THE RESIGNATIONS of Turnbull ministry duo Mal Brough and Jamie Briggs — almost literally on New Year’s Eve — are warranted, but also point to a pre-election clean-up on the government’s part; with the Trade Union Royal Commission report to be released today, Turnbull will have wanted to ensure no whiff of internal trouble detracts from the impact of that report. The resignations are a potent sign an election in March is growing likelier.
With the final report of the Royal Commission into the union movement set for public release later today and the fact I’m going to be out and about ahead of disappearing interstate on a one-day round trip tomorrow, I will keep this morning’s remarks relatively brief, although later in the day or tonight I will post again once I have had a chance to digest the TURC report and consider its political ramifications.
But the resignations of Special Minister of State Mal Brough and Cities minister Jamie Briggs come as no surprise — for vastly different reasons — and are not only welcome, but expected in what remains a febrile political environment after September’s Liberal leadership change and amid uneasy Coalition relations between the Liberals and Nationals ahead of what looks increasingly like being a March double dissolution election.
We canvassed the need for Brough to go a few weeks ago when the ongoing investigation into his alleged involvement in the Peter Slipper/James fiasco reared its head after a series of Police raids and, whilst I have always had some time for Brough personally, his decision to go voluntarily rather than waiting to be kicked out is to be applauded.
In Briggs’ case, it seems to have been a case of a primed incendiary device that was always going to explode at some stage; the details of the unspecified incident “involving a female public servant” on an official trip to Hong Kong in November remain hazy, but that event has been the subject of internal investigations ever since and it appears Briggs has jumped ship in an effort to head off any embarrassment for the government.
I’m not going to bog down on the details of these departures, as the bigger story of the day is yet to come. However, some points must be made.
Brough (a Turnbull supporter in the contest with Tony Abbott) and Briggs (an Abbott supporter) were both risky appointments for Malcolm Turnbull to make, and both have now backfired.
It was a dangerous decision to restore Brough to the ministry while he remained under investigation over the Slipper/Ashby matter that has not paid off, whilst Briggs — who initially lied publicly about a leg injury he sustained at the wild party held in Tony Abbott’s office the night he lost the Liberal leadership — has always been regarded as a loose cannon. However much promise Briggs might offer, it seems the opportunity costs of harnessing it were just too high to justify.
If it wasn’t deep in the silly season, with a huge negative issue about to drop in Labor’s collective lap, serious questions about Malcolm Turnbull’s political judgement and/or whether he has learned anything at all from his first ill-fated stint as Liberal leader would be dominating media coverage today. In part, of course, that’s the point of getting these resignations out of the way now.
Especially in the aftermath of the ill-fated attempt by former “Industry Assistance” minister (another Turnbull supporter) to jump ship from the Liberals to the Nationals, I think Turnbull is right — as is being suggested in the Murdoch press today — to hold off announcing any changes to his ministry until Nationals leader Warren Truss declares whether he will recontest the looming election or, as expected, quit: there’s not much point having a reshuffle this week if another one beckons next week too.
Yet irrespective of what Truss does, the resignations of Brough and Briggs should be correctly seen as the beginning of a “clearing the decks” process intended to remove as much of the debris littering the government’s path to an early election as possible; it doesn’t mean, of course, that an early election is certain, and Turnbull’s public position is that an election will occur on schedule in September or October.
But I remain of the view that the longer he leaves it, the harder the government’s re-election bid will become — especially if the ALP finds the bottle to dump its embarrassment of a “leader” in the new year, as expected — and I’m told that view is also gathering traction inside the Turnbull camp privately.
Whilst it’s a bit obvious to say Brough should have quit at the start of the month when the Slipper/Ashby scandal resurfaced (or perhaps should not have been appointed to Cabinet at all) and that Briggs in hindsight represents a risk that was too great to justify, the fact both have been dispensed with fairly quickly means that whatever questions of judgement Turnbull might face for both will be far less damaging than they might otherwise have been.
Either way, yesterday’s developments are a sharp contrast with both the Gillard government — which clung to Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper out of political expediency far beyond any point that was reasonable or politically profitable — and with the Abbott government, whose protracted stonewalling solidarity with disgraced former Speaker Bronwyn Bishop over indefensible travel expense claims arguably provided the final pretext for Turnbull to tear Abbott down.
Labor would be unwise to gloat or to make any mileage out of what happened yesterday, although it will try. If anything, the resignations merely throw its own unprincipled behaviour in similar circumstances into sharp focus.
I’m not going to speculate on any potential promotions to the ministry at this point for the simple reason I expect an election to be announced within the next few weeks, although suggestions former Prime Minister Abbott should be given a guernsey are probably not helpful and could cause more trouble than they’re worth if entertained.
But first things first: there’s a Royal Commission report slated for release later today. Its contents are likely to shape the course of politics over the next few months very heavily indeed, especially if — as expected — the ALP tries to brush off the odium it uncovers among its Trades Hall masters, and blocks responsible legislation in the Senate to clean it up that is not only moderate and reasonable and which has been blocked by the ALP and the
Communist Party Greens three times already, but which was taken to the 2013 election as a Liberal election promise and given a mandate by voters in a thumping repudiation of a union-dominated Labor administration.
I will be back later this afternoon or tonight to discuss that further.