Paul Bongiorno
Malcolm Turnbull’s week of missteps

Two weeks into the new Turnbull government the prime minister is in urgent need of someone to patch a few holes. The refloated ship of state has sprung more leaks than we have seen in quite a while. It’s not yet time to take to the lifeboats but out the portholes have gone cabinet solidarity, confidentiality and cohesion. This is an administration at war with itself, and the parliament hasn’t even sat yet.

The immediate issue was the nomination of former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd for the job of secretary-general of the United Nations. As a piece of political management, it was amateur hour. That in itself is a real worry given that the government holds power with a wafer-thin majority of one and lacks the numbers in a senate with the most unwieldy crossbench in history. But then we had the botched establishment of the royal commission into the Northern Territory’s juvenile justice system. Deftness, agility and nous went missing.

Malcolm Turnbull insists the Rudd nomination was not a first-order issue. But his mishandling of it elevated it to a first-order farce, exposing the fault lines within his government’s executive. It is a schism that extends beyond the cabinet room and into the party room. Just to give you a taste for it: figures in the hard right of the party are saying that Turnbull has three months to show he can perform. A key Turnbull ally in cabinet is very concerned by the rumblings. He says if they bring this prime minister down it will be the end of the government no matter who then leads it.

Ironically, Turnbull, unlike the minority prime minister Julia Gillard, does not have ironclad guarantees in writing from the crossbench personally assuring him of support. In the end it didn’t save Gillard from the predatory Kevin Rudd, but Rudd’s lunge was at the 11th hour, just months out from a due election. And by the way, those who defend the Turnbull decision to deny Rudd his ambition to be a world leader forget that the party that dumped him returned to him to save the furniture. On that, he delivered. Despite running a poor campaign in 2013, even his internal critics credit him with holding on to 10 seats.

What spells trouble for Turnbull is the lack of political skills on show in the Rudd nomination debacle. Rudd’s release of his correspondence with the prime minister shows that Turnbull told him last May that cabinet would have to make the decision and Rudd didn’t have his support. Rudd and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop did not believe it. Much has been made of Rudd’s vindictiveness in releasing private letters, but he did so after he was told the prime minister’s office was briefing journalists against him. According to the PMO, an unnamed senior public servant with international experience advised Turnbull that Rudd would antagonise the five key Security Council members and this was not in Australia’s interests.

Yet at play was not merely Rudd lacking the temperament for the job, as Turnbull put it, but the fact that the hardliners in cabinet all shared Tony Abbott’s view that Rudd should be denied in favour of New Zealand’s Helen Clark. Incredible. The former Australian prime minister whose credentials for the job they do not deny should play second fiddle to a foreigner. Scott Morrison – the treasurer, not the foreign minister – even ridiculed Rudd on radio before the cabinet meeting.

So we have here an arm wrestle that the right lost in cabinet but won by scaring Turnbull. Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce went on television to break all convention by claiming the decision Turnbull announced the day before had the backing of a majority of cabinet. The moderates retaliated. In fact, the visceral arguments against the “monster” Rudd had failed to win the day. Eleven supported the foreign minister and her department’s recommendation Rudd be flagged through; 10 did not. Several versions to leak out under the cabinet door say Turnbull terminated the discussion and his office briefed, again, that he was given “a captain’s pick”. That’s the manoeuvre Turnbull himself distained whenever Abbott applied it.

Julie Bishop, in arguing the principle of supporting a former Australian prime minister, also sought to calm any nerves by telling cabinet that Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov personally informed her that Russia would veto Rudd. Had cabinet accepted her advice, it would have been a one-day wonder formality.

Instead, Australia has embarrassed itself. This situation was made worse when Channel Nine’s Laurie Oakes revealed Turnbull rang New Zealand’s prime minister John Key to discuss the competing nominations. Key confirmed the call on New Zealand radio, at the same time publicly criticising the Rudd bid. Labor’s Penny Wong says, “The partisanship and division that characterises the barely elected Turnbull government overwhelmed the national interest, and petty politics won the day”.

On the good ship Turnbull this was followed by another example of the captain and one of his mates looking more like raw recruits. The prime minister’s welcome decisiveness in quickly announcing a royal commission into unfathomable cruelty against juvenile prisoners in the Northern Territory degenerated into a bungle. One senior legal eagle who worked on the Costigan, Hope and Woodward royal commissions cannot believe that Attorney-General George Brandis did not undertake due diligence in appointing former chief justice of the Northern Territory, Brian Ross Martin, to lead this latest inquiry.

No sooner had the Martin appointment been announced than it attracted concerns over apprehended bias and even a conflict of interest. This was born of the fact that Martin had been chief justice from 2004 to 2010. The terms of reference for the inquiry are from 2006 onwards. More problematic still, Brandis apparently accepted the advice of NT Chief Minister Adam Giles in making the appointment. Giles’s Country Liberal Party faces an election rout within three weeks if the opinion polls are any guide. Maybe Brandis allowed political loyalties to cloud his judgement but his failure to consult with the opposition, either in the Northern Territory or federally, as Gillard did in setting up the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, betrays partisan blinkers.

Labor leader Bill Shorten, who has taken on the Indigenous affairs portfolio for the opposition, was also highly critical of the failure to consult with the Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory. Their criticisms, along with the revelation that Justice Martin’s daughter had worked as an adviser to a relevant minister in Darwin, convinced the newly appointed commissioner he should be unappointed. Brandis did not agree and spent last weekend trying to talk Martin out of it. He was well aware that such a rapid unravelling would at the very least make himself and the prime minister look like dills.

For Martin, saving the political bacon of Brandis and Turnbull came second to saving the work of the commission from any undermining taint. He told a news conference in Canberra: “It has become apparent that, rightly or wrongly, in this role I would not have the full confidence of sections of the Indigenous community which has a vital interest in this inquiry. As a consequence, the effectiveness of the commission is likely to be compromised from the outset. I am not prepared to proceed in face of that risk.”

Thank you, Brian Martin. One hour later, Brandis emerged in Brisbane flanked by two new commissioners. The esteemed, conservative jurist Margaret White, a retired Queensland Supreme Court judge, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda. Gooda helpfully agreed with a journalist that he, too, thought there could have been more consultation from the government in the previous week. Then came the bombshell. He was reminded that he had tweeted, “The federal government has to intervene and sack the NT government”. That would be the very government whose agents had shocked the nation by applying a law that the thug prison warder seen in the ABC TV vision relied on to avoid prosecution for assault.

Gooda’s explanation was heartfelt: “Tuesday [the day after the ABC exposé] was a day of emotions and people had all sorts of emotional responses. In the clear light of day I probably wouldn’t think that.”  But it’s unlikely to deter lawyers for either Adam Giles or his then corrections minister, John Elferink, applying for the Aboriginal commissioner to recuse himself from the inquiry for apprehended bias.

Attention to detail doesn’t seem to be the attorney-general’s strong suit. But in a scramble to save face, George Brandis, QC, would have none of the criticism: “To be frank, you will not find an Indigenous leader in this country who hasn’t had some sharp and strong things to say about the way in which the system treats Indigenous youth.” Indeed, but according to other senior lawyers a wise AG would not appoint Gooda to this particular job in light of those specific views. Besides, there are eminent Aboriginal barristers available who could fit the bill.

Courage and political smarts are going to be needed navigating the shoals of the 45th parliament. Neither Turnbull in the house nor his government leader in the senate, Brandis, are inspiring confidence.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 6, 2016 as "Malcolm Turnbull's week of missteps".

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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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