20 November 2016

Trumped part I: America's gimp

Australian foreign policy has changed profoundly in the past few weeks, more so than at any time since 1942 - but with the important difference that the current Commonwealth government seems at a loss for how to deal with it.

Our information about what was important to US voters, and how they might use that information to choose their President and Congress, was poor. The government has sources of information that go beyond the traditional media, such as an Ambassador who was a recent member of the Cabinet, and a golf course designer who has done business with the President-Elect. The rest of us, however, are left with this sinking feeling that we've all been had in assuming US voters would head off Trump, and this will get worse as media both deny any culpability and assert an exclusive and indefinite right to misinform us under the guise of reliable, factual, and relevant information.

First, let's go around the media and work out how Australia's relationship with the US and other countries is likely to be changed. Then, let's aim squarely at those Australian media dipsticks trying to crawl from the wreckage of their credibility, and remind them of the conditions under which they are to go forward, if at all. Finally, I want to explore the media's obsession with this idea of the "alt-right", while at the same time failing to examine the idea in any depth.


Since US troops were first committed to the battlefields of World War I in 1918, Australians have fought beside them. In World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and other operations besides, Australia has joined US combat aims and suffered losses of blood and treasure. This relationship has shaped the foreign policy behaviour of both countries.

In Australia, it has bred a political monoculture across the governing parties that the US is the guarantor of Australia's political and economic success (and that of other countries, such as Japan or the Philippines) in the Asia-Pacific region. This is supported by a range of institutions, such as the Australia-America Leadership Dialogue or Fulbright Scholarships, which reinforce this relationship. Australians seeking a career in foreign policy, whether partisan (by becoming a member of a political party) or not (by eschewing party politics and following a career in academia or diplomacy), looked to US foreign policy as the star by which all vessels steered.

There is no way of regarding Australia's relationship with the US as anything other than closely intertwined with the broader aims of US foreign policy: outlooks and proposals that might have seen Australia break with the US altogether, or diminished the relationship (e.g. by closing Pine Gap or banning nuclear warship visits) were cast to the fringes of Australian politics and not entertained by serious careerist pragmatic people.

In the US, we have seen a bifurcation between official rhetoric warmly praising our alliance and a sub rosa commentary taking Australian support for granted, verging on contempt. "We think you're an easy lay", recalled Jack Waterford in outlining occasional Australian disagreements within a generally close relationship.

Yesterday we saw the Prime Minister admit that he tried and failed to secure a meeting with Trump, along the lines of Trump's meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Abe. One missed meeting need not have much long-term significance - but it hints at something more foreboding for the relationship, certainly as far as Australia's political monoculture is concerned.

Donald Trump's method of campaigning collapsed the difference between official high-sounding rhetoric and sub rosa contempt in almost every area of policy. While other conservatives were happy to mouth platitudes about freedom and equality while courting bigots through 'dog whistling', Trump was openly racist, sexist, and dismissive of people with disabilities - including veterans. Let's not pretend Trump is different to what he is. Let's have no truck with the fatuous media make-work scheme that is 'the walkback', and apply this pattern - seen throughout this campaign and beforehand - to US-Australian relations into the foreseeable future.

Trump will be openly dismissive of the Turnbull government and of Australia. Trump will openly state that Australia needs the US more than the reverse, and will make demands not even the most craven Washington-phile Australian could support, or even entertain. He and his Administration will be dismissive of the women who are Ministers for Foreign Affairs and Defence in this government, and of their shadows. Political opponents of the current government will titter at this new scope of failure, but the sheer effrontery will transcend partisanship and go to the regard in which our nation is held.

Nothing transforms a relationship (any sort of relationship) like stripping back the honeyed words and seeing it for what it is. It will be a massive break from the norms of the Australia-US alliance.

US Presidents have hung Australian PMs out to dry from time to time, as collateral damage for broader geostrategic reasons. In 1956, President Eisenhower refused PM Menzies' request to intervene in the Suez Canal crisis because of the US's wider interests in western Asia at the time. In 1972, PM McMahon condemned his political opponent Gough Whitlam for visiting and recognising the People's Republic of China - unaware President Nixon was about to do so, again playing a wider game.

Trump will wrongfoot Turnbull. He will do the same to any other putative Australian PM you might name. This is how the man does deals.

The best way to catch Trump out will be to catch him when he's distracted, as we've seen from his hasty and inadequate settlement of Trump University lawsuits. The current government may well be canny enough to do this - or not.

In his address to the Australian parliament in 2011, President Obama said that the US would be less inclined to unilaterally enforce international rules and norms and called upon allies in the region to do more to support shared aims, and expected allies to step up and share more of the burden. Australia is building warships at a rate never seen before because the US has indicated that it's in our best interest to do so.

Some commentators noted Trump's remarks along similar lines of making allies shoulder more of the military burden that had fallen to the US, and compared his approach to mafia shakedowns - but he was, in his crude way, aligning with bipartisan US policy. None of the Republican candidates Trump defeated in the primaries, certainly not Hillary Clinton and still less Bernie Sanders, were arguing for a Pax Americana where a rules-based global system is set up and enforced by the US military commanded by its President.

Criticism of Trump's rhetoric on this issue is just hype, snobbery, and bullshit: the central flaws of all his opponents' unsuccessful campaigns.

This isn't to normalise Trump. It's to do what the Australian media should have done, but failed to do: take his record and project it forward onto how a Trump administration might treat Australia within its view of the world. Australian journalists observing US politics, whether from Australia or on assignment in the US, tend to avoid original sources of information: they read The New York Times and The Washington Post and other established media outlets, not realising the audience in Australia for US politics can and does access those same sites - and more.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation covered the US election by sending reporters to Washington and having them relay banalities from CNN and Politico, which they could have done from Ultimo or Canberra. Shipping those people all that way gave no additional insight at all (except that ABC News thinks their audience are mugs, and should stop gibbering about resource constraints).

Most of the reasons why this deeply weird man was elected have nothing to do with us. The political class in Australia will hunker down and wait for him to pass, assuming the Democrats can and will come up with a candidate in 2020 that can beat Trump. The hunkering down will mean Australia both misses real opportunities in Trump-led US, and underestimates benefits awaiting us after he goes. They will underestimate the extent to which Trump has and will change the landscape, rendering "back to normal" impossible: there is no normal, there is no back.

Our leaders will not, however, do the hard but necessary work of rethinking the Australia-US relationship from first principles. The information isn't available; the very act of doing so is way outside our Overton Window.

Foreign policy wonks have said for a long time that we are moving from a world where the US calls the shots to a multipolar world, where other powers (e.g. Russia, China, India - maybe the EU if they can hold it together) play an important but not final role, along with the US playing a similar, diminished role. The trick, as they saw it, was to manage the transition peacefully. Part of this managerial assumption was that the people of the US would go along peaceably with their country's diminished role, diminished expectations thing. What else are they wrong about?

Australia will have to operate across a much broader front than they have; there will be fewer (expected, positive) options from Washington and more options from Beijing, Jakarta, Delhi, Lima, Nairobi, Berlin, etc. Politicians can't do this. Big corporates can't do this. "Pragmatic people" will blame everyone but themselves. There will be opportunities through sport or other means that are not directly linked to politics or trade, but which will open opportunities in those areas, which Australian politicians and corporates will miss and whinge about when their passing becomes clear. You won't need an app to disrupt foreign policy. Australians are heading into a time of missed opportunities. Coal and hobbled broadband will hold us back. Traditional media will barely notice.

For all its longueurs and ponderousness, foreign policy moves quickly when needs must. In 1910 Britain was indisputably the world's mightiest power: ten years later it was a whimpering basket-case of debt and pain, and Australian foreign policy (such as it was) didn't cope well then either. In 1941 John Curtin reached out to the USSR as the pre-eminent military power of the time; ten years later Australia's postwar consensus had hardened against the Soviets and the government sought to ban the Communist Party. We are again in such a moment of transition.

Nobody has any grounds for believing that our current ministers or their shadows have what it takes to set the nation on a new course in terms of foreign policy, defence, trade, or anything else involving the US; only hacks will pretend, only fools will believe them.

14 November 2016

The dogs' breakfast

Look, I have a long and winding draft on the US election that I'm still trying to work through, ok? What follows here is a diversion into the politics (and coverage thereof) of my native state of New South Wales, which is ready to go out now. I beg the indulgence of regular readers.

The NSW government committed itself to a significant building program of both public infrastructure and private housing. The departure of Troy Grant as Deputy Premier puts all that in doubt, and the coverage of this misses the point entirely.

In order to pull off an agenda like that, a government needs a nice-guy leader, personable but firm, with an offsider who is a bastard and an enforcer of the steely will the leader never fully shows the public. Everywhere that has successfully pulled off a vast rebuilding program - Haussmann's Paris, Robert Moses' New York, Max Brauer's Hamburg, Lee Kuan Yew's Singapore, Zhu Rongji's Shanghai - saw a charismatic leader with one or more arm-twisting bastard enforcers to get things done.

Grant was Mike Baird's bastard. A police officer for 22 years, he joined the Nationals and won the seat of Dubbo in 2011 from independent Dawn Fardell. He was a backbencher until Barry O'Farrell resigned in April 2014. Nationals leader Andrew Stoner had bought into the development ethos that had consumed the Liberals, insisting that some of the largesse from electricity sales also go to regional NSW; when Stoner stood down six months after O'Farrell, there was no succession plan. Grant had the numbers to become Nationals leader and Deputy Premier.

Being new to politics did not stop Grant taking advantage. He became Minister for Police, leapfrogging his old colleagues who had avoided being posted to Dubbo. He became Minister for Justice as well, breaching the old protocols where the minister for one could not be minister for the other; he outranked the Attorney General, Gabrielle Upton, whose namby-pamby concerns about due process were swept aside by a copper's pragmatism. He combined this with the ministry of Gaming and Racing, putting him in charge of real power with liquor and pokie licencing - as well as Arts, because hey why not and who else in the government wants to do that? Grant aggregated all this power at a time when the Coalition had a vast backbench, full of apparently talented and hard-working potential ministers.

When Baird wanted to curtail liquor trading hours in the inner city, Grant backed him. Police and health workers cheered the move, but the denizens of the city's bars and clubs hated it - and seemed to have no recourse, not to nice-guy Baird, not to the bastard enforcer Grant.

When Baird resolved to ban greyhound racing in 2015, it was to please the same skittish urban base that had embraced Julia Gillard's ban of live cattle exports to Indonesia in 2011. A once working-class past-time had been forced from the inner city to the urban fringes and to rural areas that aren't desert, or pricey prime land, or subject to fracking, or too far from traditional greyhound racing centres in Gosford, Dapto, and Wentworth Park. It was never a big industry and had no champions who were big donors with access to the political class. No migrant group embraced it, it attracted few young people, and with a cut to its subsidies and a bit of compensation it might well have been dispatched into history with its ageing adherents. Grant backed him, and developed the legal and policy mechanisms to make it happen.

As with urban planning or electricity sales, the consultation was broad, but firm; the government isn't backing down on this, but by all means let's talk and money will be available. The legislation passed, and the machinery whirred into action.

If greyhound racing didn't matter, it didn't matter if the ban was overturned. Nobody was asking Baird to go back on something big and important, like WestConnex. By championing greyhound racing, Alan Jones emboldened conservatives who needed votes from lower-income earners and helped them to an easy, low-consequence win over the powers-that-be grinding through the big projects. Jones gives most governments free rein but he expects them to kowtow when he jerks the chain, seemingly at random, whether the issue is large or small. Baird saved his government with the backflip, even if he lost the sky-high ratings a Sydney politician needs to brush off Alan Jones.

Baird didn't want to look like either the bad guy or a backflipper; Grant, who had put the anti-greyhound mechanisms in place, had to undo broad and careful planning and write off the compensation. Labor embraced the greyhound cause for the same cynical reasons Barry O'Farrell used against electricity privatisation in 2008, ending the career of then-Premier Morris Iemma and sending the Labor government into a death spiral. The Orange byelection, brought on when state MP Andrew Gee went to Canberra, came when Grant was exposed and vulnerable.

The trouble with sweeping aside protocols and niceties to make big things happen is that you have to bring people with you. Grant had successively alienated long-standing members of the Nationals such as Katrina Hodgkinson and serial boofhead Andrew Fraser. The Orange byelection is an excuse for getting rid of Grant, not the hill he chose to die on. Grant did not have Baird's residual nice-guy image, nor the depth of experience within the Nationals to smooth ruffled feathers. Hodgkinson and Kevin Humphries had been dumped as ministers, in a party not exactly replete with talent and which needs to have its best members tackling the Liberals, Independents and other forces threatening the party's very existence. Grant's country copper instincts, to start with a chat but end with a boot up the arse if needed, had gone so far but no further.

Grant rose like a rocket and fell like a stick, at which I neither mourn nor revel. I never imagined we'd have a Deputy Premier named Troy; I just assumed it was unconstitutional or otherwise unfeasible. It will be interesting to see what happens now:
  • Apparently the new Nationals leader will be John Barilaro, who like Baird comes across as a nice guy and not at all an arse-kicker like Grant.
  • As Vocational Education minister, Barilaro had his run-ins with Education Minister Adrian Piccoli; we'll see how things change when the difference in seniority between these two men is reversed.
  • Interesting to see who becomes the new Police Minister, a source of real power vastly underestimated in state politics. Will the Liberals bring back Mike Gallacher, or is it too soon? Is he content to join the Liberal Right's factional silly-buggers over preselections, angling for a Federal role?
  • Will the Attorney-General be able to reassert due process over the new minister(s) for police and justice?
  • What of the regulation of liquor, pokies - or greyhounds, for that matter?
  • Will the momentum of big road, rail and other "once in a lifetime" infrastructure projects stall?
  • Will arts funding (increasingly important to the sector since federal cuts) stay close to the city's elite, or be dispersed by a new minister from far beyond?
  • In Dubbo, Grant had learned to speak Wiradjuri. No other NSW government minister, apart from Linda Burney and some 19th-century Renaissance men, learned an Aboriginal language.
  • Imagine Andrew Gee regarding his old seat, in the heart of his federal electorate, that has registered a 30% swing against the Nationals. Gee had entered state parliament in 2011 as Grant had, but never became a minister. He has joined a government less popular than Baird's, with a Nationals leader more cunning but less capable than Grant. No federal MP is safe from a 30% swing.
  • Speaking of people considering their future - Grant has been forced out of the Deputy Premiership and faces the undoing of two years of work. Why should he stick around until the next election (in 2019)? His seat of Dubbo adjoins that of Orange, with similar demographics and issues ...
Apart from the prospect of a byelection in Dubbo and a bit of soft-soap work on Barilaro, NSW political journalists haven't started on any of the above issues. NSW politics has been reshaped almost as profoundly as New Zealand's South Island. Grant was significant enough, in less than five years, to leave a vacuum in his wake. State political rounds should be across all of those issues and plenty more, yet they've just clustered around the same set of talking points which make no difference to anyone but the journalists themselves.

03 November 2016

When zombies attack, again

You hear the door slam and realise there's nowhere left to run
You feel the cold hand and wonder if you'll ever see the sun
You close your eyes and hope that this is just imagination
But all the while you hear the creature creepin' up behind
You're out of time ...

- Michael Jackson Thriller
It was appropriate that Tony Abbott should lunge for public attention at Halloween, when the dead make their presence felt without offering the wisdom of their experience, when children extort for lollies.

By contrast, Sean Kelly wrote a rather good piece on why putting Abbott back into Cabinet might not be a good idea from a political point of view. It's hard to disagree with any of that, but let's look at how the media covers this sort of thing, and how useful they are at showing us how we are governed.

Abbott and Indigenous Affairs

Abbott thought that he'd like to be Indigenous Affairs Minister. He didn't say why; he didn't say what he could do that the incumbent Minister, Senator Scullion, couldn't do or hasn't yet done.

We live in a time when a large and diverse number of Aboriginal Australians can and do mix it with political and other leaders in articulating the wishes and needs of their people. Previous generations of Indigenous leaders, from Bennelong to Geoff Clark, could articulate the problems Indigenous people faces but could not deal with the complexities of Anglo-Australian government sufficiently to secure the lasting outcomes that they wanted.

When Abbott was Prime Minister he seemed to acknowledge only Warren Mundine and/or Noel Pearson as Indigenous leaders. He had only platitudes to offer on violence, incarceration, lack of economic opportunities, early death rates, and other issues articulated by Indigenous people themselves. Consider Tom Calma's denigration of both Scullion and Abbott on Indigenous policy, and how such a knowledgeable and nuanced examination will have no impact whatsoever on the reporting of Indigenous issues by the non-Indigenous press gallery. Yet, the press gallery as one remains convinced that Abbott has a passion for Indigenous issues - and being stupid people, no actual evidence from beyond the press gallery poses any danger of changing their minds. They are stuck on the idea that Abbott has a genuine passion for Indigenous issues.

(c) The Australian

Consider what is going on in this cartoon. What sort of people don't acknowledge their own children? How can such people exercise sovereignty over land, or deny others access to economic resources in it? How can such people even act in their own interests, let alone those of others or the land itself? When ill Leak and his supporters insist this cartoon is 'true', they are arguing for defeatism in good-faith dealings with Indigenous people, and a continuation of a situation where it is best for non-Indigenous people to act in the best interests of such broken people.

Tony Abbott has been more critical of his own sister than of any output of the Murdoch press. Abbott's support base in the Liberal Party are those who want to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, of which the above cartoon is probably in breach for its sheer absence of good faith. Abbott cannot claim to have any sort of commitment toward Indigenous people so long as he has no opinion on the bad faith of Leak and his supporters.

This isn't a matter of culture war garbage that places Leak and his supporters at the centre of their own melodrama. This goes to the issue of Abbott's good faith in dealing with issues raised by Indigenous people, which matter to them. It goes to the reliability of the press gallery notion that Abbott has a real and deep commitment to Indigenous issues - and that the sheer force of this belief has real political consequences in terms of policy outcomes, if not the shape of the government itself.

It is genuinely pathetic that The Sydney Morning Herald can only represent this story as a spat between Tony and Nige. At least the threat to Scullion's job, however feeble, piqued his interest. Conflict in politics is a given and does nothing to attract readers. Framing this story to such a degree of dumbness so the journalist understands it does not make for a popular, well-read article capable of supporting ad revenue.

Abbott and Defence

A week before the election, Abbott pulled a similar trick - this time with the Defence Minister, Senator Payne, using the same extortionate lines about healing the rift and loyalty. Again, there was no wider discussion about Australian defence policy more broadly, nor any specifics about what Payne might have done badly or well; so much for coverage of government by an experienced press gallery.

Nobody in the press gallery has linked Abbott's latest shot (at Scullion) with his prior one on Payne. Nobody seems awake to the idea that Abbott might try and pick off the Cabinet one by one in a similar manner, or that such behaviour (a week before an election!) makes nonsense of any claims Abbott may have to being a stable, team player.

Presumably because he was interviewed by an experienced military officer, Abbott declined to repeat the Defence thing at Halloween or explain why he abandoned such an ambition.

A waste of talent

Oh, please.

Abbott was an indifferent minister, and shirked any notion of responsibility between what he said before the 2013 election and what he did afterwards. His pronouncements on foreign policy should be viewed in light of his stated aim of a Jakarta-centred foreign policy, scuppered by having to leave a meeting with the actual President of Indonesia in order to console his chief of staff, freaking out at the sheer extent to which she and he were out of their depth. To play up the importance of Abbott pronouncements means you have to forget what he was like - to set aside the very experience press gallery claim is valuable in covering politics.

When former prime minister Malcolm Fraser commented on issues like Australia's relationship to the United States, or treatment of asylum-seekers, nobody was more dismissive than Tony Abbott. When Paul Keating criticised the foreign policy of the Howard government it was Abbott, with no foreign policy experience, who was trotted out to provide a countervailing quote for journalists.

One of the funniest aspects of press gallery journalism in recent times was to see Peter van Onselen carry the flag for disgruntled Liberals who leaked to him. Every six months or so in the first half of this decade, van Onselen rehashed the same article that the government would be so much better off with the promotion of his pals Kelly O'Dwyer, Josh Frydenberg, or Christian Porter. Well, all of those people are in Cabinet now, and the government and nation are scarcely better off.

To see the proper treatment of former prime minister Abbott, let's look to the former prime minister he most resembles: Billy McMahon. McMahon hung around for ten years after his defeat as Prime Minister. He made the odd pronouncement which was of no value to anyone, including the press gallery at the time and even himself. Fraser awarded him and Gorton the sparkly bauble of Knight of the Grand Cross of St Michael and St George; Gorton took the hint and retired, McMahon did not. His electorate became a festering sump of right-wing Liberals; when he finally retired they lost the byelection.

Liberals in Warringah (Abbott's electorate) tend to be a rabble, led by the kind of disruptive right-wingers who look up to someone like Abbott. In 1998 I was a preselector for the state seat of Manly; the Liberals who lived outside the area were more serious about winning the seat for the party than those who lived there, which is why a) they didn't and b) I gave up on them. If Turnbull wanted to reform the Liberal Party, rather than just being its frontman, he would cultivate a potential candidate who would work the fiercely parochial electorate and its branches, with a view to challenging and beating Abbott at preselection. Instead, he abandons local branches to clowns who will come to repel local voters at a time when the Liberals will need all the votes they can get.

Wyatt Roy is more likely to become a Liberal cabinet minister than Abbott is to return.

When zombies attack!

Next time Abbott resurfaces, realise that his cry for "Brains! Brains!" identifies what he lacks, rather than what he has to offer. If press gallery experience means anything, its denizens should have their wooden stakes and garlic ready; better than being just another credulous screamer.

Next time political-class tragic Cate McGregor offers an opinion on defence policy, or cricket, or anything really - recall her piece on Abbott and Indigenous affairs (no I won't link to it) and wonder what her judgment is worth.

Never mind the pantomime, just tell us what is going on. If nothing much is going on, say so; stop pretending bullshit is a big deal, otherwise people won't believe you when you do have something worth saying.

01 November 2016

Proof of life

I got legs I can walk
All the way down the dirt track
I fell down, I got up
I turned around then I walked back

I walked to the sea
I stood there and looked for a sign
It took time but it came
I added up and took what was mine

- The Cruel Sea Better get a lawyer
The fantasy that Malcolm Turnbull is a moderate liberal and a wise and effective leader is held dear by many in the press gallery, despite an absence of evidence. While absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, the fact is that skill in business is not the same as the political skill of being able to move large numbers of people with you. Recent events have put the government in a position where Turnbull must demonstrate his reaching-out skills to a group of people who have good reason to be ticked off with him and his government, but who are not implacably opposed like, say, building workers.

Now is the time for Turnbull to demonstrate the common touch his supporters insists he has in spades.

The Attorney-General, George Brandis, has clearly failed. Every announcement by the government must be questioned for its legality and its vulnerability to judicial challenge, which makes confidence in government impossible and hampers the ability to work with/around it. Respected lawyers such as Gillian Triggs or Justin Gleeson can't work with him, the sniggering from the nation's lawyers that greeted his appointment has hardened into contempt, and the nation is both less secure and less free due to his tweaks to the law. It's too early even for a blogger to comment on Senator Day, who knew what when and did or did not act, etc.

Insidery insider journalism intimates that Turnbull is displeased with Brandis, but so what? The difference between that and him not being displeased is not readily apparent, or even explicable by those who draw salaries on the assumption that they understand politics and government well enough to explain it to the rest of us.

Paddy Manning described those of us who couldn't see how his skillset translated to politics as 'haters'. If you have some idea about politics, and have seen a number of occupants of the Prime Minister's office come and go, it doesn't mean that you hate Turnbull to say that he isn't up to the job and probably never was. It means that you have some respect for the office and its role in the country's governance, and that you measure occupants and aspirants against that - and that you are right to insist that coverage of politics apply similar measures.

If you believe in Moderate Malcolm, an effective operator who contrasts sharply with the ditherer and bumbler before us, it's time for proof. Let us see in objective reality how moderate and effective Turnbull can be.

It might be too much to ask to expect Turnbull to tackle vast wicked problems that have beset Australia for decades, if not fundamental flaws: the place of Indigenous people in modern Australia, say, or the tax system, or housing. If it's bare competence we're testing here, something intrinsic to Turnbull, then let's see how he reaches out to people he should know and be comfortable with.

Malcolm Turnbull was a barrister in the 1980s. As a businessman he engaged the nation's leading commercial lawyers. As leader of the Australian Republican Movement he sought far-reaching change to the Constitution. He should be able to relate to lawyers. Many of them are his constituents. They are, if you pardon the lapse into sociological theory, members of his socio-economic class. If he can't reach out to the legal community what reaching-out and problem-solving skill do you imagine he might have?

Turnbull needs to reach out to leading lawyers and assure them they need not fear their careers or important legal principles being subject to the whims and caprices of George Brandis (or George Christensen, for that matter). He needs to secure the confidence of well-respected, capable lawyers to take key legal roles, and shield them from political interference - which is traditionally the role of the Attorney-General, more breached than observed by the incumbent and in no way honoured. Personally, I'm not confident Turnbull can do this; but I've been wrong before.

George Brandis used to be besties with Senator Brett Mason, another Queensland Liberal lawyer but regarded more highly than Brandis. When the two fell out it was Mason who was shunted off to an embassy in Europe. Perhaps Mason can be prevailed upon to return. It shouldn't be hard to get the LNPQ to endorse him again, and he can do some politico-legal heavy lifting while Brandis does something harmless but within his competence, like cocktails with Geert Wilders.

If Malcolm Turnbull can reach out to the legal community and get them to work with him on reforms he and they see as important, it augurs well for the country's legal system and its ability to operate independently of the party in power at any given time. It shows that Turnbull boosters were right, to however limited an extent, to judge him as a wise and capable leader with the better interests of the nation at heart, with a vision that extends beyond the media cycle.

If Turnbull cannot reach out to the legal community, if their distance and discomfort harden into suspicion and even hostility, if their leading members continue to become chew toys for politicians not good enough to be ministers, then those who thought Malcolm Turnbull might be an effective Prime Minister have a lot of answering to do - particularly if they and their employers continue to assert the soundness and experience of their political judgment and reportage.