“He came in as Prime Minister when people had such high hopes for him”: Bill Shorten responds to Malcolm Turnbull’s personal attacks. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen Mr Turnbull told reporters on Thursday Mr Shorten “is a complete hypocrite”. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Illustration: Jim Pavlidis
Malcolm Turnbull’s verbal blitzkrieg against Bill Shorten produced two diametrically opposed, yet predictable, responses from those who witnessed it inside the national Parliament this week.
As Shorten crossed the chamber, immediately after Turnbull branded him a sycophant of billionaires, a hypocrite and a parasite in that 10-minute tirade, the Labor leader confronted one veteran Liberal MP with the words: “Your bloke’s losing it!”
The counter view was summed up in the table-thumping response of the vast majority of Coalition MPs, and in the opinion pieces of many who watched from the press gallery. To them, Turnbull was finding it, and not a moment too soon.
Suddenly, it seemed, Mogadon Malcolm morphed into Street Fighting Man, all, we were told, in an impromptu response to Shorten branding him “Mr Harbourside Mansion” and “the most out-of-touch personality to ever hold this great office of prime minister”.
When broadcaster Neil Mitchell compared it to Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech, Turnbull saw it as a compliment. “You know something, they’re the best speeches,” he replied. “The best speeches are when you speak from the heart.”
What those outside the Canberra bubble make of it remains to be seen, but what is abundantly clear is that Turnbull is determined to do everything within his power, and then some, to recover from one of the most miserable of starts by a national government to a political year.
The imperative for the Prime Minister was to re-set the agenda after ending 2016 behind in the polls, under enormous pressure and seemingly in a funk. Instead, Turnbull has had to react to a series of setbacks outside his control.
First came the travel expenses furore that led to the resignation of health minister Sussan Ley, where Turnbull’s response was a case study in deft damage control.
Not only did Turnbull swiftly quash Ley’s naive hopes of toughing out the crisis, he proceeded to implement the most comprehensive reforms to MPs entitlements in a generation. A tick.
Then came the phone call with Donald Trump that could so easily have scuttled the centrepiece of his plan to finally end to the misery of those on Manus Island and Nauru by resettling a significant portion of the caseload in the United States.
Here, Turnbull’s projection of calm restraint in the face of provocation was vindicated by the result: for all Trump’s histrionics, the deal remains in place … at least for now. Another tick.
Finally, Turnbull had to deal with the much-anticipated betrayal of Cory Bernardi and, with it, speculation that the fragmentation of the hard right would trigger a new phase of leadership tension and instability.
Once again, Turnbull showed judgment and restraint, leaving it for others to make the obvious points. One, that having been re-elected as a Liberal senator for a six-year term barely six months ago, Bernardi had done the dishonourable thing.
And two, that Bernardi would not hold a candle to Pauline Hanson or Nick Xenophon, and will struggle to attract quality candidates or votes for his new party. Tick number three.
Turnbull still faces a swag of problems, of course, from the backlash from those whose pensions have been cut, to the flaws in Centrelink’s automated debt recovery scheme, to this week’s plans to cut family payments to help pay for childcare reforms, to the absence of a compelling narrative or plan for the nation, to the detractors still in his ranks.
But there were hints this week that his run of appalling luck might be coming to an end, with the South Australian blackouts helping him reframe the climate change debate as an energy security and cost of living issue, although this blame game is more complex than most.
Clearly, taking the fight up to Shorten is central to the recovery strategy, and there is no doubt that Turnbull’s demoralised backbench was buoyed by the attack.
Whether Turnbull should have been the one to deliver it is another question. Before the election, John Hewson suggested that Turnbull bring Tony Abbott back into the tent and assign him the task of going after Shorten. Good advice ignored.
Moreover, this was qualitatively different from past attacks by prime ministers on their opponents, and not in ways that reflect well on Turnbull. For one, it was an assault devoid of stinging, all-tip-and-no-iceberg witticisms of a Keating. “He is a simpering sycophant,” was the closest we came to a literary flourish.
For another, it was intensely personal and bitter, nasty even. “A cranky pile of bile,” is how one insider saw it. This creates an opportunity for Shorten to seek out the high ground if he tones down his own “Mr Harbourside Mansion” goading and focuses on policy. We’ll see.
Finally, the tirade raises the question that proved so problematic for Gillard: who is the real Malcolm? Is he the man of conviction who promised to respect the intelligence of voters and provide different style of leadership, or is he prepared to say and do whatever it takes to hold on to power?
Rebecca Huntley, the author of Still Lucky, says one upside for Turnbull is that the attack will cause voters to reassess the view that was taking hold toward the end of last year.
“Malcolm has been coming across as quite down in the dumps and flat and that’s not great because the electorate is asking, ‘What are you going to do? Where are you going?’ At the very least, some kind of animated spray sends a message that there is life in the old man yet.”
But Huntley says the most likely take-out is bad for both Turnbull and Shorten, showing both to be out of touch. “My sense is that the electorate would see this as they see everything else – politicians slagging off at each other.”
Hugh Mackay, who has been studying the national mood for decades, disagrees, saying Turnbull has done himself immense damage. “I think we will be able to track the gradual disintegration of Turnbull from that attack,” he tells me.
“It was such a weak strategy and so appallingly personal and vile that I think a lot of people are going to lose a lot of respect for him over that.”
Herein lies the rub. It is one thing to inject a dose of passion, energy, focus and urgency into one’s performance. That is a good thing. It is another altogether to make oneself the issue. That just puts a target on your back.
Michael Gordon is The Age’s political editor.
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