Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull will no doubt be reminded of that old proverb, “While the cat’s away…” having returned from the Paris climate change talks.
Despite the pledge of his predecessor, Tony Abbott, that “there will be no wrecking, no undermining, no sniping” after he was deposed, it seems plenty of his supporters didn’t make the same promise.
Turnbull seems to be dealing with an increasingly fractious party that, like Labor during the Rudd/Gillard era, seems increasingly happy to brawl in public, ending the PM’s initial honeymoon period with the electorate.
The Liberal leader goes into the Christmas break with several potential flashpoints threatening to flare up unexpectedly and leave him scorched in the process.
First up is Mal Brough. The Howard-era political fixer was rewarded by Turnbull for his efforts as a numbers man during the PM’s ascent, becoming special minister of state, despite lingering questions over Brough’s role in the downfall of former speaker Peter Slipper during Labor’s time in power.
Now he’s starting to look like Turnbull’s first ministerial casualty – and while Brough is digging in and has the PM’s backing, for now, Turnbull should have learnt the lessons Tony Abbott failed to heed over his former speaker, Bronwyn Bishop, and the “choppergate” expenses saga about hanging onto colleagues for too long.
The Australian Federal Police (AFP) is investigating Brough over any potential role in the illegal procurement of the Slipper’s diary three years ago. James Ashby, a staffer to the then-speaker, took copies of Slipper’s diary, which subsequently contributed to his prosecution for the misuse of public funds – a conviction that was ultimately quashed. Brough returned to politics after a three year hiatus in Slipper’s old seat of Fairfax.
It’s a problem largely of Brough’s making, sparked by an interview on 60 Minutes last year in which the minister was asked if he asked Ashby to procure Slipper’s diary.
“Yes I did,” Brough replied.
The potentially illegal act sparked the AFP inquiry, leading to Ashby’s house being raided recently in a search for evidence.
Labor’s been using question time this week to attack Brough and on Tuesday the minister compounded his problems by claiming in Parliament that he was misrepresented on the current affairs show and “what was put to air was not the full question”.
In response, 60 Minutes was quick to release a transcript. While journalist Liz Hayes fumbled the start, her question was clear enough.
“Um why then also did you um assist, seek well, did you ask James Ashby to procure um copies of Peter Slipper’s diary for you?” Hayes asked.
Brough says “Yes I did”.
Hayes continues: “Why did you do that?”
“Because I believed Peter Slipper had committed a crime. I believed he was defrauding the Commonwealth,” Brough answers.
Faced with the serious prospect of standing accused of misleading parliament, on Wednesday Brough issued a qualified apology to fellow MPs today if he “unwittingly added to the confusion”.
Here’s what the minister said:
My recollection of the interview was that the question was put to me in a somewhat disjointed manner and I answered the question without clarifying precisely what part of the question I was responding to.
This is confirmed by the tape by 60 Minutes, and that was the reason for my answer yesterday. I have taken the opportunity to review the tape and transcript, and I apologise to the House if my statement yesterday unwittingly added to the confusion rather than clarify the matter.
Brough denies any wrongdoing and says he did not ask Ashby to procure the diary. Ashby, in turn, says Brough is innocent and is pointing the finger at assistant innovation minister Wyatt Roy. There’s potential for the collateral damage to spread in Coalition ranks for something that happened outside of Turnbull’s watch.
And when you’re the special minister of state – the person in charge of integrity, standards and ethics – in the political system, it’s not a good look, especially when the highly respected senator Arthur Sinodinis stood aside as assistant treasurer during a NSW corruption investigation from which he was subsequently and completely exonerated.
Brough’s tenacity means he’s unlikely to step aside easily, leaving Turnbull with the unpleasant option of firing him and thus admitting it was a mistake to give someone already under AFP investigation such a critical role in the government in the first place.
Then there’s deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop, the foreign minister, currently embroiled in a spat with the former leader, Tony Abbott, over recollections about warnings she gave him that he was in trouble, as well as revelations that she was a “silent participant” in discussions in February between Turnbull and now treasurer Scott Morrison over a leadership team to replace Abbott.
Bishop claims she attempted to warn Abbott about the problems he faced, including that phone call, but Abbott denies the conversations happened.
The former PM has been busy while Turnbull has been overseas recently, seemingly taking a leaf from the Kevin Rudd playbook, which saw him pop up regularly in the media whenever then-PM Julia Gillard was overseas.
This week, a war of words flared between Bishop and her former boss over who said what when, with Abbott denying he had any warnings from his deputy.
Bishop attempted to hose it down speaking to Channel Ten’s The Project on Tuesday night, saying “there are obviously different recollections across a whole range of issues”.
The Daily Telegraph reported yesterday that the foreign minister spent $30,000 on an RAAF charter flight. It’s a not inconspicuous echo of Bronwyn Bishop’s profligacy with taxpayer funds, the defence of which became a major political problem for Abbott.
The foreign minister flew from Perth, where she was at a charity dinner, to Canberra.
It’s not unusual for senior members of the government and opposition to use charter flights, especially from Western Australia. The WA-based MP took the 9-seat jet with her partner on October 18 because the dinner ended after the last commercial flight east, leaving at 11pm Perth time and landing in Canberra at 5.50am to start work.
“It is not a private jet, it is the government ministerial jet and I used it precisely as it is intended, to enable ministers to fulfil their ministerial responsibilities when commercial options are not available,” she said in response.
There’s no suggestion of wrongdoing, but in the politics of perception, it’s a blow to a minister close to Turnbull otherwise seen as doing a good job.
Add yesterday’s Senate loss, which saw the crossbench senators reject government plans to change the composition of superannuation industry boards, and there’s a little more gloss knocked off the Turnbull shine.
The prime minister was seeking to follow through on a six month-old Abbott government plan to reduce union power on industry super boards, but on Wednesday, four senators announced they’d block the changes, killing off the proposal.
Kelly O’Dwyer, Turnbull’s choice to replace Josh Frydenberg, an Abbott loyalist, as assistant treasurer, is reportedly ill this week and therefore unable to try and nail a last minute deal, but the problem is that Abbott, who long complained about an obstructionist Senate, was seen as too “my way or the highway”, while the expectation of his successor was that he’d compromise to get an outcome. This is now Turnbull’s first major policy failure in a week already awash with chaos.
Back from Paris, Malcolm Turnbull reportedly told his team to cut the chatter, but two months into his leadership, the mortality that sinks into political life after the initial euphoria of victory is starting to surface.
Man cannot live on innovation alone.