear.

Now there’s just 2018 to contend with.. For auld acquaintance be forgot. And especially if that auld acquaintance happens to include Tony Abbott.

Mungo MacCallum is Mungo MacCallum

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