By Mungo MacCallum
As the pollies flee from Canberra in the hope (or fear) of embracing their far-flung families for the festive season, there will be many ready to celebrate. The turkey has been despatched and Santa Claus has delivered the pudding and the polls.
But some may pause to muse about the old yarn about the father who wanted to prove to his over-optimistic son that even at Christmas there can be let downs. So instead of leaving the boy a present to wake up in the morning, he left a load of horse manure. But the lad was, as they say, undeterred: ‘With all that shit,’ he enthused,’there must be a pony!’
Well, perhaps; but the reverse may still apply. Even with the very best show ponies, there will still be excrement. And so it has proved in what was supposed to be a euphoric couple of weeks.
The recalcitrant Abbottistas, of course, were always going to play the Grinch: they could and would grumble about everything, but they could basically be ignored. The public protestations of no wrecking, no sniping, no undermining quickly reverted to a litany of insinuations about the wimpishness of the messiah in refusing to follow their own gung-ho exhortations to cleanse the temple of ISIS. This was distracting and irritating, but predictable.
However, the last few days brought something a little more alarming down the chimney of the Turnbull’s waterfront mansion. One was the Ian Macfarlane dummy-spit; having been dumped from the industry ministry, the crusty banana bender made it clear that he was not ready to move on, but was determined to try again with a new club, the National Party. And he may not be the only one; there is a well-founded rumour that Scott Bucholz, who briefly served as Tony Abbott’s chief whip, is ready to join him.
Now it is easy to dismiss that as just another Queensland aberration; although the Libs and Nats have theoretically united as a single party in the sunshine state, it has been less a merger than an armed truce. And there is no doubt that the Nats still yearn for the halcyon days when Joh Bjelke-Petersen gave them the dominance they thought they deserved, and still deserve. Macfarlane and perhaps Bucholz are not part of a wider movement; they are driven more by personal ambition than genuine rebellion. The outlanders, like South Australian Cory Bernardi, will have to join a new party altogether if they really want to cause trouble.
But that does not mean that Turnbull can ignore the problems, and he has not. When the dissenters are ready to defect, it has made it all the more imperative to preserve the loyalists, however unlovable they may be. And yes, that means hanging out to Mal Brough, even if doing so is both rationally indefensible and politically fraught.
Brough has spent the last fortnight treating the opposition, the parliament and the public with arrogance and contempt. Rather than answer the substantive charges about his role in the James Ashby-Peter Slipper affair, he has stonewalled, blustered and, to put it diplomatically, misspoken. Having admitted on 60 Minutes that he had procured Slipper’s diary from Ashby, he said the transcript had been edited (it wasn’t) and then that he had been confused and answered the wrong part of the question (there was no other part of the question), and he went on to justify, in detail and at length, that he had procured the diary because he thought Slipper had broken the law by misusing travel entitlements.
He refused to explain why his zealous pursuit of that heinous offence was restricted to his political rival rather than to the many others, including Tony Abbott, who had been guilty of the same misdemeanour. And of course, in the end, he flatly denied in parliament that he had done it at all. He appeared to be hoping to escape with a plea of insanity.
But Brough, although not the smartest man in the ministry, is not totally stupid either; he is for example, brighter than Peter Dutton. Assuming he got it right this time, he must be relying on a claim that he had not actually procured the diary; Ashby had simply supplied it, and Brough had enthusiastically accepted it. In other words, he was not actually guilty of committing theft, only of receiving stolen goods.
Well, that might be acceptable if he was the defendant in a court of law, but it is certainly not acceptable as Special Minister of State in the Australian parliament. And it should not be acceptable to his Prime Minster, even to the Prime Minster he slavishly supported.
Malcolm Turnbull has carefully left himself an out: if there are new developments, they will be considered. But there already have been new developments: for starters, Brough’s admission on 60 Minutes was after the appeal court hearing that he claimed cleared him of everything, then there was the AFP search warrant alleging a breach of the Crimes Act, and now the apparent misleading of parliament – a sacking offence in itself.
Turnbull is hoping that the summer recess will make it all go away, but the police investigation in continuing, and will do so well into next year. He might to better to cut his losses now; there have been worrying memories of the way Tony Abbott hung on to Bronwyn Bishop beyond all reason. Brough is not Bishop; the public outrage has not got to that point
But there is another similarity; Brough, like Bishop, is deeply unpopular with his colleagues. Rather than defend him, they lined up to gag no less than three no-confidence motions from proceeding. Normally the main man on the government side would be the leader of the House, Christopher Pyne; but he, like his fellow frontbencher Wyatt Roy, has also been mentioned unfavourably in the affair. The honeymoon has become uncomfortably crowded.
Of course, there is a very simple solution to all the problems; dump Brough from the ministry and rebalance it with a new National, Ian Macfarlane. But replacing an ally with the former friend whom he ignominiously sacked is a Christmas present that Turnbull does not need and does not want. There are limits, even in this season of goodwill..