Brough, Grech, Slipper, Ashby: Malcolm’s In The Middle

THE PRESSURE on Malcolm Turnbull to fire Special Minister of State Mal Brough will mount over the silly season, even if Brough is cleared of allegations made against him; Brough’s inconclusive account of events that finished former Speaker Peter Slipper is set to haunt the government, evoking a name — Godwin Grech — Turnbull would rather forget. Instead, Malcolm is in the middle of a sordid business that should have concluded months ago.

If there was a single, discernible point at which Liberal Party conservatives switched off forever in terms of tolerating Malcolm Turnbull as leader, it came in mid-2009, as an email Turnbull was supplied by a Commonwealth public servant that appeared to show a corruption trail leading to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd — upon which Turnbull had relied heavily in his pursuit of the former government — was revealed to be an utter forgery; apparently Turnbull and/or his staff had declined to verify the contents of the leaked email. Had they done so, Turnbull’s voluble crusade against Rudd would never have happened, but he would appear less reckless and more astute in the eyes of colleagues and party members who were dubious about supporting him.

The author of that email, of course, was Godwin Grech; the affair it triggered — Utegate — is a short, sharp byword for almost everything Turnbull’s critics base their aversion to supporting him on. And now, Grech’s name has suddenly become all too relevant once more.

But first, a little history; in late 1995, I befriended a first-time Liberal candidate in the newly created seat of Longman, which then ran in a thin north-south band inland from Brisbane; that candidate was Mal Brough, and I thought, quite seriously, that the fresh-faced, urbane Brough could well end up leading the party. I was happy to do what I could to help him (which, admittedly, wasn’t much) and although I didn’t work for him after the 1996 election — I was too young, not that anyone could have told me that at the time — I watched his career with great interest and considerable goodwill toward both Mal and his wife Sue, whom I had also met during the 1996 campaign.

It didn’t bother me that Mal was a Liberal moderate: ferociously unaligned as a conservative where the party’s personality-based factions are concerned, I have often supported moderates over the years, and was happy to do so in Brough’s case.

But Mal was a surprise victim of the 2007 election defeat; and when the Liberals and Nationals merged in Queensland — something I opposed vehemently — it seemed Brough’s political career was at its end, declining as he initially did to take any part in the merged entity. Loudmouths like Clive Palmer can goad Brough all they like about his thwarted ambition to be state president of the LNP, but the simple fact is that passions (and tempers) were raw, inflamed, and often boiled over at that time, and Brough wasn’t the only prominent Liberal to depart the LNP.

In many respects, I’m sure he wonders now why he bothered returning to the party at all, let alone as a federal MP, and the two words that spring inevitably forth are the name of the turncoat who sold the LNP down the river to become Speaker of the House of Representatives under Julia Gillard: Peter Slipper.

Brough must rue the day he ever heard Slipper’s name, and he isn’t Robinson Crusoe there.

Yet the scandal involving former Slipper staffer James Ashby — and the question of whether Brough asked Ashby to procure Slipper’s diaries (as part of the political witch hunt against the LNP defector) — seems to know no bounds; and once again, in Question Time this week, it reared its ugly head: this time through a determined ALP assault on Brough’s credibility, highlighting discrepancies between an interview he gave 60 Minutes in 2014 (and seemingly admitted asking Ashby for precisely that) and now, when he emphatically denies ever asking for such a thing at all.

Initially, I was pleased when Brough announced he would stand against Slipper, first for his LNP preselection for the Sunshine Coast seat of Fisher, and ultimately as an endorsed candidate at the 2013 election, and as I had in 1995, I contacted Brough to convey that I was happy to do what I could to help him (which, admittedly, still wasn’t much with me long-since removed to Melbourne, although I did offer to remotely provide his campaign with help on the broad communications/media front for nothing, which he declined).

But it’s one of those face-palming realities that just as a ready-made senior Cabinet minister with leadership capabilities stood to return to Parliament, potentially bolstering an Abbott ministry that looked like being light-on for standouts, the fracas surrounding Slipper and Ashby, who had accused him of sexual harassment, exploded, casting serious questions over Brough’s judgement and raising the question (hitherto unresolved) of whether he had acted illegally in joining (and to some extent, leading) the charge against the disgraced former Speaker.

On one level, Brough deserves enduring credit for going after Peter Slipper, an insidious individual with whom I had the misfortune 20-odd years ago to have had some dealings in Queensland; however the legal cloud over Brough’s head resolves itself, and irrespective of Slipper having a charge of defrauding the commonwealth overturned on appeal, one thing that has irrefutably emerged from the Slipper fiasco is that he is a very, very unsavoury individual: his apparent predilection for sordid details of the sex lives of his staff, combined with some truly abhorrent reflections on the sexual physiology of women, are enough to convince any reasonably minded individual that Slipper is a monster even if he did ultimately manage to give his legal problems the slip.

Nobody could blame Brough (or anyone else in a position to pursue Slipper) for doing whatever they could to drive him out of Parliament.

Yet sometimes, highly likeable and otherwise good, decent people make mistakes that overstep the mark where the law is concerned; the question now is whether — in allegedly seeking the diaries and other documents of Slipper’s through Ashby prior to his re-entry to Parliament — Brough did precisely that.

The Australian Federal Police clearly believe the question remains open, having raided Brough’s house recently in search of evidence.

The storm that erupted during the week over apparent discrepancies between what Brough apparently said in that 60 Minutes interview — seemingly confirming that he had asked Ashby to get Slipper’s diary — and what he says now which, emphatically, is that he did not, is one that should easily have been foreseen by Turnbull on his return to the Liberal leadership and averted by leaving Brough on the backbench until it was resolved.

Procuring or attempting to procure the documents of a Commonwealth official (in other words, Slipper) is a criminal offence; and aside from its initial, class-hatred based attack on Turnbull’s personal fortune, it is telling that the Brough issue is one of the earliest crusades Labor has embarked upon since Turnbull resumed the Liberal leadership.

To say investigations into everything that happened concerning Peter Slipper during the last term of Parliament have dragged on far too long is an understatement; yes, such inquiries must run their course, and must be seen to have done so. But in the end, these are matters that occurred some years ago, and it is in nobody’s interests for them to go on ad infinitum.

Depending on preference, readers may access some additional coverage from the Fairfax press here, and from the Murdoch stable here and here.

Brough may well have survived the ALP onslaught this week, but anyone — including Brough, and especially Turnbull — who thinks the matter won’t resurface the instant Parliament reconvenes next year is delusional.

Labor is likely to continue to hammer Brough over the silly season at every opportunity in any case, just to ensure the whiff of impropriety it seeks to harvest from the ongoing investigation continues to swirl around voters at the very time they want to switch off politics for the year.

And for as long as the issue — and the cloud hanging over Brough’s integrity — remains unresolved, the government will remain plagued by questions over Turnbull’s judgement in having Brough in the ministry at all.

One will say something nice for once about the iron fist Peta Credlin exercised over the Abbott government: whether by Abbott’s design or Credlin’s insistence, Brough was excluded from the Coalition’s first ministry; further, the moment the suggestion of impropriety was levelled against former Assistant Treasurer Arthur Sinodinis, he was stood aside pending exoneration.

The only proper course of action for Brough to follow is to resign: and if he won’t go voluntarily, Turnbull is going to have to sack him.

A chronic history of very poor political judgement is one of the reasons Turnbull was dumped in favour of Abbott in the first place; already, and involving issues that go beyond the fracas over Brough that continues to play out, those questions around Turnbull’s judgement were already beginning to resurface just ten weeks into his rebirth as Liberal leader and Prime Minister.

That tin ear — which led him to embrace the fictitious material provided by Grech back in 2009 — has now apparently rendered Turnbull insensible to the political damage retaining Brough as Special Minister of State is probably already doing to the government’s electoral standing.

More broadly, however, it isn’t a good look for the Liberal Party in opposition to (correctly) go after any number of dubious individuals among the ranks of its opponents — Craig Thomson, Peter Slipper, Julia Gillard et al — only to retain such an individual on its frontbench when in office itself.

It doesn’t matter that Turnbull may feel indebted to Brough for assisting with shoring up the numbers for the latter to return to the leadership: the rendering of political assistance does not, should not and must not provide a shield against the proper process of a criminal investigation, nor preclude one of its subjects from behaving appropriately: and the only appropriate course of action for Brough to pursue, until and/or unless he is found by Police to have no case to answer, is to quit.

If Brough is innocent of any wrongdoing (and I sincerely hope he is) then I can understand how frustrating (or even unfair) it must be to find himself under suspicion, but in the interests of propriety, sound governance, and for the good of the Liberal Party itself, he must relinquish his post.

If Turnbull has to sack a second supporter to make it so, then so it must be. At least Brough is unlikely to run off to the National Party seeking to abuse Coalition process to get his job back, which is more than you can say about the pathetic, failed ex-minister who did just that this week, but that’s another story.

The ball is in Turnbull’s court, it seems. If he has learned anything at all since Grech made a fool of him six and a half years ago and turned the Liberal leadership into a national joke, now is the time to prove it.

 

“Howard For Governor-General” Push Gathers Strength…It Shouldn’t

THE AUSTRALIAN today carries a story on an issue we covered last August; there are moves afoot in the Liberal Party to make John Howard Governor-General. This time it’s for real, instead of the ramblings of sacked public servant Godwin Grech, but my position, in a word, is the same. Don’t!

I almost feel like I’m knifing an old friend in the back as I write this: Howard’s government was brilliant; Howard himself is one of the great Australian Prime Ministers, and I have been a longtime advocate of he and the twelve-year administration that bears his name.

We first ran across this subject at The Red And The Blue six months ago, when disgraced public servant Godwin Grech raised it in an extraordinarily self-indulgent feature piece carried by The Age and the magazine The Spectator Australia. I published comment on this at the time, and strongly suggest readers review the article by way of background.

The passage of six months doesn’t make this idea any better; indeed, with the prospect of a solid Liberal win at the coming election looking increasingly certain, the capacity of the next government to act on this makes it all the more important that the “Howard for Yarralumla” push is chopped off.

(One important detail in the article I have repasted a link to here has been superseded by events since August: incumbent Governor-General Quentin Bryce’s term was extended to March next year, removing the potential scenario I had outlined in the original piece).

Nobody doubts Howard’s ability, qualifications or (on paper) suitability for the role of Governor-General; as parliamentary figures go, he’s probably the best-credentialled in this regard than any other serious candidate in recent times — Bill Hayden and Sir Paul Hasluck included.

I don’t think there is any serious doubt, either — even among Howard’s detractors — that he would discharge vice-regal office with great competence and aplomb.

But he is, very simply, too political: John Howard isn’t just a man who led a government of one particular political stripe for twelve years; he’s also an ideologue and a warrior of the New Right who is reviled and despised by a very large minority in this country — the people who never voted for him and never would, certainly — but reviled nonetheless.

Hardly the unifying figure, or impartial symbol, that convention dictates that the Governor-General represents.

It surprises me little that the idea has taken off in certain circles within the Liberal Party (and remember folks, your columnist is a member of the Liberal Party too).

But this really is a bad idea, and would run the risk of setting a very dangerous precedent: the conservative Howard, with his deep sense of tradition and commitment to the continuity of Australia’s institutional heritage, would — rightly — be aghast if a Labor government were to appoint, say, Paul Keating to the post at some future time.

The idea, to me, is as bad as that.

And Hayden and Hasluck might have been capable/inoffensive/docile enough (strike out whichever you like) in the job, but if a precedent of nominating past politicians as Governor-General is renewed and perpetuated, there’s no guarantee the next one won’t be someone far less reliable, or stable, or even safe to entrust the Constitution to.

I’ll be interested in readers’ thoughts on this, from both the pro- and anti- Howard perspectives; given this idea appears to be inching closer to realisation, I just wonder: what do others think?

Is it just me? Should I be falling into line with my Liberal Party buddies, and doing so with a clear conscience? Or is this as I suspect it to be: a really, really bad idea?

Over to you…

John Howard As Governor-General? I Don’t Think So

Nowadays, anything Godwin Grech says shouldn’t warrant mention. However, the Fairfax press and The Spectator Australia magazine have seen fit to publish an article in which Grech expatiates upon the glorious idea of G-G John Howard. This is a bad idea, on every conceivable level.

It comes as some surprise that reputable instruments of the press would give oxygen and airtime to a character like Grech, the disgraced former Treasury bureaucrat and past informer to the Liberal Party, who went several steps too far in 2009 by producing a fabricated email which “proved” that former PM Kevin Rudd was corrupt.

In what became known as the “Utegate” affair, Grech’s missive destroyed his own career, and guaranteed Malcolm Turnbull’s days as Liberal leader were numbered after Turnbull foolishly acted on the email without adequately checking its veracity.

And so, to find The Spectator Australia gifting column space to Grech for an opinion piece is grotesque; The Spectator proper — the original, UK version — is an excellent publication, and one which in view of this event might be better served abandoning its “focus” on Australia and sticking to events in Britain.

Why The Age saw fit to reprint the piece is unfathomable.

Even so, Grech’s article (the version of which The Age published can be viewed here) does contain some material I don’t necessarily disagree with, although much of it is petulant hot air from a man whose time never really was; his piece essentially boils down to a partisan rant underpinned by the thesis that the Howard government was brilliant, and that the Rudd-Gillard government is terrible.

Beyond that basic premise, there is little to substantiate or validate some of Grech’s more outlandish statements; this brings me to his claim that John Howard should become Governor-General when the term of incumbent Quentin Bryce expires in September next year.

Make no mistake: this is a very bad idea, and one whose momentum — if any — must be stopped in its tracks; of all the potential candidates to replace Bryce when her term expires, Howard is far from the top of the list of the most credible, feasible or sensible.

As a staunch political conservative, I realise that I might be expected to show some sympathy for this suggestion — not least as Howard led what on any objective measure was the best government, at the federal level, this country has seen in the past 50 years. As it turns out, I have no truck with the idea whatsoever.

Grech talks of Howard as potentially “a first-class head of state who would be warmly embraced by Buckingham Palace” and goes on to declare that he “would perfectly complement Tony Abbott, providing Australians with a world-class leadership team.”

It’s clear Grech has no comprehension of how a constitutional monarchy works, if he really thinks that.

The role of the Governor-General is largely ceremonial, although its holder is the Head of State; and with the exception of certain circumstances in which specific constitutional provisions provide otherwise (such as in 1975, when Sir John Kerr acted in accordance with S64 of the Constitution to dismiss the Whitlam government), the Governor-General usually acts on the advice of the Prime Minister.

The Governor-General does not act as some type of political advisor to the Prime Minister of the day, as Grech explicitly proposes.

And the Governor-General does not form part of some tag-team “leadership” team, operating in cahoots and in cohort with elected parliamentarians.

In John Howard, we see a figure who is overtly (and, in this context, overwhelmingly) political; the man was Prime Minister for nearly 12 years until fairly recently, and prior to that spent more than 30 years as a Liberal Party operative, elected member of Parliament, and political spear-thrower for the Right.

Irrespective of whether you’re on the side of the spear-thrower or not, such an openly political figure would politicise the office of Governor-General and polarise public opinion and confidence in it as a legitimate instrument of governance.

It is true that political figures have held the role in the past, and that they also discharged their duties with some distinction; Sir Paul Hasluck was a very distinguished Governor-General. Bill Hayden, more recently, was unremarkable and uncontroversial.

But Hasluck was made Governor-General in 1968 by then-PM John Gorton to get rid of a dangerous enemy from the ranks of the parliamentary Liberal Party and to remove the most serious rival he faced for the party’s leadership; Hayden’s appointment — irrespective of how it may have subsequently been presented — was payback for resigning in favour of Bob Hawke’s leadership of the ALP in early 1983.

It doesn’t matter, as Grech states, whether Howard would be “warmly embraced” at Buckingham Palace; he is simply too polarising a figure, and too overtly political, for that particular role.

Laurie Oakes also responded to Grech’s absurd arguments in the Herald-Sun today; Oakes pointed out — correctly — that Howard’s appointment to the role would be “divisive and provocative,” noting that “after several years of political turbulence and non-stop nastiness, that is the last thing Australia will need.”

As it happens, Oakes’ misgivings of the merits or otherwise of John Howard as Governor-General largely mirror my own.

But something that does niggle in the back of my mind as I write this (and we may well revisit the thought at some point) is the timing of the expiry of present Governor-General Quentin Bryce’s term, in September next year.

It suddenly occurs to me that an election is due in August; for this to occur, it would need to be called by the Prime Minister no later than about mid-July.

It also occurs to me that every Labor Party figure who has spoken publicly in the past 12-18 months on the issue of the timing of the next election has referenced “late 2013” or “toward the end of 2013” as the time such an election is “due.”

Even Julia Gillard implicitly announced the date as the last Saturday in September, until she realised it would be Grand Final day, and went on to make a fool of herself with wild predictions about the prospects of the Footscray Football Club.

Constitutionally, they are all correct; an election may well be held as late as the November/December period.

But more usually, and by loose convention, elections are held three years apart, unless they are for some reason called early, and on that basis the next one should be in August next year.

I just wonder whether the ALP plan is to go to an election later in 2013 to ensure its own nominee is appointed to the Governor-Generalship, rather than go to an election it is likely to lose in a landslide, only to gift the incoming Liberal government the right to fill the vice-regal role with its own appointee for a five-year term.

Then again, I might just be a terrible cynic…

But in terms of precisely who the next Governor-General should be, it sure as hell shouldn’t be John Howard, or any other political figure from either side of the political spectrum for that matter.

Oakes suggests the Head of the Defence Force, Angus Houston; a fine man to be sure, and somebody I think would perform the role of Governor-General admirably.

My thoughts, however, are that the best candidate is another military man: Houston’s predecessor, Peter Cosgrove, who would not only make an excellent fist of the role, but would also be the sort of unifying figure to which Oakes alludes.

Godwin Grech and his undebunked theories of the world are best left undisturbed (and unpublished) in whatever cave to which they retreated following Utegate; as for John Howard, I trust he is enjoying his retirement, and I hope he finds satisfaction in the summer of cricket — his great passion — that will soon commence.

Beyond that, the occupancy of vice-regal office will be determined in due course; a Cosgrove would be ideal, and a Houston just as good; but a Howard is, and should rightly be, completely out of the question.

What do you think?

Malcolm Turnbull Rears His Treacherous Head

In the last 24 hours Malcolm Turnbull has made extraordinary comments on Coalition policy and the Liberal Party leadership that must be addressed.

Remembering that Turnbull lost the Liberal leadership in late 2009, partly over the Godwin Grech fake email affair but mostly because of a revolt by his own MPs over the climate change policy he surrendered to Kevin Rudd over, these are unhelpful in the extreme. Yes, I write as a conservative, but for Turnbull to choose this point in time to recommence the airing of his views, and in so doing undermine Coalition policy and by extension the leadership of Tony Abbott, shows appalling political judgement.

Don’t forget, he crossed the floor of Parliament to vote against his Party’s ongoing policy on climate change as a backbencher following his loss of the leadership. Fair enough. He’s had his minute of defiance.

However, this latest outburst, in the context of his role as a senior Coalition shadow minister is, to use a Rudd phrase, a bridge too far.

The first point I would make is that Turnbull is shadow Communications spokesman, not shadow Environment spokesman, and as such he is bound by shadow cabinet decisions on issues relating to Coalition policy.

Further, he is not a member of the parliamentary leadership team, which limits his right to speak freely across a range of portfolios.

I note Turnbull isn’t making statements on immigration policy, or health policy, or industrial relations policy.

No, to make portentous, grandiose and inflammatory statements, always go for the hot button issue — climate change.

And “hot” the button is. Incendiary. Thus far, climate change policy has destroyed the leadership of former Liberal leader Brendan Nelson; it ultimately contributed fulsomely to destroying Kevin Rudd’s Prime Ministership; it will destroy Julia Gillard and the contender to succeed her, Greg Combet; and it contributed to the downfall of the Howard government (but from the “Johnny come lately” perspective there).

Whether you like it or not, whether you believe in climate change or not, one stark truth has emerged from Australian politics in the last three years: people may want to save the environment, and tackle this and that, but at the first sign of it costing a red cent from the back pockets of voters personally, support for the whole thing vanishes.

Like it or not.

Turnbull treated his audience on Lateline last night to some genuine pearls of wisdom. For instance, who would have guessed that “the virtue” of Coalition policy on climate change “from the view of Mr Abbott…is that it can be easily terminated…”

“COALITION CARBON PLAN AN EXPENSIVE CON,” Melbourne’s Herald Sun predictably screeched.

“DIRECT ACTION A SHORT-TERM FIX,” headlined The Australian.

“TURNBULL SINGES ABBOTT ON CLIMATE,” thundered The Age.

Out came the statement of support from Abbott’s office.

Malcolm Turnbull is no fool; he would have known the explosive headlines that would follow his remarks in contradicting Coalition policy so blatantly.

Not content with this success, however, today he fronted the Queensland Media Club, refusing to rule out a desire to return to the Liberal leadership. “Every member of the House of Representatives has a field marshal’s baton, or the leader’s baton, in their knapsack, so nobody can ever discount that sort of ambition completely,” he informed his audience.

Today, Turnbull’s colleagues were justifiably livid. “It was a disgrace. He’s never been a team player, he never will be a team player,” said one MP. “It’s probably frustrating for him to see Tony (Abbott) going so well. I can’t imagine he would have too much support this morning from his colleagues,” said another.

Well, quite. I guess if you were in Turnbull’s shoes, and saw the voting intention ratings Abbott is generating — enough for the Coalition to reduce Labor to 40-50 seats in the 150-seat lower house, mind — you could understand him thinking, “grab the leadership, win the election, be Prime Minister, roll out the pet projects…”

The problem is that under Turnbull — and I’ll use Newspoll from The Australian although all the polls were very, very similar — the best two-party vote the Coalition could muster was 48% (enough to lose by a fraction less than Howard did in 2007); the worst was just 41%, low enough to wipe the Coalition out for three terms.

On average under Turnbull, the two-party Coalition vote was about 43-44%. To put this in context, Paul Keating was slaughtered in 1996 with a tick over 46% of the two-party vote.

As preferred Prime Minister, Turnbull mustered 26% against Rudd’s 54% in October 2008, and 16% to Rudd’s 66% in July 2009. (Recently, Tony Abbott trailed Julia Gillard on this measure by just 3%).

As strange as it sounds today, and despite already beginning to lose control over the Labor Party in private, had Rudd gone to a double dissolution over climate change in late 2009, Turnbull would have led the Coalition to annihilation. So much for his “principled stand” on climate change. A similar stand on the same issue by Rudd killed the latter off just as it did Turnbull.

For Turnbull to return to the leadership, it would be a game-changer all right: the Gillard government would receive instant capitulation from the opposition on climate change policy, far less rigorous scrutiny of its policies, the benefit of the policy differentiation between government and opposition beginning to blur, and the emergence of a sense within the electorate that perhaps “the devil you know” is worth sticking with. Turnbull has already championed the concept of a sovereign wealth fund being established on the back of mining revenues. Just as the carbon tax would be introduced without opposition, so too would the MRRT.

Malcolm Turnbull is an impressive individual; Rhodes scholar; highly successful merchant banker and lawyer; and, frankly, quite a great guy to have conversations with. I know — once upon a time, in the early 1990s, with Malcolm heading the Australian Republican Movement and myself a precocious young monarchist, our paths crossed several times.

However, just as Turnbull has little electoral appeal, he also has form for undermining his colleagues and party policy.

Shortly after being deposed by Abbott, Turnbull couldn’t resist speaking out on climate change policy. Whilst a backbencher, my view was that he was undermining the new leader and that it had to stop — and whilst I didn’t believe for one minute I would be listened to, and that I would be dismissed outright, I nonetheless sent Turnbull a private letter on Facebook. For now, I do not propose to publish that here, but the upshot was, and I used these words: Malcolm, please, SHUT UP!

It is time for Malcolm to shut up, or go to the cross benches. The third option, a leadership challenge almost guaranteed not to succeed, would not be worth the political damage it would do to the Liberal Party just for him to try to prove the point that Malcolm is right, and that what Malcolm wants, Malcolm should have.

Analyse the polls, Turnbull. Like it or not, Tony Abbott is in tune with the mainstream majority of Australians. Just as Gillard and Labor are not, neither are you.