Spoiled for Joyce

Malcolm Turnbull was upbeat at the news conference unveiling the latest reshuffle of his ministry this week. “We’ve had a lot of difficult issues to deal with this year,” he said. “You know, and we’ve dealt with them.” He was standing at the same podium Sam Dastyari used when he sealed his political fate with injudicious remarks on Chinese border sovereignty. As with the Labor senator, Turnbull’s claim of having put behind him everything that made 2017 a horrible year was soon undermined. The difference was that Dastyari’s remarks took at least a year and a half to catch up with him; Turnbull was caught out within hours.

His fine aspiration of “focusing on resolutely and solely ... on keeping Australians safe and ensuring their prosperity” was diverted by government infighting. This is the very impediment that has led to 12 months of losing opinion polls and that capped off the year with a 25th consecutive Newspoll loss. Disunity is death precisely because voters perceive that the politicians elected to govern the nation are more concerned with their own interests.

The Nationals, who along with a cabal of Liberal conservatives have caused Turnbull grief ever since he seized the top job and then just retained it in his own right at the 2016 election, grabbed the headlines. The Fairfax papers bluntly asserted, “Nationals friction threat to cabinet”. The Australian Financial Review gave depth to the story with “Barnaby Joyce’s revenge backfires on Malcolm Turnbull”.

The substance was the sacking of Victorian Darren Chester from his cabinet role as infrastructure minister. His support and number-crunching for fellow Victorian Senator Bridget McKenzie to be the Nationals’ deputy leader was seen as the trigger for his demise. That’s certainly the way some of the Nationals were characterising it to the media. Joyce’s preferred candidate was Queenslander Matt Canavan. But an angry Joyce dismissed this as cowardly scuttlebutt. He said it had absolutely nothing to do with it.

Turnbull explained Chester’s demise had more to do with geography. Victoria, with only four Nationals MPs, had less claim than Queensland, where there are eight. Maybe so, except Joyce chose a first-term, young Queensland backbencher – David Littleproud – to go into cabinet ahead of the respected Chester. To add insult to injury, Joyce grabbed Chester’s infrastructure portfolio. Few have any doubts this has got everything to do with pork-barrelling Nationals electorates in New South Wales and Queensland at the expense of Victoria. Chester’s record puts national interest ahead of partisan interest, which in the Joyce National Party is a definite failing. Barnaby’s contentious moving of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority to his electorate of New England from Canberra is just one costly example. The Productivity Commission slammed it for having a negative impact on effectiveness and said it would “impose costs on taxpayers that exceed regional benefits”.

Joyce’s ham-fistedness, if not vindictiveness, in also sacking Queenslander Keith Pitt from the frontbench has precipitated a new threat to the government’s majority. An angry Pitt has told colleagues he is seriously considering moving to the crossbench. Those who know him say that, unlike his colleague George Christensen, Pitt is not a person of idle threats. In a carefully worded statement, Pitt pointedly ignored Joyce while thanking the prime minister for his opportunities to serve. In a non-denial, he said his priority “as it has always been, is to serve the people of Hinkler”.

The new Nationals deputy leader and freshly installed cabinet minister for sport, avid target shooter Bridget McKenzie, demonstrated her lack of political smarts by contradicting the prime minister almost as soon as she was given the job. She told Sky News she thought the whole argument “about it being geography is just ridiculous”. She went on to say the reshuffle was “on merit”. In her view, Turnbull is either a fool or a liar, especially when he thanked Chester for his “significant contributions to the cabinet as the outgoing minister for infrastructure and transport”. He even said, “We will all continue to call on his wisdom and experience.” Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.

The Turnbull government reset gives two of his conservative praetorian guard, Peter Dutton and Michaelia Cash, key roles in the government’s front-line sales pitching next year. The Dutton move to lead a home affairs office was flagged six months ago and mightily upset then attorney-general George Brandis. It was also seen negatively by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. There is no doubt Dutton appeals to the conservative base that inhabits much of the party membership. His pragmatism in suggesting the postal survey version of Tony Abbott’s marriage equality plebiscite indicates he is positioning himself for the leadership should the need arise.

Dutton’s dour headkicking style of partisan politics thrills rusted-on supporters but risks alienating everyone else. He is not showing the same pragmatism, let alone humanity, in dealing with the refugees languishing on Manus and Nauru. He blandly claims he didn’t put them there and he’s keen for them to leave, preferably by going back to the countries they fled (and which the United Nations agrees were persecuting them). His refusal to countenance New Zealand’s offer to take 150 of the refugees has been a block on Turnbull’s better instincts and proof of the hypocrisy in his claim that his main interest is in getting them off the island.

Apart from taking out survival insurance, it is difficult to fathom what Cash has done to merit promotion as head of the new mega portfolio of jobs and innovation. The name sounds more like a slogan than a project. Still hanging over her head is a federal police inquiry into her office alerting the media to a raid on the Australian Workers’ Union offices in Sydney and Melbourne. That whole affair smacked of an overreach and abuse of state power, aimed at political opponent Bill Shorten. After misleading the senate five times and apparently the prime minister over the role of her office, Cash had to recant her denials. Her senior press secretary was scapegoated and hastily disappeared from view. Midweek, after stalling for months, Cash was ordered by the Federal Court to provide documents and correspondence relating to the raids.

How Cash can be promoted after her egregious indifference to the flouting of the law by her appointee as building watchdog, Nigel Hadgkiss, is a scandalous mystery. She admitted to the senate she knew of his cynical approach a year before he had to quit when the story broke. Worse, she then authorised for taxpayer funds to pick up his legal tab, estimated to be in the vicinity of $400,000. The Federal Court found Hadgkiss displayed “arrogant ignorance” and careless conduct in breaching the Fair Work Act he was charged to enforce.

It will now be left to one of her new junior ministers, Craig Laundy, to run the workplace relations side of the portfolio. The appointment of the moderate Laundy, usually widely admired, has upset the unions. Earlier in the year, Laundy was mightily embarrassed when it was revealed he was one of three directors of two family companies that owned pubs in Sydney and Wollongong that were unfair to workers. Fair Work Australia struck out workplace agreements because they would have left the employees worse off. Laundy, in his defence, said he didn’t manage the pubs but he has been a fierce critic of weekend penalty rates – something Labor will not let him forget.

Just what Treasurer Scott Morrison makes of the Cash promotion as a key government spruiker in his area is a mystery. Morrison needs all the help he can get; Turnbull, whose admiration of Cash baffles a number in the government, must think she is the answer. And making both their jobs harder is the failure of “trickle-down economics” evident in the latest Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook. Treasury sees no prospect of stagnant wages growth picking up in the next four years, despite burgeoning company profits.

Indications that “working families” are hurting is there to see in weak consumer spending and continuing high household debt. The government will need more than the prospect of a budget returning to surplus down the track to lift its stocks.

Turnbull is counting on Bill Shorten’s luck running out next year before the 30th bad Newspoll hits. That may be overly optimistic. One of the areas he particularly nominates is the dual citizenship net ensnaring Labor. Some Liberal insiders have already consigned David Feeney, the member for Batman, to the scrap heap and have their eyes on two other marginal seats possibly falling the government’s way in subsequent byelections.

None of this would happen before March and may not fall the Liberals’ way in any case. Labor hardheads are more confident of their position, even in regard to Feeney, who claims he’s lost his renunciation papers.

Tony Abbott, who senior government people dismiss as a spent force, has said that if the 30-poll benchmark of his failure in Newspoll hits his nemesis, Turnbull, he will certainly have something to say. Even if he doesn’t, it’s hard to see allies such as Eric Abetz or Kevin Andrews holding back.

The strategy to target Shorten, evident in the dying days of the Bennelong byelection, doesn’t worry the Labor leader. The Liberals have been demonising him to no effect in the party polling. Besides, Turnbull doesn’t come to the fight from a position of strength: in the latest Newspoll, he is in a statistical dead heat with Shorten for disapproval.

There will certainly be a general election in the second half of next year. Unforeseen events may yet save the government, but shuffling the deckchairs on a sinking ship definitely won’t.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 23, 2017 as "Spoiled for Joyce". Subscribe here.

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

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