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.


  1. Yeah , I think its a bit late, the legal community as would the public expect nothing less than a brutal dispatch of Brandis, it would be a show of good faith to the public , that Malcolm has some principle , that yes he gets it - what has he got to loose ?.
    The problem for Turnbull is that people expected him to reform his party, not the other way around, unless he can show he is a bad ass and kill off or at least shut down the idiots that are currently running the show, he will leave politics as a disgrace. Like Rudd has as a laughing stock .
    Turnbull needs to take on a terminator persona, a no prisoner attitude, a dont you ever fuck with me again Abetz you shriveling apple eater grandson of a Nazi , that's what it will take for people to like the man again. People hate cowards, they hate weasels, they hate two faces and Turnbull has long ago reached that "groan" status - every time he hits the idiot box there is a collective anger that appears with him .. I think he has left his run up a bit late. Its not going to improve, captain Kellogg Mcgregor demands that Abbott be placed in the cabinet is not a positive sign ..Until Turnbull is prepared to dive in the ring and loose a bit of bark asserting his authority then he is doomed, the longer he leaves it the worse it gets. Good to read you Andrew.

    1. Personally, I'm disappointed that the major legal associations haven't been able to muster much more than a whimper at Brandis' various outrages. They used to be much stronger when the law and legal officers were under threat (even when under threat from a Liberal government). The Law Council of Australia's media release on Gleeson's resignation was pissweak.

      I would say that Abbott is living in fairyland to believe he could return to the front bench, but of course Turnbull has such form at this point for appeasing the Abbott wing of the Coalition that nothing would surprise me.

      Also, if Turnbull DOES get rolled (not going to happen for a minimum 12 months, but certainly not impossible if he can't improve his numbers in that time), his replacement will probably bring Abbott onto the front bench.

      If we're playing the "who could the Liberal Party turn to replace Turnbull in 12 months?" game, my money would be on Frydenberg. A loyal Abbott-ista who has demonstrated to Liberal donors (like the coal lobby) that he knows whose back to scratch at the expense of things like "facts" and "reasoned policy discussions", but who has also managed to persuade press gallery types that he's a reasonable moderate technocrat just like they think Turnbull is and who has avoided saying anything too, shall we say Christensen-esque?

      If nothing else, he has been positioning for it.

      Presumably Morrison sees himself as heir apparent, but who has even mentioned Morrison in months? Lame duck. The Coalition's lack of economic plan (election slogans and tax cut aside) is not exactly advancing his case.

  2. I'm curious as to whether the person who ticked the bullshit box is disagreeing with Andrew or merely commenting on the general state of Oz politcs/journalism.

  3. Brilliant piece!

  4. Here's the latest outrage from Brandis - at least 15 ex-Liberal politicians and apparatchiks appointed to senior public service positions for annual salaries of over $300,000 for up to 7 years - jobs for the boys (and girls), corrupt, greedy , entitled. https://www.buzzfeed.com/markdistefano/a-brandis-stack?utm_term=.ogjKpRVp7#.hxpxyNzyp

  5. Well, now the journos are wondering if a Summer Holidays re-shuffle might be coming. Justin Gleeson has been replaced, and the Senate disallowed the AG's ruling that "you must never go down to the end of town without first consulting ME!" ('Disobedience', poem for children; A.A.Milne)