When asked why he wouldn’t reveal how much he had given, Turnbull’s answer was as opaque as it was shifty. On Channel Nine, Laurie Oakes accused him of ‘looking like a hypocrite’. By Paul Bongiorno.

Paul Bongiorno
Malcolm Turnbull caught out on donation and US deal

As with everything about Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership, the expectations were high. The first major speech of the year, it was hoped, would hit the reset button and finally Turnbull would set the political agenda. But by most measures, Wednesday’s National Press Club speech fell well short.

Those on the Liberal backbench hoping for Turnbull to finally break free of the chains imposed by his internal critics on the right were given little to cheer about. Worse, the speech was gazumped the day before by the opposition leader. Showing the political agility that has been a hallmark of his leadership, Bill Shorten took the opportunity to begin defining the prime minister in the most lethal terms. John Howard managed to characterise his opponent Kim Beazley as “lacking ticker” – a tag the avuncular Beazley was never able to shake as far as the voters were concerned. Shorten was not so kind. He dubbed Turnbull “a phoney”.

It was a theme Shorten came back to on nine occasions in his speech and answers to journalists. So it was no happenstance, rather it was seizing a sentiment that’s being picked up in the broader electorate. He ruthlessly applied it to Turnbull’s refusal to join other world leaders in criticising Donald Trump’s ban on citizens of seven Muslim majority countries from travelling to the United States for 90 days. “I will not stay silent – no matter how powerful the friend – when people are banned because of their religion or their country of origin,” Shorten said. “The top job is not worth having if you don’t stand up for what you believe in.”

But not all his interlocutors at the Press Club were convinced. SBS political editor Daniela Ritorto echoed the backgrounding from the Prime Minister’s Office when she put to the Labor leader that if staying silent keeps the agreement in place to clear offshore detention centres “isn’t that worth the prime minister biting his tongue?” Shorten would not have a bar of it. Bolstered by deep-seated anxiety about the flakiness of the new American president, he also hit the patriotic button.

It is not without risk, but Shorten asserted Australia’s status as an independent nation built on values worth defending while at the same time asserting his commitment to the alliance. He said, “I want America as our ally and I will make sure we are an ally to America, but I don’t believe that Australia should sign up to being a satellite and silent on Australian values, full stop.”

By midweek it was by no means certain that Turnbull’s silence had in fact appeased the US leader. The Australian carried a report saying the White House was not happy that the deal sent a conflicting message to the one Trump intended, especially as many of the refugees involved were from the very countries he had banned. On the day the White House spokesman confirmed the vetting process would be “extreme”, the ABC carried a report saying Trump had backtracked.

There’s no doubt that if the deal falls over, Turnbull will be embarrassed and disappointed. His agreement with former president Barack Obama was a genuine attempt to solve the humanitarian disgrace that is the Manus and Nauru detention centres. At the Press Club, Turnbull was left to assert that he had directly received assurances from President Trump and that should be good enough.

Even so, he was aware that his early response to the Trump ban, matched by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s, did look supine compared with the Brits and Canadians. He chided reporters for daring to suggest his silence was the price of the Trump green light: “When I have frank advice to give to an American president, I give it privately, as good friends should, as wise prime ministers do.” The trouble for him is there is no way of us testing that. As Shorten charged: “Sometimes, silence can be interpreted as agreement.” Muddying the waters, a different and much more hostile version of the conversation was leaked to American media after Turnbull’s press conference.

Turnbull’s silence on just how much he had donated to the Liberal Party at the last election is more baffling and as damaging politically. He pontificated eloquently on the virtue of prompt disclosure of politicians’ entitlements and political donations, but then hid behind the very rules he admitted were hopeless. It was widely anticipated the size of his donation to the Liberal Party would be finally revealed by the Australian Electoral Commission on the very day of the speech. It wasn’t, because it was lodged at the beginning of this financial year and would not be revealed for another six months.

When asked why he wouldn’t reveal how much he had given, his answer was as opaque as it was shifty. That night, all the TV news reports highlighted the absurd pickle into which he had got himself. On Channel Nine, Laurie Oakes accused him of “looking like a hypocrite”. By the time of his interview on ABC TV at 7.30, he knew the game was up. He finally revealed he had donated $1.75 million, the biggest personal donation on record. Labor immediately accused him of buying the election – a stretch, but the very attack he feared was coming.

Turnbull himself, wittingly or unwittingly, gave a possible explanation for his lack of political deftness. He makes a virtue of necessity – perhaps even channelling business tycoon Donald Trump. He told the Press Club: “I came into politics at the ripe old age of 50. I’d spent my whole life in business. I approach issues very objectively, very pragmatically. My interest is in results. I am not a political hack. I am not a political animal in the same way that some of my rivals on the other side of the chamber are.” For some of his colleagues, more’s the pity.

Business success is a very different beast to political achievement. For one thing, unlike out-of-pocket creditors when you go bankrupt, the voters can wreak a fatal revenge. To stay politically solvent you need credibility. Turnbull’s keynote speech this week was more of the same – the platitudes that have been draining his tank since he took the top job. Shorten seized on this vulnerability the day before. Maybe everyone was expecting too much from one speech. A senior press secretary to a former prime minister thinks that billing a speech as a circuit-breaker is too hard an ask. Especially if you are not using the speech to head in a different direction.

Turnbull was advised that he needed to be far more retail in selling the government’s agenda. Nothing is more retail than promising to keep electricity cheaper and its supply more secure. But Shorten does not resile from his more ambitious renewable energy targets. He told the Press Club that failing to address climate change would be far more expensive in the long run. He says Australia needs a diverse energy mix as we transition to lower emissions. 

On the Liberal side, a greener Turnbull has finally turned up. He ditched his overt hostility to renewables displayed after the South Australian blackout. He announced additional support for battery and storage technologies to back renewable energy. At the same time, however, he gave a big nod to the climate change denialists and coal champions in the Coalition. He appeared to open the way for government involvement in new-age lower-emission coal-fired power stations. It was vague enough to be intriguing, but lent weight to Shorten’s claim he has sold out on real climate change action.

Turnbull’s efforts to repackage the $50 billion company tax cuts were not convincing enough to pressure Labor and the Greens into backing them. Indeed, the claimed benefit of a pay rise of 1.1 per cent kicking in in two decades is hardly compelling.

Analysis by The Australia Institute that showed our higher business tax rate was no bar to foreign investors has so far convinced Nick Xenophon and his two colleagues that the largesse is an unnecessary blow to the budget. For Turnbull to win the support of Xenophon’s crucial block of votes, millions of dollars will need to be directed to workers hit by the closure of the car-making industry.

Essential Media Communications pollster Peter Lewis believes the Trump circus in America is too great a distraction for anything said or done here by our politicians to cut through. That was Bill Shorten’s explanation for the number of questions he got on Trump-related issues and the dearth of questions on the economy and budget repair. Indeed, budget repair appears to be “so yesterday”.

If the Essential Poll is any guide, Turnbull will be dreading the first Newspoll of the year. He’ll be hoping it doesn’t show him further behind. But perhaps more worrying will be the March 11 election in Western Australia. The spectre of Pauline Hanson wreaking havoc for the Liberals is so great he could not bring himself to urge his state colleagues not to do preference deals with her.

There is a real fear in government ranks that the times will suit Bill Shorten. He has dubbed this year a “year of preparation”. The Chinese call it the Year of the Rooster. Malcolm Turnbull will be hoping he remains one.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 4, 2017 as "Once more unto the speech".

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