Mungo McCallum. photo The Northern star
Mungo McCallum. photo The Northern star

Time to unify the party room

EVEN before the wash up, one thing was both clear and unanimous: nobody, but nobody, wants another election.

Bill Shorten suggested that perhaps Malcolm Turnbull might, but the triumphalist (although still defeated) opposition leader was just adding a mischievous addendum to the campaign. If Turnbull even considered the possibility, the remaining members of his party room would lynch him just before the raging mobs of voters got the opportunity.

This is why the crossbenchers are scrambling to promise supply and confidence even when it is certain that Turnbull does not really need it – he will scrape over the line to secure majority government.

But the crossbenchers are keen to take out insurance. As even the maverick conservative Bob Katter has observed, they do so without enthusiasm; they have no desire to embrace the torn and tattered regime of Mr Harbourside mansion. But anything is better than the risk of another tortuous journey back to the polls.

And of course, Turnbull will cling to his thin majority like a baby koala to its mother. Like Tony Abbot in February last year, he had survived the near-death experience. And again like Abbott, the real question is whether he is smart enough to learn from it and survive, or whether the vengeful hounds behind him will remorselessly tear him down.

He will attempt to feed them titbits and scraps; Peter Dutton, we are assured by his backers in The Australian, is up for promotion. But the serious lurkers at the threshold – Kevin Andrews, Eric Abetz and of course Tony Abbott himself – will not be invited back in the tent.

This may infuriate the ultra conservatives in the Liberal Party, but it is sensible policy; if Turnbull actually means what he says about trying to unite the parliament and the people, the last thing he wants to do is capitulate to the extreme right and offer succour and solace to the divisive rump.

However, any effort towards mediation are likely to be frustrated when it comes to the intractable problem of budget repair. The self-appointed arbiters of fiscal rectitude, the credit agencies, have put it on notice: if we don’t do what they tell us to, they will take away our AAA rating, a sanction which the hard line economists liken to burning at the stake.

Conservatives who abhor the influence of unelected officials – judges of the High Court, for instance – fawn and grovel at the behest of the trans-national bean counters.

If Turnbull and Scott Morrison feel they have to agree to the demands, there is actually a very simple remedy: forget about the national economic plan for ten years of company tax cuts and implement moderate and sensible measures to curb spending – you might, for instance, want to cut down on the tax perks involving negative gearing and capital gains tax. Only joking; Turnbull’s homilies about less rancour and vituperation within the body politic do not extend in an admission that his own scare campaigns were always as fraudulent as Bill Shorten’s.

And Shorten is equally unrepentant. Putting his party straight back into campaign mode is largely bluster and bravado, but it is a clear signal that sensible compromise is not on the table – at least not in the foreseeable future. As was Tony Abbott’s approach to the governments of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, the aim is to destabilise, to make parliament as unworkable as possible.

He will encourage the crossbench –especially those in the Senate – to refuse as much legislation as he can muster. He will ensure that any talk of a joint sitting to resolve any impasse is not feasible. This will be characterised by his opponents, most notably in the Murdoch press and its followers, as irresponsible politics, but for Labor it will simply be payback time and they are unlikely to lose much sleep over the commentators’ complaints.

It will all be very hard for Malcolm Turnbull, but it will be diabolical for the hapless Scott Morison, who after a campaign which was never convincing and usually just bad, will be the fall guy for the fiasco.

Morrison has never become credible as a treasurer; he always sounds as if he is reading from a brief he does not really understand, and when he is on his own he appears to be making it up as he goes along. It didn’t work last time and it is certainly not going to work under the fraught circumstances of the new parliament.

In the circumstances it is fortunate there is very little waiting on the notice paper. There is, of course, the nitty gritty of the budget, but apart from the corporate tax plan, which no-one expects to survive for more than the first three years, most of the detail is uncontroversial – except superannuation.

This will be a big problem for the Liberal Party, which believes it is on a promise to have the concessions to the wealthy restored, or at the very least ameliorated. Morrison will resist, but Turnbull may be more malleable. If he concedes, he looks weak; if he stands firm, he resists protracted civil war. Not an enticing prospect.

With other legislation, the approach will probably be to point it at the senate. Talk of a mandate will be absurd; whatever the final composition of the upper house will be, it is clear that there will be a lot of self-important people with their own agendas, and anything they are willing to concede to the government will have a hefty price – which, we will be repeatedly assured, the nation cannot afford.

About the only thing which will deter the urgers will be the ultimate threat: a return to the polls. And for the moment at least, that not may not be sufficient. We have got used to the idea of continuous jockeying for power, in the parties, in the parliament and even in the streets. If Malcolm Turnbull has a mandate for anything, it is to bring it to a stop.

The imperative will be to unify the party room, dominate the parliament and assuage the voters. And while he is at it, unscramble eggs, square the circle and spin straw into gold. And above all to quell the talk of a new election.



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