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January 26, 2022

Thus spake Mungo: A Liberal fairy story

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MungoMungo MacCallum

This is a story about a man destined to be prime minister – a Liberal leader from Central Casting.

His indulgent father provided him with the best schooling money could buy. He went on to university, where he developed both a taste and a talent for politics.

He married into an impeccable establishment family, and produced personable and eligible daughters. He was successful in both law and business, and became independently wealthy. He acquired a blue-ribbon Liberal seat and was swiftly promoted to the ministry. He was handsome, articulate and persuasive; he had many rivals within the party, but few serious enemies.

He was a convinced disciple of free-enterprise economics, but he was generally regarded as socially progressive, perhaps more modern than the majority of his party. And so he was firmly in the political centre, popular with the electorate and seen as certain to eventually rise to the top job; he even had the right name for a prime minister.

But he had a political problem: a conservative colleague who was determined to supplant him, and at one point did so. Our hero made a triumphant return, but the longstanding feud continued, damaging the leader, dividing the party and confusing the voters.

And eventually the less liked, but more persistent, contender prevailed; Andrew Sharp Peacock lost the election and John Winston Howard took over. Peacock retired from parliament and was found a diplomatic post.

The Turnbull ego simply cannot entertain the idea that his abilities, his brilliance, could ever be seriously challenged.

Now, there is no direct comparison with Malcolm Bligh Turnbull. For a start, Peacock was far less single minded – he always had a sense of proportion and never took himself entirely seriously. In the end he even admitted that he was never even sure that he wanted to be prime minister. Such diffidence would be unthinkable to Turnbull: his overwhelming self-confidence is less a matter of relentless ambition than entitlement.

The Turnbull ego simply cannot entertain the idea that his abilities, his brilliance, could ever be seriously challenged. But this in itself can be a weakness, and one which has manifested itself in recent weeks. He has not bothered to explain his agenda to the unwashed masses, and as a result they are beginning to wonder whether he really has one, apart from the tactics and trickery he feels compelled to pursue in order to enforce and maintain his political dominance.

And in the meantime Anthony John Abbott continues to burrow away, apparently convinced not only in the righteousness of his cause, but in the belief that sometime, somehow, he too can regain the ascendancy in the manner of John Howard – delusional, perhaps, but it is a delusion cherished not only by the man himself and his handful of disgruntled followers in the party room, but by a chunk of the rank and file and their media boosters.

Turnbull’s supremacy is not seriously threatened, but he is not invulnerable and he can no longer risk the perception that he is. Which is why Bill Shorten’s demand for a royal commission into the banks and the financial institutions from the big end of town cannot be dismissed as a reckless and dangerous distraction, as Turnbull has sought to portray the changes to negative gearing.

Bank bashing is a national sport. Everybody hates the banks: this is a given in the Australian political scene. Turnbull, as a former banker himself, must realise this, and last week there was some realisation that he did: he interrupted the anniversary celebrations of Westpac to give them what was portrayed by an enthusiastic media as a severe warning, a tongue lashing.

But what he actually said was: ‘We have to acknowledge that there have been too many troubling incidents over recent times for them simply to be dismissed. The singular pursuit of an extra dollar of profit at the expense of those values (integrity and trust)is not simply wrong but it places at risk the social licence, the good name and reputation upon which great institutions depend.’

Well, a chiding, certainly, but hardly a tough one; the captious might even call it wishy-washy. And if Turnbull believes that it will turn the tide, that the banks will suddenly become model corporate citizens, praised for the integrity and loved by their customers, he is sillier than even his most zealous detractors think.

For starters, the pursuit of an extra dollar of profit is not just one option considered by the banks – it is their only reason for being. And not just a big profit, the biggest: every result has to be a record, or else it is seen as a failure. Driven by this imperative, it is hardly surprising that the banks have not been over-scrupulous in their dealings with the public.

Turnbull and his beleaguered treasurer, Scott Morrison, insist that there is no need for a royal commission: the regulators already in place, particularly the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC), have all the necessary powers to do the job. But whatever the purview and intentions of ASIC, it has manifestly failed: the banks have shown no reform and very little remorse.

As soon as one atrocity is closed down, another opens. If it is not overcharging on credit cards, it is rorting by financial planners. If it is not dodging legitimate insurance claims, it is manipulating interest rates. Their customers are, understandably, fed up. And Turnbull’s lawyerish approach – that well chosen words will eventually deliver justice, or at least a win – is no longer adequate. He may rebuff Shorten’s royal commission, but he cannot just will it away: he needs to do something, and something substantial, before the next evidence of systematic malfeasance it is exposed – and there will be plenty of people looking for it.

Paul Keating famously derided Andrew Peacock with the phrase: ‘a soufflé minster who never was. Keating calls Turnbull ‘a cherry on top of a compost heap;’ well, at least he has got to the top. But it is proving a far more difficult peak that he hoped or expected. Some critics are already calling Turnbull a show pony; this is what other critics called Peacock. It is not a good omen.


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  1. Is this the same Mungo MacCallum who said

    Naptine and Campbell newman , Marshal in S.A would be premiers for 3 terms ?

  2. Ha!, the wisdom of the gifted Mungo, sorely missed in downtown Sydney. So – now to subscribe to the Echonet (Why have the Ballina rellies kept the journal a secret?) He also writes so well – another exclamation mark.

  3. Even a few years ago, the idea of the ALP going into an election on a platform of a Royal Commission into the banks would have been seen as a suicide mission, a repeat of the 1949 fiasco. Back then, the banks had the public on their side. Today, after extensive branch closures, repeated scandals, and the removal of tellers from many of the remaining branches, Labor most likely has the public on its side. If anyone objects, they can even cite the words of the Liberal Prime Minister that “our bankers have not always treated their customers as they should”. They suffer from “big cultural issues”, Malcolm said, as if he were toying with the idea himself.

    The banks had better pray that nothing else hits the banking fan between now and July or they’ll be following the child molesters into the dock for sure.


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