Paul Bongiorno
Brandis departs amid LNP pessimism

One of the prime minister’s closest allies, Senator George Brandis, was upbeat as he bid farewell to his colleagues in the joint party room on Tuesday. He reminded them that everyone had written off the Howard government in the run-up to the 2001 election. “Good judgement and leadership turned that around and can do so again,” he said.

But not everyone listening thought Brandis had much confidence in that feat being repeated. He concluded his remarks by saying, “I’ll be thinking of you, but not often.” Brandis didn’t exactly slam the door on his political career but a few of his colleagues see his dash to the Old Dart as our high commissioner in London as the ultimate vote of no confidence.

“Why would he quit his career pretty well at the top of his power and influence if he didn’t think the odds were against us winning the next election?” was the wry comment of one Liberal.

Indeed there is speculation that the next senior minister to seek greener pastures will be the foreign minister, Julie Bishop. This could ensure that her Western Australian colleague Christian Porter – with leadership ambitions – could move into her ultra-safe seat of Curtin and out of his much more marginal seat of Pearce. Bishop dismisses the talk, saying she is enjoying her “job of a lifetime”. Other Liberals aren’t so convinced, but again it’s an indicator of the pessimism many Liberals and Nationals share.

If you believe some of the government’s more fervent backers in the media, however, Turnbull is surging back. The latest Newspoll showed a one-point improvement in the two-party-preferred ratings after the summer break and had the prime minister extend his lead as “better PM” over Bill Shorten at the same time as he halved his own dissatisfaction rating. The latter is negative, though, on minus 13. According to one wit, it’s gone from “abhorrent to bad”. But this movement may be the beginning of a reversal of the trend to Labor during the past 18 months. There are just four more Newspolls before the ominous benchmark of failure set by Turnbull reaches 30.

Still, there is every reason to think that things may well settle back to the business as usual of a losing position. The fundamentals haven’t changed. Tony Abbott is still there and still niggling. At the party room meeting, he tackled Julie Bishop over her department’s promotion of “modest Muslim fashion”. She assured him this was no capitulation to unAustralian mores. No one was saying “this is what women have to wear” but rather it is an export opportunity into Muslim-majority Indonesia and Malaysia. The culture wars are never far from the government’s internal power plays.

They flared on the day one of Abbott’s comrades-in-arms to reform the New South Wales Liberal division, Jim Molan, was sworn in to the Senate. Molan’s arrival marks another vote for Abbott in the party room and he is just as dedicated to wrenching control from Turnbull’s moderates in their home state. So he is not to be unnecessarily provoked. This was on stark display when the prime minister refused to pull Molan into line over anti-Muslim videos the new senator posted on Facebook last year.

Shorten seized on Turnbull’s assertion that “every member of the government has absolutely zero tolerance for racism” by asking if the prime minister would “direct Senator Molan to take down the racist and bigoted material he is sharing?” Turnbull avoided the question but rounded on Shorten for wanting to describe the former major-general and Iraq War veteran as a racist. “This is deplorable. It is disgusting.”

For his part, Molan was not apologising – unlike US President Donald Trump, who offered an apology for posting similar material from the same white supremacist website, Britain First. The former major-general insists he was trying to alert people to violence and antisocial behaviour and generate debate. He claims he was unaware of the pedigree of the website and apparently didn’t notice the videos were purporting to show Muslims were the perpetrators of violence in Europe. His Facebook friends weren’t so innocent. There were replies calling for the men to be deported back to their “shitty countrys [sic]” and saying “we’re meant to be tolerant, accepting and welcoming of this breed in our country”.

Labor’s Senate leader, Penny Wong, said, “this is not about generating debate, it’s about generating hatred and division. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull must join Labor in telling Senator Molan his actions are unacceptable.” The next day, Turnbull told the House Molan regretted the posts and had taken down his old Facebook and Twitter accounts. But that was not before the Greens’ Richard Di Natale, in an extraordinary attack in the Senate on Monday, accused Molan not only of being a racist but also of participating in a war crime for his senior role in an attack on Falluja during the Iraq War, a sentiment picked up by his colleague Adam Bandt outside parliament the next day, for which Bandt then apologised under the threat of being sued for defamation.

The Greens, of course, are gearing up to wrest the seat of Batman from Labor in the byelection called for March 17. St Patrick’s Day could be a good omen for the wearing of the green. Their candidate, Alex Bhathal, will be hoping it’s sixth time lucky. The social worker has increased her vote at every election, topping the poll in 2016 only to be thwarted by Liberal preferences that pushed Labor’s David Feeney across the line. The bumbling Feeney has done his party a favour by not seeking re-election following his failure to produce proof he had renounced his British citizenship. Former ACTU president Ged Kearney is a better fit on paper. She’s from Labor’s Left and is on the record as being highly sceptical of the controversial Adani coalmine in Queensland. As union leader she has been an outspoken critic of the government’s treatment of refugees on Manus and Nauru.

The Greens’ Adam Bandt is nervous enough to warn voters to “take everything Labor says over the next few weeks with a grain of salt”. He says Labor candidates come to Canberra and “cut single parents payments, dig up more coal, sell off our assets and lock up refugees”. Cory Bernardi intends to run an Australian Conservatives candidate to fill the void left by the Liberals and is weighing up whether to preference Labor or issue an open how-to-vote card. It may not make much difference, though: the sort of people who vote Liberal in these inner-city seats, as last year’s Northcote state byelection showed, are a lot greener than non-Labor voters elsewhere.

The government seems convinced that the byelection will drag the relatively unpopular Shorten to the left and it will damage his credibility, especially over Adani. The Nationals are particularly convinced that if federal Labor walks away from even its tepid support for the project, it will damage the party in Queensland. But Labor looks to the experience of the Queensland state election, where Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk shored up support in south-east Queensland by refusing to support taxpayers’ money funding a rail line for Adani.

Nationals’ leader Barnaby Joyce told the party room the byelection is “the crazy left versus utter lunacy”. Shorten is more convinced the lunacy is in supporting a project that, according to an Australian Conservation Foundation poll, 65 per cent of Australians reject outright. There’s a firming view that the project is falling over anyway and it’s not worth pretending it’s the answer to jobs in north Queensland.

Shorten says he’s beginning to wonder if people are “being led on with this promise of fake jobs and they’re never going to materialise”. So far, Gautam Adani – the billionaire with his Cayman Islands accounts and his record of environmental vandalism in India, and new doubts about the compliant operation of his Abbot Point port in Queensland – has not come up with the money for the project. Twenty-four banks, including Australian financial institutions, have refused to lend to him.

The citizenship imbroglio that precipitated Batman rolls on. Turnbull and Leader of the House Christopher Pyne are determined to play hardball. They are refusing to shunt any more Liberals off to the High Court but are targeting Labor MPs. Their prime focus is Queenslander Susan Lamb, who gave an impassioned defence of her situation in parliament. She tearfully explained how her mother abandoned her when she was six, creating a lifelong estrangement. She has documents showing her efforts to renounce any entitlement to British citizenship and three legal opinions to show she has taken “all reasonable steps” to do so.

The government is unmoved but Barnaby Joyce, who dealt this week with the publication of news he is having a child with a former staffer, says they will let Shorten “stew in his own juice”. This tactic can only indicate they are not sure of the wisdom of a “hostile” referral to the court. Labor says it will only agree to send any of its members to the court if the Liberals agree to send those from their party who are under a cloud.

Turnbull says this will be the year of delivery. The plan is to be in election-winning shape to face the people in early 2019. His colleagues are yet to share his optimism.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 10, 2018 as "Ducking out for an Old Dart".

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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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