Malcolm Turnbull declares determinedly that he is not a political animal.
Well, perhaps not: maybe he is a political vegetable, silent and immobile, fed on copious amount of bullshit.
It is hard to imagine a week that went so far off the rails, or one in which the management of hope and expectation went so awry. It was supposed to be the grand overture for the year of delivery: a meeting of minds with his fellow businessman Donald Trump followed by a triumphal address to the faithful via the National Press Club in which the hopes, dreams and aspiration for the yearning masses would be turned into reality by the glorious leader.
We shall, of course, return to that phone call later, but at first it seemed to have gone pretty much okay, even if Turnbull refused to say what had actually been discussed. But the Press Club was initially a disappointment and ultimately a fiasco.
Turnbull spent much of his time berating Bill Shorten for ramping up the renewable energy target and spruiking the myth of clean coal technology, a process in which the Australian industry has shown no interest at all unless it can be massively subsidised by a compliant government.
And the positive bits, such as they were, were a reprise on the need for corporate tax cuts and a revamp of the plans for child care services, paid for, naturally, by other welfare measures. Turnbull no doubt considers these solid and worthwhile measures, but they are hardly likely to capture the imaginations of millions of disillusioned voters.
There was always going to be a backlash about his out of touch opulence, which duly arrived; but the delay and procrastination made it much worse: not for the first time the prime minister appeared mean and tricky.
But then it got worse. The rumours of Turnbull’s massive gift to the Liberal Party on the eve of the last election had been around for a while, and it was believed that all would be revealed when the annual accounting was made public that week. But Turnbull, ever the lawyer, discovered loophole and leapt through it.
If his own contribution could be counted as the start of the new financial year – a couple of days before the July 2 election – disclosure could be postponed for another year. So Turnbull stood pat, telling the mugs nothing while insisting that he would do everything within the rules.
All that proved, of course, was that the rules were hopelessly inadequate; Turnbull had been, in the words of a previous generation, too clever by half and belatedly his advisers, such as they are, realised it. So eventually he came clean on ABC TV of all places and admitted that he had slipped a lazy $1.75 million to the party funds in the last year.
There was always going to be a backlash about his out of touch opulence, which duly arrived; but the delay and procrastination made it much worse: not for the first time the prime minister appeared mean and tricky. In one sense, though in only one, it was almost a relief when the distraction was subsumed by the Trump tsunami.
To spend millions ferrying the refugees from Manus and Nauru half way around the world in order to be bring back another lot of refugees from Costa Rica and install them in Australia is manifestly silly.
The leaking of the phone call was a calculated and deliberate attempt to make Trump look tough and decisive, and, by contrast, to make Turnbull look weak and vacillating. It put Turnbull in the worst possible light: the man who connived with Barack Obama to empty Australia’s illegal immigrants from their prisons (Trump’s words) and swamp America with terrorists preparing to bomb the next Boston marathon.
Turnbull had to plead, to talk about the great longstanding alliances in which Australia had committed to American wars, to kowtow shamelessly in order to keep his refugee swap still on the table before Trump, exasperated, ended the call; presumably he hung up, although to say so was considered impolite. And when the leak occurred, Trump immediately confirmed it by tweeting about the dumb deal.
And although his rhetoric was, as always, a bit over the top, the fact that it was, and is, a dumb deal is incontestable. To spend millions ferrying the refugees from Manus and Nauru half way around the world in order to be bring back another lot of refugees from Costa Rica and install them in Australia is manifestly silly. It has nothing to do with national policy or Australia’s interest: it is a cynical, even squalid, political fix.
But it is one in which Turnbull has now invested far more political capital; than he actually possesses, so if it falls over he is in deep shit. And it might yet collapse in a screaming heap: Trump, like any good businessman, is hedging his bets partly by insisting that he is still studying the deal and partly through the mechanism of extreme vetting, which may mean that few if any of the refugees qualify to enter America. Indeed, given Trump’s predilection for torture, if the vetting is sufficiently extreme some may not even survive it.
It has been a thoroughly unhappy experience for Turnbull, and a humiliating one; in spite of his assurances that he would always stand up for Australia, he didn’t – he didn’t even stand up for himself.
In the bigger picture it need not matter much: even if Trump doesn’t much care about alliances, the overwhelming mass of the American military-industrial complex does, and Australia is too valuable an asset to abandon: the station at Pine Gap alone makes an irresistible bargaining chip. The alliance will lumber on, although it is more of a symbol than a real protection: our great and powerful friend will defend us if, and only if, it is in its own interests to do so. And that goes double in the age of Trump.
The problem is not with America and Australia – it is with Trump and Turnbull, and more urgently with Turnbull. Sooner or later he will have to decide: does he continue as the next in line of Trump’s Aunt Sallies, punching bags and door mats or does he have a plan B? Perhaps it is finally time to unleash his inner political animal – assuming, of course, that he actually has one.