For most of the time, it hadn’t been a bad week for Malcolm Turnbull.
For starters, it was a non-sitting week, which meant that he didn’t have to spend much public time with the bumblers, urgers and saboteurs sitting around him on the government benches. True, it also deprived him of another chance to scream himself hoarse about the iniquities of Bill Shorten and renewable energy, but no doubt there would be plenty of other opportunities.
And of course there were the usual gaffes from the usual suspects. Peter Mutton admitted the bleeding obvious about the people swap, and then went further by suggesting that if Washington did not play ball with the asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus, then Canberra would call off the game over the asylum seekers in Costa Rica. This was not only, as the weary Julie Bishop corrected him, not the Turnbull line, but it was more than somewhat unwise given the volatile nature of the paranoid president.
Donald Trump wants to be flattered, cajoled and above all treated with absolute subservience; an attempt to threaten him, however quickly withdrawn, is hardly good policy when the deal is far from concluded. Trump may or may not have committed to it, but this hardly matters. Given that he lied, dissembled and fantasised his way through the entire election campaign, his promises are worthless unless they are constantly reinforced with stroking. Our man in Border Control is not a stroker.
And then, of course, we had George Brandis (who else?) plausibly accused of having once again misled the senate over the messy affair of the assets of Bell Resources. He immediately fell back on the traditional defence of sprung ministers: he did not recall. But these were just par for the course for a government used to serial incompetence.
The good bits included the chance to swan around with Turnbull’s good mate Bibi Netanyahu – admittedly the Israeli prime minister was clearly the superior swanner, but our man did his best to strut, or at least inhabit, the stage. And of course it involved a bonus wedge against the Labor Party, far from enamoured of the belligerent visitor. Actually many in the Liberal party also had their reservations, but for the sake of the wedge, they stayed solid.
This was not just another spray from the dethroned leader: this was the heavy stuff, a declaration of war against Turnbull with a list of demands to prove it.
And the real pay off was when Bill Shorten wedged himself; he was so sure that the fair Work Commission would retain all penalty rates that he agreed to accept the outcome. But when it emerged cutting some of the holiday loadings, the opposition leader backtracked at near light speed, giving justified vent to accusations that he was a bad loser railing about the decision of the umpire his own government set up. Turnbull gloated yet again that Shorten’s promises could not be trusted – rather like his own, actually, but moving right along …
So it was all going quite nicely – until, regular as Old Faithful, the Tony Abbott geyser spewed its sludge across the party. And this was not just another spray from the dethroned leader: this was the heavy stuff, a declaration of war against Turnbull with a list of demands to prove it.
The demands were little more than silly populism – forget about climate change, which is probably a hoax anyway; keep out the nasty foreigners; scrap the Human Rights Commission because the mad right and the Murdoch press (the same thing really) don’t like it; stop all new spending – at a time when the economy is already in the doldrums; and reform the senate, presumably by changing the constitution; good luck with that one, although it is the only one that does not come straight out of the Pauline Hanson playbook.
Turnbull said that Abbott knew exactly what he was doing, although he stopped short of saying that it was either a bid to return to the Lodge or at the very least enforce an agenda which he would never have been game to try while he was in office but would like to foist on his successor, presumably in the hope and expectation of humiliating failure.
Sad, said the current prime minister trumpishly; just another outburst in which the voters were not interested and which he himself would ignore as a pointless distraction. Well, distraction, sure; but pointless? It made the headlines, which was the first objective, and it will re-energise the extremists in the party room, who may not flock back to Abbott – there is even a still crazier rumour that he is setting the job up for Peter Mutton – but are only too happy to undermine Turnbull.
Turnbull’s own troops took the bait and bit back, which was fine by Abbott and his cohorts: for them, there is no such thing as bad publicity. And as long as the media will not ignore them, they will keep the war alive.
It is easy to say that Turnbull really needs to do something to slap Abbott down and keep him there: but what? The party is hopelessly divided, Turnbull is far from their pin-up boy, and even if he had the will it is hard to see what weapons of destruction he could employ. He has tried summary dismissal, sarcasm, attempting to look the other way. But unless he is prepared to take the pretender front on, to attempt to blow him away in the manner he is trying to dispose of Shorten, he will continue to cop the wrecking, sniping and undermining that Abbott is so enjoying.
Perhaps our fearless prime minister will eventually summon up the ticker to do so; in the last few days he has shown that he is getting seriously exasperated by Abbott’s campaign. And one line, at least, he could easily turn back on his tormentor. Calling on political parties to have a purpose and a program – his program – Abbott warned: ‘our politics can’t just be a contest of toxic egos or someone’s vanity project.’ Well, quite. And it is time to expose both Abbott’s toxic ego and the vanity project he launched last week before they become lethally self-fulfilling prophecies.