Traditionally, Christmas and new year marks a flat spot for political news. But the past few weeks have thrown up their share of woe for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Holiday surprises for Malcolm Turnbull

There’s a famous episode of The Sopranos called “Pine Barrens”. Two gangsters, Chris and Paulie, are dispatched by their boss to roughly extract a debt from a Russian rival. Through farce and ill temper, the Russian is killed – or so they think – and an irritated Tony Soprano directs them to dump the body in the vast and snowy barrens. From there, the episode unfurls into Beckettian comedy, dark and absurd, as their “corpse” springs from the trunk, freakishly resilient and intent upon escape. Not only do Chris and Paulie fail to discreetly dispose of their man, they lose him – and themselves – in the process. 

The space between Christmas and new year was Malcolm Turnbull’s pine barrens, in the popular wisdom an arid place for news and its reception, and an ideal time to dump the bodies. But you can never quite control these things. Farce and ill temper don’t take holidays, and things can get away from you… 

1 . Briggs’s demise

On December 29, the minister for cities, Jamie Briggs, resigned from his portfolio. He read gravely from his prepared statement: “My decision has been made after careful reflection about certain matters that occurred during an official visit to Hong Kong in late November of this year.

“At the conclusion of the dinner – which I paid for personally – we went to a popular and, as it transpired, very crowded bar for drinks during which we interacted between the three of us and with others in what I believed, at the time, was an informal manner. At the conclusion of the evening, the public servant left to return home and my chief of staff and I returned to our hotel together.

“At no point was it my intention to act inappropriately and I’m obliged to note for the record that nothing illegal has been alleged or did in fact occur.”

It was bizarre in that Briggs suggested professional trespass, but gave almost no details except for the ones that appeared head-scratchingly irrelevant – “…a very crowded bar…” It was a puzzling line then, but appears now as an alibi, a subtle suggestion that what seemed like sleaze was in fact the unavoidable proximity enforced by a crush of people. 

Briggs attempted the tightrope walk that so many resignation speeches do – accepting a failure to meet standards, while hinting that those standards are preposterously high, the work of hysterical political correctness. There was no contrition in the speech, and he appealed to his own nobility when he said that he was not naming the woman in question in order to “protect her privacy”. But Briggs had already shared a photo he had taken of her, and would do so again after his resignation, and it wound up splashed on the front page of The Australian. Just boys being boys. 

Briggs had fallen. The fixer, the chancer, the man whose abilities purred more powerfully in his own mind than in those of his colleagues. He of the busted leg, wheelchair and schoolboy grin the day following Tony Abbott’s decline, his smirk signalling that he knew we weren’t buying his account of a jogging accident, but also that he enjoyed our disbelief, almost as much as he enjoyed the previous night’s raucous wake in which, attempting to tackle the fallen prime minister, he ruptured a knee ligament. He stuck to his lie for weeks. “Everyone knows that Tony Abbott is a very fit man, he’s a very strong man, and I’m not at the peak of my powers as far as fitness is concerned,” Briggs admitted a month later. “I then limped back to the office and licked my wounds.”

I thought, as he was wheeled into the house of the people back in September, that there was something in that grin, a sort of juvenile pride, and later a colleague would say that Briggs was never the best drunk. It’s an archetype I’ve seen personally in politics – the self-conscious larrikin, the loose boozer, his gut swelling commensurately with his ego. Two months later, Briggs was necking drinks at a Hong Kong bar until 1.30 in the morning, and after a night of impropriety was softening his hangover with a Big Mac and fries. Meanwhile, his chief of staff was wondering where his phone was. Just boys being boys. The former secretary of the department of defence, Paul Barratt, mused sardonically about what information Briggs had indiscreetly shared with the bugs in his hotel room. 

Turnbull had never wanted Briggs in cabinet, but a compromise ensured it. Like his mate Abbott, Briggs still dreams of a glorious return – his ego bruised but whirring. Few colleagues believe or desire it. In his maiden speech in 2008, Briggs asserted that “I am a Liberal because I believe in the importance of the family as the cornerstone of our lives”, as if this near-universal value was somehow the unique province of his political party. In 2016, many now think that the cornerstone of Briggs’s life is Briggs.

2 . Ashbygate rolls on

On the same day as Briggs’s resignation, the prime minister announced that his special minister of state, Mal Brough, would step aside from his position. Brough’s home had been searched by the Australian Federal Police in November, and the opposition’s insistent use of the saga was cruelling Turnbull’s honeymoon. It was the time to announce it. There is only so much oxygen in a media cycle, and Briggs’s calamity had consumed most of it. 

The so-called Ashbygate drama is long, murky and subject to competing legal interpretations. But it can be neatly summarised by the details of the AFP’s search warrant: “Between 23 March and 13 April 2012, Malcolm Thomas Brough counselled and procured James Hunter Ashby, being a commonwealth officer, to disclose extracts from the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr Peter Slipper’s 2009 to 2012 official diary, and provide those extracts to third parties without authority, contrary to section 70(1) of the Crimes Act…”

It has been alleged that Peter Slipper’s former adviser, James Ashby, had turned against his boss and was conspiring with Brough – then out of parliament, but imminently contesting Slipper’s seat of Fisher – to undermine the speaker and the Labor government. This campaign of sabotage, it’s alleged, was also evident in Ashby’s claims of sexual harassment against Slipper – claims that were dismissed by a federal court judge in late 2012 as an abuse of process, a political stitch-up. But the Ashbygate roller-coaster lurched another way when Ashby appealed the judgement, and the bench agreed that the evidence before the previous judge could not justify his adverse decision. Vindication, it seemed, for Ashby.  

That was then. Later that year Brough told 60 Minutes he had in fact asked Ashby for Slipper’s diaries, an admission he later contradicted in parliament. The opposition has since been skewering both Brough and Turnbull with the inconsistencies. The search warrants, and an indefinitely long investigation, increased pressure; the strange distance between Brough’s 60 Minutes interview and the AFP warrants invited suspicion. The spectre of Ashbygate would have continued into the new year without action. “The Hon. Mal Brough and I have agreed that he will stand aside as special minister of state and minister for defence materiel and science pending the completion of inquiries by the police,” Turnbull said. “In offering to stand aside, Mr Brough has done the right thing, recognising the importance of the government maintaining an unwavering focus on jobs, economic growth and national security.” 

Brough has played it cool, expressing fond anticipation of his return to the portfolio. But it’s understood that there is no such guarantee. For now, Turnbull’s man will affect equanimity and the investigation will rumble on. 

3 . State of the unions

As I wrote last year, there are few issues that more predictably attract partisan talking lines than the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption. Commissioner Dyson Heydon tabled his report after Christmas and his recommendations were released on December 30. The political responses to it varied so much you may have wondered if the respective parties were referring to the same investigation. 

Turnbull responded by declaring the report – in which 45 union officials were referred to police – as a “watershed moment”. A time to reimagine unions, to reform and properly regulate them, which, the prime minister implied, may help stave off their decline. Turnbull informally tied the collapse in union membership – at no other time have there been fewer members – to the sustained corruption suggested by the report. Here was opportunity to “renovate”. “This is not a case of a few rotten apples spoiling the whole barrel,” Turnbull said. “There are many union officials, and widespread cultures, of impropriety and malpractice.”

The shadow minister for employment and workplace relations, Brendan O’Connor, gave a defensive speech, dismissing the commission as a “political witch-hunt” and renewing attacks on Dyson Heydon’s impartiality. “The commissioner himself has made very clear that he has relied on hearsay evidence and, indeed, that the royal commission is not a court of law,” O’Connor said.

“He makes it very clear in this report that these matters are not matters that are before a court, that the rules of evidence need not apply, and therefore any findings by this commission must be understood in that context.”

So which is it? Do unions suffer a cultural wickedness, or was the malpractice discovered by Heydon representative of broader, national levels of cupidity? One measure will be the success or failure of Heydon’s referrals – just how many prosecutions emerge. Something else is certain, though – Turnbull may use the report as a bludgeon against Labor if they appear intransigent on union reform, as well as a platform for wider workplace relations changes. Having seen Howard’s WorkChoices fatally undermine the government in 2007, Turnbull will have to intuit how much reform the electorate will tolerate. 

4 . Medicare reform

Also part buried in the pine barrens of Christmas was the government’s decision, after their Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO), to push for the removal of incentive payments to pathology and diagnostic services – payments that allow for bulk billing – which total about $650 million. Such a move, doctors argued, would increase the costs of blood tests, MRIs and Pap smears, among other services, to patients. The government argued that the payments are inefficient, and a spokesperson for Health Minister Sussan Ley said it was “disingenuous” of medical providers to suggest significant price hikes. Any removal of these incentives would require senate approval. 

In a separate announcement made after Christmas, the government announced 23 medical services that have been flagged for removal from the Medicare Benefits Scheme – of almost 6000 services – after consultation with industry. The savings are minimal, but Ley said it had nothing to do with cost cutting – or the gloomy MYEFO deficit forecasts. “This is taxpayers’ dollars going into the health system and effectively not leading to health outcomes for people. That needs to be changed.” 

The announcements drew a muted response until the new year, when it appeared as if the body had sprung from the trunk. 

5 . Old guard dig in

This week, Turnbull has been in the United States meeting with President Barack Obama and heads of intelligence agencies. He discussed terror in the Pacific, and offered silent tribute to America’s war dead at Arlington National Cemetery. But back home, treasury was sombrely examining debt forecasts and modelling a violently restructuring global economy. A slowing China and dramatically reduced oil prices had slashed the value of our export commodities, and our deficit continues to blossom. 

And within the more arcane world of factional disputes lay more awful portents. Rumbling for weeks have been suggestions of an early election, the thick resentment of Abbott’s consigliore, and the violence of preselection. Abbott has said he’ll make a decision about recontesting his seat in April – a seemingly cruel and destructive delay – while rumours swirled about his ambitions for political reincarnation. Among Liberal factions, aggressive jostling between moderates and conservatives continued, a comic counterpoint to Turnbull’s suggestion last year that his party was not bedevilled by such ruptures. His assertion induced laughter from colleagues. 

Disgraced former speaker Bronwyn Bishop has made clear her intention to recontest her seat – which she has held since 1994 – and offered her determination to defeat Daesh as a primary motive. It runs contrary both to the moderates’ agenda, and a broader desire for generational change. “The only person who thinks Bronwyn should renominate is Bronwyn,” former Liberal leader John Hewson told Sky News. “She will go down in history as our most biased speaker and a fairly poor minister.” Jeff Kennett added to the character assessments: “She brought great discredit to herself. She brought great discredit to her government.” 

Other Liberal elders, Philip Ruddock and Queensland senator Bill Heffernan, seem equally avowed in their intentions to renominate. There is little here that is agile about the entitlement or intransigence, and the internal recrimination will continue. 

Adding to Turnbull’s woes is the redistribution of electoral boundaries, announced by the Australian Electoral Commission this week, and which reflects population changes. The official margins are yet to be calculated, but the redrawings notionally favour Labor – which may pick up two additional seats, with the Liberals correspondingly losing two. The difference in seats, however, still requires Labor to enjoy a significant swing whenever we next go to the polls – but a small grace for the opposition. 

It hasn’t been all bad for Turnbull, though. This week The Australian reported that NSW’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) had cleared cabinet secretary Arthur Sinodinos over claims of impropriety while he was chairman of Australian Water Holdings. In 2014, he resigned as assistant treasurer until the matter was resolved. Neither ICAC nor Sinodinos can confirm The Australian’s report, as the commission is not due to officially report until March. Both parties will be gagged until then, but that hasn’t prevented the vindication found in leaks. 

6 . Troubled waters to navigate

Turnbull promised a new kind of leadership, and so far he has replaced Abbott’s constipated grace. But he has inherited factional cannibalism, spiralling debt and lingering scandals, and homilies about agility will not be sufficient to correct them. There is the internal and the external – the large and the small – that Turnbull must navigate. The future of his party and that of our country.

But there are grimmer, earthier matters at hand. Not the high-minded stuff of maiden speeches, but the bog peat of egos. Towards the end of “Pine Barrens” the two gangsters – lost, defeated and freezing in their car – turn against each other. Paulie Walnuts makes an appeal. “C’mon, Chrissy. All the shit we been through, you really think I’d kill ya?”

Chris’s reply is deadpan: “Yeah, I do.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 23, 2016 as "Bringing up the bodies".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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