Paul Bongiorno
Decisive Turnbull faces tiny majority government

The dithering Malcolm Turnbull who lost so much respect in the electorate earlier this year was nowhere to be seen this week. Instead, a gut-wrenching report on the ABC’s Four Corners program propelled the prime minister into decisive action. By dawn the following morning, a mere 11 hours later, he announced a royal commission into horrific child abuse in the Northern Territory’s juvenile criminal justice system.

Events can define or destroy political leaders. There are many things about the way Turnbull seized the moment on this issue that have thrilled his allies in the government and have won praise from his political opponents. The first thing to be noted was his unequivocal, heartfelt language: “Like all Australians, I’ve been deeply shocked and appalled by the images of mistreatment of children at the Don Dale Centre.” Second, and importantly, he used the prestige and power of his office to get a real response under way.

He called the Northern Territory’s “law and order” chief minister, Adam Giles, and left him in no doubt that what was happening in his jurisdiction was completely unacceptable. He called his Indigenous affairs minister, Nigel Scullion, only to find he hadn’t watched the program and was blissfully unaware of it or the issues it raised. Scullion is a Territorian born and bred. He drives around with three fully loaded guns in the back of his car. You can’t be too careful with buffaloes and other wildlife a constant threat. He is also a member of the Country Liberal Party, the governing party of the territory, but sits as a National in Canberra. Scullion was told he had better bring himself up to speed pronto. Turnbull also spoke to the human rights commission president, Gillian Triggs, a sure sign he doesn’t share his predecessor Tony Abbott’s disrespect of her.

As prime minister, Turnbull was acutely aware of the damage to the nation’s reputation these pictures would do. Already they have flashed around the world. Comparisons to the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were not hard to draw. The ABC’s exposé persuaded Turnbull that the events documented were systemic and cultural. He says he wants to know why there were inquiries into this centre that did not turn up the evidence and information that the program did.

But then it gets puzzling. Turnbull intends to hold the royal commission jointly with the Northern Territory government.

This is a government led by a man who said in 2010 that he wanted to be correctional services minister so he could put all the bad criminals in a big concrete hole, even if he broke “every United Nations convention on the rights of the prisoner”. Governments have a habit of excluding themselves from the purview of royal commissioners in the terms of reference they draw up. John Howard drew criticism from the Labor opposition when he did just that setting up the inquiry into the Australian Wheat Board’s breaking of a trade embargo with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. It will be important for the decisive Turnbull to have this royal commission above any suspicion of a further cover-up. The temptation could be there, as the Giles conservative government faces an election next month.

Another event this week had Turnbull back in election mode. The re-count in the Queensland seat of Herbert saw it fall to Labor. That left him with the most slender of margins, a majority of one that disappears from the floor of the house if a Liberal is appointed speaker. The prime minister went to Townsville to show solidarity with the defeated member, Ewen Jones, and get in some pre-emptive campaigning at the Lavarack army barracks. All the signs point to the Liberals looking for grounds to petition the Court of Disputed Returns for a re-election. “So the voters can get it right next time,” was the wry comment from a Labor strategist.

Turnbull didn’t bother to drop in on Mackay further down the coast. There, the LNP member who sits as a National in parliament, George Christensen, is threatening to blow up the government on the issue of superannuation. “Whatever happened to Team Turnbull?” was the angry reaction of one minister. And from another Liberal MP, who hopes the new decisive Turnbull will show backbone on the issue: “Turnbull and Morrison should stare Christensen down and isolate him if he carries out his threat to cross the floor.”

Christensen’s campaign to save the retirement income of millionaires is positively bizarre. He represents one of the poorest electorates in the country, where unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, is high. But he says any revenue shortfall from curtailing or ditching the super changes could be made up by kicking the unemployed off the dole if they can’t find a job within six months. So if your rich aunt leaves you $500,000 or more you should be able to invest it in super and draw on the earnings tax free while some poor kid in central Queensland is left to starve because she can’t find a job.

Christensen’s crusade is fuelled by his belief that Turnbull vetoed Barnaby Joyce in appointing him as an assistant minister. Nothing could be further from the truth, according to a Turnbull ally, “but the Nats were happy to let the misconception run”. Christensen’s fit of pique only reinforces just how precarious is the Coalition’s hold on government.

The prime minister and his senior ministers have already started taking out insurance. In the house of representatives, Turnbull has personally won assurances from at least three of the crossbench they will not support no-confidence motions or vote down supply. Last weekend Attorney-General George Brandis did on national television what Turnbull has done in private. He started to build bridges to Senator-elect Pauline Hanson. On Insiders he said, “To pretend that Pauline Hanson is not part of the national conversation when she’s just been elected to the senate is ludicrous.” Brandis maintains it is absolutely the wrong idea to try to silence such people, because Hanson’s point of view exists in the community. “Half a million people voted for Pauline Hanson or her candidates in the senate,” he said.

Labor is not so accommodating. The new multicultural affairs spokesman, Tony Burke, says the vast majority of Australians are not on board with the sort of rubbish Hanson’s been spouting. “Let’s not forget 95 per cent of Australians saw One Nation on the ballot paper and voted for someone else.” Labor, of course, does not need Hanson or any colleagues she can get into the senate to govern. But ironically a significant contribution to the party’s Herbert victory was in preferences from One Nation.

In a Facebook video, Hanson detailed her conversation with Turnbull over a cup of tea in his Sydney office. “What amazes me – not amazed me, but I found I was very grateful for – was the prime minister’s attention that I had,” she said. “It was very much appreciated and I feel now that I have been listened to and my position as a senator is respected, and that’s all I want.” Burke says she should be grateful: Turnbull’s crazy-brave double-dissolution election made it easier for her to get into the senate.

While Labor is still promising to be co-operative in the new parliament it also insists it will not betray its own values and will seek to progress its own policies. Liberals have no illusions the opposition won’t take every opportunity to thwart the government and keep it off balance. After he unveiled his frontbench line-up, Bill Shorten said he believed the nation would be going back to the polls sooner rather than later. He’s convinced that “the longest campaign in 50 years will be followed by the shortest parliament in 50 years”.

A newly confident Shorten emerged from the brawl in caucus between the two Left heavyweights, Anthony Albanese and Kim Carr, with his numbers enhanced. The leader’s Right faction backed Carr’s Left rebels and as a result he has a buffer of four extra votes should there be any leadership rumblings down the track. In fact, just as Turnbull ended up with the biggest cabinet in 40 years to safeguard his position, Shorten has a jumbo-sized frontbench for the same reason. He used his prerogative as leader to appoint a record number of shadow assistant ministers from the Left and Right. Labor now has a frontbench of 48 compared with the Coalition’s 42.

While Turnbull is charming the crossbench, Labor is planning to build on its suite of election policies rather than rest on its laurels thinking it can coast into power next time. Its template will be more Gough Whitlam after 1969 than Kim Beazley after 1998. Whitlam’s near win saw him continue to flesh out his program of reform. He was rewarded in 1972. Beazley surfed on the negative sentiment in the electorate for the GST to remain a small target only to be gazumped by 9/11 and the Tampa boat people scare.

But while the swing needed for Labor to win next time will be closer to 2 per cent, a lot of hard work needs to be done to generate it, especially if decisive Malcolm is here to stay.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 30, 2016 as "Slender leadership".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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