Dumping Shorten Still On The Cards For Labor

A REPORT in The Australian shows that despite denials, Anthony Albanese remains in ALP plans as a possible leader at this year’s election; the revelation comes after Coalition scandals stayed the execution of incumbent Bill Shorten late last year, and shows that as recently as February, Labor was ready to dump him. With his rank unpopularity and the Liberals’ declining poll position, Labor will junk Shorten if it thinks change will seal victory.

It’s a powerful pointer to the periodic potency of spin over substance, but one of the facts that was lost on average punters in the hype about the ALP’s “democratic” and “inclusive” leadership selection rules — unilaterally introduced by Kevin Rudd to insulate himself from coup attempts by the colleagues who hated the sight of him, lest he won the 2013 election — is that despite the posturing and positioning of this cynical measure as an internal Labor “reform,” those leadership rules can be set aside by a simple majority vote of ALP MPs.

And late last year — if present “leader” Bill Shorten refused to resign, as he was set to do in November — the Labor caucus was prepared to do precisely that, as the fallout from the Royal Commission into the union movement and a raft of other scandals had seemingly rendered Shorten’s position untenable and, combined with the change in the leadership of the Liberal Party, looked set to invite the slaughter of the ALP if new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull took the government to an early election.

As I have said before, the story I broke in this column that Shorten was set to resign was grounded entirely in factual information gleaned from (and cross-checked with) multiple sources, and it is a stark illustration of the infinitely shifting nature of political life that he was able to dig in and survive in his post.

Personally, it was enormously satisfying to see Shorten spend a good deal of time in the couple of weeks following our article denying he was about to quit or be dumped; forced to confront the inevitable consequence of lacklustre performance combined with the eventual effects of a string of poorly handled issues and bad headlines — most deriving from Shorten himself — it seemed likely that the vapid, vacuous “leader” who has made no secret of the delusion that he is “destined” to be Prime Minister would instead be forced onto his sword in an ignominious humiliation and denial of that dream.

But politics is a ceaselessly changing business; the question of who would replace Shorten if he was squeezed out was quickly resolved by a public revolt against deputy leader Tanya Plibersek’s (successful) campaign to deny Labor MPs a conscience vote on the fraught issue of gay marriage: in a characteristically illiberal piece of handiwork, Plibersek saw to it that ALP members would be forced to support the change whether they liked it or not, and disqualified herself as the heir-presumptive in the process.

From that point, Anthony Albanese — who had carried more than 60% of the members’ vote against Shorten in the post-2013 leadership contest, only to be overruled by the party room — became the only potential replacement during this term of Parliament.

And the raid conducted on the home of former Special Minister of State Mal Brough, in relation to the ongoing investigation into the tawdry Peter Slipper affair sealed, for the time being, Shorten’s undeserved survival in the Labor leadership, as a united opposition assault on the government over the alleged misconduct of its ministers was launched.

Of course, it would quickly emerge that Brough was not the only target available to the ALP on this front, and five ministerial departures and a major reshuffle later, there are still signs this attack may continue to bear fruit.

2016 has been marked by the decline of the Coalition’s standing across the contingent of reputable opinion polls that are regularly conducted, a movement that has been accompanied by the collapse of Turnbull’s once-stellar personal popularity ratings, and whilst Shorten’s own numbers have correspondingly recovered to some degree, he continues to trail Turnbull by some 20 points on the “preferred PM” measure, and continues to record net personal approval figures in the -20% cohort even as Labor’s average standing across the polls, after preferences, is beginning to indicate a winning position once more.

It is fairly obvious Shorten is depressing support for the ALP, and probably acting to suppress its overall position, which could well see the party further ahead of the government on the two-party measure.

And whilst former Prime Minister Tony Abbott may indeed have won an election with the kind of entrenched deep unpopularity now endured by Shorten, the precedent of Abbott being chopped down as PM after a protracted period of poor polling for the government probably mitigates any comfort or claim to be entitled to contest an election that Shorten might seek to draw from it.

A very unpopular Prime Minister has no store of public goodwill to draw on when the numbers go sour: so as it happened to Abbott, so too it would to Shorten in the same situation.

The Australian today is carrying a story that, whilst ostensibly noting denials of the claim that Labor was moving to replace Shorten with Albanese, sets out many of the same pieces of information that underpinned my own story on this matter back in October: the NSW Right looking to switch its allegiance to Albanese; the broader ALP Right reconciled to the prospect of another leader from the Left; and significantly in this case, the “mutterings” it alludes to are dated to February: before the Royal Commission/Brough fiascos had fully died down, but after the slide in Coalition (and Turnbull) poll numbers had commenced.

And today’s story in The Australian also provides a link to a piece detailing internal research conducted by the ALP in February which concluded Shorten was a “dead weight” on the party’s electoral prospects; at the time, Labor was facing the loss of perhaps a dozen seats as the Coalition continued to ride high on the honeymoon effect of its own leadership change. But today, as support for the government and the Prime Minister continues to slip, even the mainstream polling undertaken since then is sufficient to validate that internal assessment of Shorten, and to reinforce the notion he is a handbrake on the party’s ability to build support.

I have thought for most of this year that whilst the risk Shorten could become Prime Minister is real — and, if he is allowed to remain in his post, growing — that the likeliest outcome would be that if Labor thought it would lose against Turnbull, it would allow Shorten to lead it into battle: and to allow him to be destroyed by the ensuing defeat.

But as readers have also heard me suggest several times, if Labor moves on Shorten, then all bets are off: replacing Shorten would be a sign the ALP seriously thinks it can win an election, and if that situation eventuates, the last thing it needs is an unmitigated liability trashing its ability to maximise the number of extra seats it might snatch from the government.

Albanese’s insistence that The Australian‘s journalists did not ring him to check the story are a red herring and should be ignored: for one thing, there are plenty of people in Canberra who are able to provide authentic information about subterranean goings-on without the need to speak to the potential beneficiaries of those activities, and for another, Albanese wouldn’t be the first leader-in-waiting in politics to be deliberately kept in the dark about the grubby details by coup plotters to ensure he could don the cloak of denying any involvement in the act of assassination.

I don’t think Albanese’s is a particularly formidable policy mind, or that he’s a messianic figure around whom the Left and the swinging voters it might attract can coalesce.

But he is more substantial than Shorten, less given to tacky stunts and excruciating dishonesty and hyperbole, and is, in the general sense, infinitely more likeable than the man who is rightly ridiculed and pilloried by many these days as “Billy Bullshit.”

Clearly, this will remain a fluid process until or unless a change is initiated and/or the formal election campaign commences with Shorten still at the helm.

But the fact this has surfaced yet again — just as Labor moves toward a commanding position in the polls despite its liability of a “leader” — suggests a leadership change remains very much a live option.

As soon as Labor is certain dumping Shorten will seal an election win, it will immediately move to do exactly that: and whilst any such judgement about its electoral prospects should be taken with a dose of salt, the smart money remains on the ALP confronting Turnbull with a fresh face of its own: bolstered, ironically, by the effects of a leadership honeymoon period that carried Turnbull himself to the highest heights of public esteem, but on which he failed to capitalise — perhaps, ultimately, to his terminal detriment.

Time will tell. It always does.

 

BREAKING: Mal Brough To Quit Federal Parliament

FORMER Special Minister of State Mal Brough has announced he will not contest the coming federal election, and is set to quit the Sunshine Coast seat of Fisher; the announcement comes as a Federal Police investigation into any role Brough played in bringing down his predecessor — disgraced ex-Speaker Peter Slipper — continues. Brough’s fall from grace is a tragedy, but his departure is a likely further pointer to an election sooner rather than later.

A quick post from me this afternoon, on the hop as I am; some readers may have already seen the news, but embattled former Special Minister of State (and hand-picked Turnbull appointee) Mal Brough has called time this afternoon on his political career, just three years after securing Liberal Party endorsement to return to Canberra via the seat previously held by disgraced former Speaker and general all-round grub Peter Slipper.

This is a subject we have followed quite closely, in part on account of an old personal connection I had with Brough 20 years ago; despite his position on the moderate wing of the Liberal Party, I thought at that time he was a credible future candidate for the Prime Ministership — so impressive is he in person — and the end his career has now reached, especially under a cloud of suspicion of unlawful conduct, gives me no satisfaction at all. Quite the contrary.

His return to the ministry late last year, as a key lieutenant in Malcolm Turnbull’s successful leadership coup against Tony Abbott, quickly proved an early pointer to the fact Turnbull’s famed lack of judgement remains all too real and present; rapidly outed as the subject of continuing Federal Police investigations into the ghastly business surrounding Slipper — inquiries that were announced to the country in the form of a raid on Brough’s home — his Cabinet position immediately became untenable.

Typically, Turnbull dithered, eventually parting with Brough at the same time another grub in the government’s ranks, Jamie Briggs, was forced out over allegations of inappropriate conduct; even though those ministerial departures signalled the first and second of five involuntary changes to the ministry, their timing was poignant.

And so too, it is, on this occasion.

I do feel quite some sympathy for Mal and his wife, Sue, but in noting that I also point out that if the allegations against him are substantiated, then prosecution must follow: there is only one law in this country, and it must apply to everyone equally and without fear or favour. Sometimes, people we know and like will do the wrong thing, and must be punished, but such is the price of being only human: people make mistakes.

It is to Brough’s enduring credit that he elected to step aside from his Cabinet post voluntarily, and also to subsequently relinquish it, when others before him (and particularly of the Gillard government variety) stubbornly chose instead to dig in when confronted with suggestions of misbehaviour, and in this sense Brough should at least receive acknowledgement that he spared the country the trauma and farce of delaying the inevitable.

Even so, his significant potential — despite his tenure as a senior minister in the Howard government — will remain unfulfilled.

Brough’s resignation will now spark a feeding frenzy over the usually safe Liberal Sunshine Coast electorate of Fisher; already there are suggestions that former Newman government minister Jarrod Bleijie will join the exodus of LNP state politicians seeking federal seats rather than an additional term in opposition in Queensland, and whilst I am yet to form a firm position on this, my general view is that Bleijie — along with Messrs McVeigh and Seeney — ought to remain exactly where they are, or quit politics altogether.

And the timing of this latest announcement involving Brough may again be significant in terms of its relationship to other events.

At this time, there is no suggestion his resignation relates to developments in the investigations of allegations against him; after all, the resignation of his seat takes effect from the next election: and even if it’s early, that event is probably four months away.

But with the eleventh-hour departures from the ministry of Brough and Briggs last year, Turnbull’s ready penchant for a little deck-clearing when nobody seems likely to notice appears alive and well too: and I would say that on balance, Brough’s timing now is likely directly related to buying as much clear air as possible between now and the election date, which I understand is already known to members of the government’s inner circle.

As ever, we will watch this to see if anything further comes of it: and in the meantime, I aim to be back with readers — and to catch up on the backlog of the week’s events — either tonight or tomorrow.

 

Deck Clearing: Brough, Briggs Quit In Pre-Election Clean-Up

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.

Some additional material from mainstream press coverage may be accessed here and here.

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.

This time.

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.

 

Newspoll: A Warning To Turnbull, But Shorten Disintegrates

IN A SIGN of how brittle the teflon veneer on Malcolm Turnbull’s Prime Ministership is, today’s Newspoll in The Australian finds that whilst the Coalition retains its solid lead, Turnbull’s numbers have softened markedly; this — and a  collapse in Bill Shorten’s remaining support as ALP “leader” — during a fractious, divisive and scandal-scented week for the Coalition suggests Shorten is more pivotal to the government’s fortunes than Turnbull is.

I’m beginning to think — not that I like the idea one jot — that if someone other than Bill Shorten were leading the ALP, then Australian voters would be serious about restoring Labor to office next year; viewed both through an objective prism of common sense and the more subjective conservative lens through which I am known to look, there is nothing to justify a Labor government and no valid reason for voters to elect one.

Yet that’s the point: electoral behaviour doesn’t have to be rational, or grounded in common sense, or even sane for that matter; there was no case to re-elect Paul Keating in 1993. Or Malcolm Fraser in 1980. Or Gough Whitlam in 1974. I could go on. But on all three occasions, voters gifted a final term to governments that were all but moribund.

There are plenty of instances of oppositions winning office without any merit-based claim as well; Victoria in 1999 and Queensland in January are the obvious ones, although there’s been a list of them in recent decades that features both political parties. My point is that voters do whatever they like, and the platitude that they are “always right” is only ever disproven when they reverse their unfathomable decisions themselves, and throw out the undeserving at the ballot box.

Today’s Newspoll, whilst on the surface excellent for the government, carries a salutary warning for Malcolm Turnbull, the Liberal Party, and the Coalition generally, and when Labor’s (and Shorten’s) numbers are unpacked a little, the true story inside the cover might end a little differently — depending on who ultimately pens the final chapter.

It delivers a headline result — at 53-47 after preferences — that comes in, once again, bang on the average of all the major opinion polls taken and published since Turnbull replaced Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, bookended by last week’s Essential Media survey at 51-49, and recent Morgan and Ipsos polls at 56-44.

Readers have heard me say many times that a single poll isn’t much use, but a basket of them, aggregated and averaged out, is usually very reliable indeed, and whilst I’ll take a 53-47 outcome on polling day, whenever that is — and if that turns out to be the result — the simple fact is that outliers like Ipsos and Morgan should be the centrepoint of the Coalition’s numbers right now rather than the rogue results they are.

The big electoral negative — Abbott — is gone (he only has himself to blame for that, be it through his foolish adherence to the wrong people for far too long, or their inability to deal with the pap being lobbed at them from Labor, the Communist Party Greens, and Clive Palmer) and it is this fact (and probably this alone) that, as forecast in this column whenever the prospect of Turnbull taking over was raised, is responsible for the Coalition vaulting ahead of Labor once more.

But it faces an opposition completely bereft of meaningful policies (I’m not talking about the garbage Bill Shorten carries on with — that doesn’t cut any ice), “led” by a charlatan, a shyster, a populist snake oil salesman, and a pretty iffy character that voters are strongly and now consistently signalling they detest.

And the damage inflicted on the country by the last Labor government, whilst partially remedied by Abbott, remains largely untouched; the reason isn’t any lack of will on the Coalition’s part, of course, but the mindless obstruction and obfuscation in the Senate “led” by — you guessed it — William Richard Shorten himself.

Add in the detonating time bomb that is the Royal Commission into the unions, a vicious ALP branch stacking scandal in Victoria that may yet engulf Shorten in its web, and a few other bits and bobs, and the Coalition should be ten to fifteen points ahead of the ALP, not a mere six.

Part of what is increasingly wrong with the “stellar” numbers the government has recorded over the past couple of months is further illustrated by the abject (and frankly pathetic) ratings scored by Shorten this time; as “preferred Prime Minister,” Turnbull drops four points in this survey, to 60%. Yet Shorten still fell by another point on this measure himself — to just 14% — to turn in the equal worst performance of any Labor opposition leader in the history of Newspoll, repeating an identical shocker by Simon Crean 12 years ago.

The point is illustrated even further by the personal approval numbers of the two; Turnbull, again, has dropped eight points in a fortnight, to 52%; his disapproval figure has climbed by the same amount, to 30%.

But Shorten — far from benefiting from the signs of correction in Turnbull’s bloated results, also fell: by three points to a record low (for him and for any opposition leader since Crean) of just 23%; his disapproval number rose four points to a personal worst of 61%. Shorten is now every bit as unpopular as Tony Abbott ever was, and the difference between the pair is that Abbott at least tried (and failed) to tackle the mess Labor made of things under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, whilst Shorten has paraded around as if he’s King of the country, mouthing empty pronouncements and slogans, and trying to hoodwink people that Australia remains the land of milk and honey where money is endless, can be strewn around like confetti, and debt doesn’t exist.

Yet the government remains just six points ahead of Labor after preferences; there’s no need to go through the primary vote figures (barely changed from a fortnight ago as they are) but those who wish to view them may do so here.

For everything that is wrong with Shorten, the ALP, the sleight of hand masquerading as its policy suite, and the legacy of its sheer incompetence in office, the poor week experienced by Turnbull and the government seems comprised of comparatively trivial problems indeed.

But the fracas over Special Minister of State Mal Brough isn’t going to go away; and irrespective of whether Brough survives or not — and irrespective of whether he actually did anything wrong, or not — the incident has registered a direct hit with voters. It would be foolish for Brough and Turnbull to think otherwise.

The uproar over failed Abbott-era minister Ian Macfarlane defecting from the Liberals to the Nationals — covered in this column here and here — has been willing, and tempers (including my own) have exploded over this unforgivable act of treachery. In essence, it’s an internal Coalition matter, and whilst I acknowledge the reader who yesterday expressed dislike of the odd four-lettered word appearing in my articles, I have to report contemporaneously that feedback I’ve heard from inside the LNP is that the two choices Macfarlane will be given by its state executive are to “stand as a Liberal and shut the fuck up, or just fuck off and we’ll get someone else (to stand in Groom).” They are, to be sure, the only appropriate options to give him. But the incident hasn’t helped Turnbull.

And the big swing against the Liberals in Saturday’s by-election in Joe Hockey’s old seat of North Sydney (with no Labor candidate in the field) probably reflects Brough, Macfarlane, the distaste of the electorate for needless by-elections relatively close to a general election, possibly some residual anti-Turnbull, pro-Abbott sentiment, and perhaps a degree of “referred pain” for the Liberals over council amalgamations by the Baird government in NSW. It was a wake-up call in itself to the government that misbehaviour will not be tolerated. Yet as I said earlier, the Coalition’s sins — especially under Turnbull — pale into comparison when judged against Labor’s past and present ones.

All of these factors have likely coloured, to varying degrees, the shifts in Turnbull’s numbers — even if the headline two-party number remains unchanged.

For now.

Which brings me back to the point I made at the outset: a Labor leadership change might be the only obstacle to the electorate dumping the Coalition and heading back into the disastrous embrace of the ALP and the Greens.

I have no problem believing that Turnbull is more popular than Abbott, and certainly no trouble believing him more popular than Shorten: almost every other elected representative in Canberra is.

But by the same token, I have repeatedly warned over the past few years that opinion ratings claiming 70% of voters approve of Turnbull and would vote for him should be leading the Liberal Party should be ignored: and now, those bloated numbers are beginning to head south — as expected.

I remain steadfast in my view that the single biggest strategic error Turnbull has made to date was not calling a December election for this coming weekend when he had the chance; despite protestations to the contrary, Labor was not and is not ready, and it would have been the one chance the Coalition had to milk the stratospheric early numbers Turnbull produced for all they were worth.

That opportunity is now gone.

I’m not saying he will lose next year’s election unconditionally, and even a change of leader across the aisle might not be enough to stop the government being re-elected.

But if the unelectable Shorten is jettisoned (and I believe moves to do exactly that were only halted when the Brough matter exploded back into public view a week or so ago), then all bets are off.

If 53-47 is as good as it gets for the government, we’ve already seen the depths it plumbed under a leader who ended up its greatest liability.

If the ALP removes its own festering albatross from around its neck during the silly season or early next year, then one hell of a contest might ensue.

It’s a subject for another time — although we’ve touched on it here often enough — but I have long thought the Left has outperformed the Right in Australia on raw politics, setting political debate at the local level, and making itself the default choice for voters when any sign of trouble erupts among or around its opponents.

All that is wrong with the Left is exponentially worse than all that is wrong with the Right. Another Labor government could potentially wreck this country. But if the Coalition at its zenith can only manage to be six points in front as it heads into stormier weather, the missed opportunity of a December election might yet prove to have been a fatal mistake.

 

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.

 

Liberal Leadership: Right Or Wrong, It Must Be Sorted

THE PUBLIC DECLARATION by three backbench MPs against the leadership of Prime Minister Tony Abbott marks the point at which simply keeping a lid on ructions inside the government has ceased to be an option; in the best interests of the Liberal Party, it is now incumbent upon the Prime Minister to bring disquiet over his leadership to a head. It is regrettable his best option to avoid this development has been deliberately eschewed for months.

Government unity should, in the ordinary course of events, be something that is striven for and maintained at almost any cost; the adage that “disunity is death” in politics is a potent one, and occupies a prominent place in the political rule book with good reason.

Yet unity, when contrived around structures that are rotten to their very core, is a counterintuitive and self-destructive endeavour at best.

The public declaration last night by two disgruntled backbench MPs — Queenslander Warren Entsch and Western Australia’s Dennis Jensen — that they no longer had confidence in the leadership of Prime Minister Tony Abbott and would seek a spill of the Liberal leadership at a party meeting next week — signals the point at which efforts by Abbott’s inner circle to contain disquiet over the way the government has been run to date have been rendered obsolete.

And — one way or another — a resolution now becomes necessary, even at the risk that Abbott is replaced in a ballot.

This column — reflecting the mood of a large contingent of government MPs who were at first appalled and then enraged by the obsessive micromanagement of the Abbott government by the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin — has been warning for some time now that unless Credlin departs the Prime Minister’s Office, the government will, one way or another, face defeat: whether at an election loss next year, or through a change of leadership brought on by MPs unwilling to see the government go down in a smoking ruin.

The problem Abbott faces is that with some of his troops now prepared to agitate for a change of leadership publicly, more will follow; and even if he retains majority support among his parliamentary colleagues — a proposition that remains overwhelmingly plausible — the scope for such flagrant and open dissent to snowball and grow is obvious, and real.

Reports that former Howard government minister Mal Brough was prepared to act as a stalking horse at next week’s meeting of Liberal MPs — challenging Abbott in the hope of drawing out other candidates likelier to defeat him — seem to have come to nought, with Brough explicitly ruling out challenging the PM last night.

Even so, Brough too has described his support for Abbott as “qualified” and his list of grievances against the government — such as its policies on Medicare — intersect with many of the issues on which its public stocks have foundered.

The temptation, in the Abbott camp, would be to try to paper over this highly visible and damaging outburst of obstruction, painting it as a few disaffected troops out of step with the overwhelming majority of the government’s members and, indeed, the mood of the electorate.

But this would defy reality, and beggars belief.

Pledges from the main contenders to replace Abbott — Julie Bishop, Scott Morrison and Malcolm Turnbull — that they would not seek to challenge him would seem to bolster such an endeavour.

But hard reality (and common sense) dictates that these latest declared dissidents are far from alone, and that there are dozens of other Liberal MPs who, for a range of reasons, wait ready to join any insurrection against Abbott as soon as it crystallises into reality.

That point — despite a dramatic evening in media reports last night — has not yet been reached.

But the simple fact that even dismissive estimates of the apparent putsch suggest the rebels would muster 30 or 40 of the 102 votes inside the Liberal party room illustrates the Prime Minister has a problem; not yet great enough in number to inflict an outright defeat, the forces ranging themselves against his leadership are already significant and will — as surely as night follows day — increase in scope as soon as any firm movement becomes established.

An easy way for Abbott to have avoided this would have been, at the end of last year as he attempted to “reset” the government, to have appointed a new Chief of Staff; the obsessive, micromanaging control freakery that has been institutionalised by Credlin is — as we have now discussed ad nauseum — arguably the root of most (if not all) of the political problems the government has blundered into.

If Credlin’s way had worked, no-one would object, aside from perhaps a few raised eyebrows at the degree of authority given to a staffer.

But it hasn’t worked, with the government permanently mired in an election-losing position, and its every move and utterance — like the characterisation of 2014 as a “year of achievement” — seems contrived merely to entrench that position.

Now an increasing number of Abbott’s colleagues have had enough. A vote on the leadership, whether next week or later this year, seems inescapable.

And in any successful spill and subsequent open vote on the leadership, Bishop and Turnbull and Morrison would be released from their pledges not to directly challenge.

I have said in this column many times that I remain supportive of Abbott, and do so again. I fear, however, that unreasoning and blind loyalty to the wrong person, in this instance, may be about to cost him his job.

Abbott’s reputation for loyalty is well-known and admirable, as I have also been at pains to repeatedly point out.

But there comes a time when loyalty becomes unseeing in the face of the inevitable consequences of misplaced faith, and in Credlin’s case, that moment passed some time ago. Abbott now faces a revolt over his leadership, at least in part, over his refusal to remove Credlin from his office.

As it was put to me some time ago, either Credlin went — with the government able to reinvent the way it operates as a result — or both of them would have to go.

I think, reluctantly, that the opportunity for Abbott to be proactive about all of this has been lost. His retention of Credlin’s services now appears increasingly likely to lose him the Liberal leadership.

(And for those who still ask “what has she done to deserve all this?” yesterday’s article contains an excellent link that should be read).

I understand why Abbot might baulk at removing someone who, it must be said, has been loyal to him, and whose loyalty has been repaid — at great political cost to the Liberal Party.

Yet that damage (which may have already sealed the government’s electoral fate) is too high a price to pay for the indulgence of a single staffer.

Credlin should have been fired months ago, and the fact she wasn’t is the reason Abbott finds himself where he does today.

His failure to act then means that even if he moves her on now, it will be correctly interpreted as a concession in the face of threats and a clear case of too little, too late.

Credlin apparently did not attend federal Cabinet yesterday and is said to be excluded from next week’s meeting of Liberal MPs. Yet even these gestures — counter as they run to Credlin’s usual practice — stink of tokenistic appeasement and could (and probably should) further enrage those already dissatisfied with the government’s performance the longer she remains in her post despite them.

And I’m not even going to dwell on the ridiculous story of a “gallery night” for political spouses to spend with Abbott’s wife Margie, who is said to “want to get to know them better” after 18 months in office. The idea is insultingly cretinous and has Credlin’s fingerprints all over it. That such a patronising attempt at appeasing justified outrage should even be contemplated simply underscores the point.

Credlin should have been sacked: the fact she wasn’t has now brought about the likely endgame in her standoff with those MPs who bitterly resent the damage her regime and its manifestations have brought upon the government.

There is an argument that party leaders and especially Prime Ministers should not have to make deals and concessions of this nature to maintain their positions, and in ordinary circumstances people would be hard-pressed to elicit disagreement with it from me.

But as former Treasurer Peter Costello observed yesterday, MPs are answerable to voters, not to staff.

It is the fact this government appears determined to operate in a fashion completely counter to this principle that Tony Abbott now finds himself having to fend off a determined assault against his leadership of the Liberal Party.

One way or another it must be sorted out, and if a change of leadership is the only way to get rid of Credlin and the entire moribund structure she has erected around the government, then so be it.

On an alternative storyline, this need not have been the case. But it seems the time for Abbott to act — and to dismiss Credlin himself, thereby allowing a less incendiary resolution of the problems bedevilling the government — has now passed.

The next week will be interesting indeed. Anything could happen. But the story of a challenge to Abbott’s leadership is going nowhere.

 

 

 

BREAKING: Peter Slipper To Recontest Fisher As Independent

IN A CASE of not knowing when to quit, National-cum-Liberal-cum-LNP-cum-Independent, conservative traitor and disgraced Speaker Peter Slipper has announced he’ll recontest his Sunshine Coast electorate of Fisher as an Independent; it is to be hoped the Liberals’ Mal Brough wins in a canter.

If ever there was a more pointless or less inspiring candidacy for public office, this is it.

For reasons best known to himself, Slipper has announced today that he will stand as an Independent at the imminent election in the seat of Fisher.

It comes in the wake of a poll conducted in the electorate, which showed Slipper would attract just 0.5% of the vote, were he to stand.

And it comes as his wife has apparently seen fit to issue a statement in support of Slipper, insisting their marriage is “real” and that she loves him.

Be that as it may or otherwise, the issue here is whether Slipper retains the support of local burghers — now stripped of his Liberal Party endorsement — and whether, after more than 25 years in public life, he has anything left to contribute, be it locally or nationally.

Having spent 23 of the past 26 years as a member of the House of Representatives, it is perhaps noteworthy that he has never held office as a minister of the Crown.

Indeed, even his tenure as Speaker is noisome, commenced as it was in a deal to shore up Labor’s parliamentary numbers under Julia Gillard, and terminated in the wake of a scandal in which Slippery Pete had likened female genitalia to shellfish in obscene terms.

This column notes that a candidate of outstanding calibre from the Howard government years — former cabinet minister Mal Brough — is attempting to resume his parliamentary career at this election in the seat of Fisher, and we hope Brough is elected in a landslide.

That said, there had been speculation in the mainstream press in recent days that Slipper would opt to contest a losing campaign as an Independent in order to qualify for a share of public election funding — supposedly to help pay his legal bills.

Whether this is the case or not, I note that to qualify, Slipper must poll 4% of valid first preference votes: not only do I think he will fail to do so, but I also hope he fails to do so.

We have discussed the former Speaker in this column too many times to recount, and for once I’m not going to republish any links to the commentary we have made on his antics, although readers will be able to access these articles easily through the archives section.

I simply relate the news that Slipper is to stand, and it is to be hoped the announcement heralds the end of a career that has been an abject waste of a conservative seat in the House of Representatives, and which could hardly be described as “glittering.”