Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
PM Malcolm Turnbull hits a rough spot with Mal Brough

It was another prime minister named Malcolm who said it but it applies to the incumbent: “Life wasn’t meant to be easy.” While Turnbull was away trying to save the planet with 149 other world leaders, back home the raw wounds and bitter divisions caused by the September leadership coup were reopened. And then his “captain’s pick”, Special Minister of State Mal Brough, put up in lights old questions about the PM’s judgement.

Brough played a key role in supporting the Turnbull putsch against Tony Abbott. Always an ambitious man, he is one of the plotters whose promise of a cabinet post Turnbull kept. The fact that Abbott did not immediately put the Howard-era minister straight into his ministry is thought by some Liberals to be a big part of the reason for the Brough defection.

Politics is all about deal-making and undertakings. It is also critically about knowing when to break a promise in the service of the greater cause. That cause, as Abbott found out, is the survival of the prime ministership. Some are already comparing Turnbull’s loyalty to Brough to Abbott’s misguided attachment to the then embattled speaker Bronwyn Bishop. Turnbull, I am told, was waiting for Brough to decide that it would be better if he stood aside – and to come to the realisation all by himself. At the time of writing that was looking like a faint hope.

Turnbull gives every indication of taking at face value Brough’s assurances there are no new facts in the so-called Ashby affair. Palpably, there is one: a new police investigation. If Brough knew it was about to begin, he appears not to have told the new prime minister three months ago when he put his hand up for promotion. If he did, it feeds into Labor’s purpose of showing Turnbull’s judgement is still flawed. For starters, why would Turnbull give the portfolio of special minister of state to a man who has a cloud over his treatment of the very institutions he is now charged with administering?

For an opposition floored by the change of Liberal leader, the machinations of Brough and former staffer James Ashby against the Liberal turncoat Peter Slipper have proved a godsend. This past week Labor has dominated question time with forensic questioning of Brough. Turnbull has derided shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus, QC, but one of the PM’s closest allies tells me Turnbull is less impressed with Brough by the day. Why wouldn’t he be? Brough has slithered and slid and been resolutely evasive. Midweek, after accusing 60 Minutes of doctoring his interview, he had to back down when the unedited version was produced.

He used one of the oldest tactics in the book, coming in and making a statement to the parliament. The plan was to then use that statement to block Labor’s questions. It didn’t work. For one thing it was far from comprehensive and did not explain why he answered “Yes” to reporter Liz Hayes asking him if he had asked Ashby to procure copies of Peter Slipper’s diary. The question is critical and was asked in the very terms of the police search warrant that is investigating a possible breach of the Crimes Act.

Dreyfus broke through Brough’s defences when he asked, word for word, Hayes’s question in the parliament. The hapless special minister of state this time changed his story and answered “No”. Maybe he thought it was better to lie to Channel Nine than to parliament. Labor says he’s misled the house anyway, a capital offence for a minister. But Turnbull came to his defence in question time, saying, “Guilt or innocence is not determined by public denunciation, here or anywhere else.” 

The mess is getting worse. Ashby pointed the finger at another Turnbull ally, Queensland MP Wyatt Roy. Roy denies asking for the speaker’s official diary. And on the edge of the spotlight is another senior cabinet minister, Christopher Pyne. Pyne had extensive discussions with Ashby. Brough, if he had a mind to, could make life uncomfortable for all of them. He is already doing it for Turnbull. As The Australian’s Dennis Shanahan wrote: “Brough becomes first blot against Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership.”

But this week the way in which the member for Wentworth became prime minister was dramatically revisited in the Fairfax papers. Peter Hartcher’s series “Shirtfronted” has been like a print sequel to the ABC-TV series The Killing Season, which reopened the old wounds of the Rudd–Gillard years for Labor. While not all of the author’s sources have come on the record or before the camera, as it were, the impact is no less damaging. 

The knifed prime minister left no one in any doubt that he considers his erstwhile deputy, Julie Bishop, to be a treacherous liar, and her colleague, Scott Morrison, to be duplicitous. There was Tony Abbott’s white-hot fury at revelations back in February that Turnbull called Morrison to offer him the job of treasurer should the backbench spill motion be successful. Bishop was present, listening on a speakerphone. When asked on Channel Nine if she told her then leader Abbott about the conversation she said, “Of course, of course”. “False,” replied Abbott. She did not, he says, but, along with Turnbull and Morrison, continued to serve in his cabinet for another seven months. And, he says, was part of the “white-anting” and leaking against him. So, in his view, his loyal deputy was not only failing to alert him to a plot to unseat him – she was a central part of it.

Bishop at first defended herself by also saying it was Abbott who put himself on six months’ probation “to turn things around”. His cabinet stuck with him in February but deserted him in September when the government’s fortunes had plummeted. “Thirty bad Newspolls in a row,” as Turnbull said on the day he launched his challenge.

The next day, on Ten’s The Project, Bishop declined to respond to Abbott’s fierce counterattack. She put it down to “different recollections”. She had nothing more to add, she said. When asked if the Liberals were looking a lot like the previous Labor government, she denied it and pointed to the overwhelming acceptance of the dumping of Abbott as measured in the opinion polls.

But Labor’s coups were followed by good opinion polls, too. It was sniping and undermining that soon put paid to them. Until this week, the Liberals have been much more successful in containing the bitterness and recriminations that inevitably follow the deposing of a prime minister, especially a first-term leader who took the party into government. The danger now is Abbott has served notice he will trenchantly defend his legacy. More than that, as his intervention in the “boots-on-the- ground” debate over Syria has showed, he is prepared to question his successor’s policies and to undermine his credibility.

In that, he is not alone. His conservative allies resumed their “monkey-pod room” lunches this week. Regular attendee and host, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, has ridiculed suggestions he is part of a resistance movement. Some kindly suggest he would like to be a bridge between the conservatives and Turnbull’s moderates. Maybe so, but he is emerging as the likely candidate of the right-wingers for leadership if Turnbull were to fall under a bus or be pushed into the path of one.

The trigger for that would be a collapse in the stratospheric opinion polls for Turnbull and for the government to fall behind Labor. There is no real sign of such a thing now. But as one Nationals senator told me, the prime minister’s numbers can’t hold up: they are sure to tighten closer to the election. In the meantime, there is a mood in the National Party to hold the prime minister to the letter of the Coalition agreement he signed after the forced departure of their preferred Liberal leader.

That agreement was very much an entrenching of Abbott policies. Already there is some unhappiness that ministers, especially Liberal ones and Turnbull himself, are taking the six Nationals senators for granted. The PM’s overtures to the crossbench senators have their noses out of joint. He shouldn’t be surprised if they vote against legislative amendments that haven’t first been run by them.

This push-back goes a long way to explain why Turnbull in Paris had a late change of mind and did not sign the communiqué calling for an end to fossil fuel subsidies. Canada, the United States, New Zealand and 30 other nations had no such qualms. But the Nationals’ anger was white-hot about the whole thing. Any threat to the multibillion-dollar diesel fuel rebate would not be tolerated. Even rural Liberals were pushing back. 

One, Ian Macfarlane, 17 years in the parliament, defected to the Nationals, rocking the Coalition. He was dumped from cabinet after the leadership spill by his long-time friend, Turnbull. But Macfarlane has taken his revenge. The swap means the prime minister will lose a Liberal to be replaced by a National in the ministry – part of the carefully balanced numbers deal in the Coalition make-up.

Not signing the Paris deal didn’t save the day and dented Turnbull’s green credentials. Never mind that the total carbon subsidy in Australia, according to the Climate Institute, is towards $40 billion a year. The New Zealand climate change negotiations minister, Tim Groser, said Turnbull was determined to shift the dial forward absolutely but in a slow and moderate way.

And it’s true. Turnbull needs all the patience and fine judgement he can muster.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 5, 2015 as "Penalty strokes in the Brough". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a regular commentator on ABC Radio National Breakfast.