Malcolm Turnbull is probably too young to remember them himself, but as a dedicated aficionado of public transport he should be aware of the wartime signs in trains and busses asking sternly: ‘Is your trip really necessary?’
Which is a question he may well be asking as he returns from his Trump schmooze to confront yet another uprising in his revolting party room. Turnbull insisted that there was nothing more important – the relationship with Washington was the key to everything, the alliance on which our very survival depended.
But in a sense it was not entirely his idea, and certainly not his timing. The Department of Foreign Affairs, smarting from that first unfortunate phone call, dedicated itself to securing an appointment – any appointment, anywhere, any time. So when the summons came, Turnbull had no real choice – to reject it on the ground that he was too busy at home was unthinkable.
The Donald had said jump, and the only question was how high. He was on his way across the Pacific with the same alacrity his predecessors had reacted to the presidential call – or, for that matter, that of Rupert Murdoch. There are some invitations an Australian prime minister cannot afford to refuse.
But on every level it was a B grade affair. Turnbull allowed barely 30 hours for the visit, but even then he was twiddling his thumbs while Trump was fashionably late for the meeting – not, of course in the White House, or in one of Trump’s luxury resorts, but on a maritime museum: the obsolete aircraft carrier Intrepid in the Hudson River in New York.
Trump’s excuse was that he was celebrating the congress’s vote to remove some 24 million Americans from health insurance, an outcome Turnbull fulsomely applauded: ‘Well done, keep at it, it’s great,’ our prime minister gushed. This was not diplomacy; this was toadying.
But apparently that didn’t matter; what did was the reaffirmation of the friendship, the alliance, the partnership between the two countries. Australia and the United States are on the same side. Well, d’oh; it would have been a bloody good story if they weren’t. But apparently the grovelling paid off; Trump praised Turnbull as a great leader, one very comfortable to sit on.
And thus Turnbull returned to Australia to face a budget which was supposed to be the ultimate political fix, but which, in the brief period he was overseas, was rapidly turning into yet another tin full of worms, the annelids being the Abbottian delcons of the lunar right.
There were a truckload of pre-budget announcements in the in-tray, but the big one – the one Turnbull and his education minister Simon Birmingham were relying on as the game breaker – was the triumphant unveiling of Gonski 2.0, with its eponymous creator beaming happily beside them. Obviously it was a sensational political coup, but, more than that, it was undeniably (except for the aforementioned delcons) good policy.
After more than a century, the ideal of needs-based schooling was finally in sight. The proposition had been bumbling along since federation and before, but it became seriously articulated in the government of Gough Whitlam, who sought to kill off the long-running conflict over state aid with a formula that embraced every schoolchild, public, independent or Catholic. His short-lived government was unable to deliver the reform, and Malcolm Fraser, a dedicated advocate of private enterprise, especially where health and education were concerned, effectively kyboshed it.
The Labor governments of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating made desultory attempts to revive it, but then came John Howard, who was determined to preserve and enhance the ascendancy of the non-government system, and particularly the well-organised Catholics. Labor under Mark Latham tried to fight back, but any suggestion of moving back towards fairness and equality – a needs-based system – was greeted with screams of a hit list against the wealthy independent schools.
Thus when Julia Gillard – a passionate former school teacher herself – called in David Gonski to provide a viable formula, it was on the proviso that there were to be no losers – those who had profited from the Fraser and Howard years could keep their ill-gotten gains while the rest could do their best to try and catch up. Even then there had to be sweetheart deals to get the various interest groups – including several of the state government – to sign up in time for the 2010 election.
The result was a bit of a schemozzle, far from the politic-free vision of its founder, but it was an improvement, and the Abbott opposition went along with it, and even promised to preserve it before the 2013 election. But then all bets were off, and when Turnbull usurped Abbott, no-one seriously believed a revolution was in progress – until, last week, it happened. And this time there was a real hit list – a short one, but enough for the previous beneficiaries to gibber with outrage.
The Catholics were especially incensed; having got used to their position of privilege they were not about to give it up without a fight, even when a leaked internal report revealed that the Catholic Education Office had diverted – subverted – resources from disadvantaged rural dioceses to prop up already obscenely over-funded elite city schools.
The Australian’s resident College of Cardinals threw itself into the crusade – superannuated groupers joined zealous novitiates to warn of turmoil and rebellion. And with Captain Catholic, Tony Abbott, as their head, the usual saboteurs of Turnbull’s leadership waited with angry anticipation for their leader to face the resulting disruption. If Turnbull had been on the spot, he just might have averted the rebellion, but his absence gave it time to foment. So now he is faced with hosing down another self-serving rebellion on the eve of his crucial budget.
It is hardly his fault – well, not entirely. The idea was brilliant: Labor is floundering, self contradictory, petty-minded and irrelevant. And the crossbench – including, importantly, the Greens – seems largely onside. But as always seems to be the case with Malcolm Turnbull, the internal politics of the Liberal party and its more cynically self-serving supporters threaten to derail the policy, the budget and even Turnbull himself. As Trump himself might say, in tones dripping with condescension and insincerity, sad.