The admission this week by Godwin Grech, who had already revealed himself to be the Liberals’ man in treasury, that he was the author of the forged email at the centre of the “ute-gate” scandal probably didn’t surprise anyone except, perhaps Malcolm Turnbull.
It was a spectacular failure in terms of effective opposition because the government did have a case to answer, but Turnbull was so eager to go in for the kill that when the email he brandished as conclusive evidence turned out to be a forgery, it overshadowed any genuine concerns about the government’s role in the affair. Even if Rudd and Swan were guilty as charged of giving preferential treatment to a political donor, it was never going to warrant the resignation of the prime minister and treasurer as Turnbull demanded, and the allegation was already cheapened just by the fact that it was being made by former members of the Howard government. But Malcolm insisted on overplaying his hand and it ended up making him look like an idiot. After the email was found to be a fake, Turnbull insisted that it was being used as a distraction and that he wouldn’t be distracted from holding Rudd and Swan to account.
Okay, so you won’t be distracted from holding people to account by people trying to hold you to account?
We have seen his impetuousness and impatience before.
Malcolm Turnbull first came to national prominence as the leader of the Australian Republican Movement. Republicanism was put on the agenda by Paul Keating in the early 90s, usually as a distraction issue. John Howard didn’t want anything to do with it, but he was committed to seeing through what Keating (sort of) started and it meant he got to do it his way – that is, make it totally unworkable. The Republican model that was put to the people in the 1999 referendum, and supported by Turnbull’s ARM was the “minimalist model” which essentially meant replacing the governor general with a president who would be appointed by a two-thirds majority of parliament. Many republicans found this to be completely unacceptable since it effectively just changed the name of the governor general and ignored the fact that all the states would remain constitutional monarchies. Many in the ARM argued that this was our only chance to become a republic so it was better to just vote for the model being put up and we could work out the details later. Not bloody likely!
The republican referendum was defeated not by monarchists but by republicans who wanted a real change with a directly elected president. In his speech after the result was clear, Malcolm Turnbull said that John Howard would be remembered as the man who broke Australia’s heart.
When Turnbull entered Parliament in 2004 as the Liberal member for Wentworth, I was waiting for people pull that quote out to throw back at him but it never happened. When Brendan Nelson became the Liberal member for Bradford in 1996, he was mercilessly reminded of the speech he made as president of the AMA (which is a trade union by the way) where he said “I have never voted Liberal in my life!” The soundbyte was again dragged up when Nelson became leader of the Liberal party, only this time he claimed to have been lying. No wonder he didn’t last.
Then, when Turnbull was made John Howard’s parliamentary secretary in 2006 (presumably on the principle of ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer’) I was sure someone would bring up what Turnbull said about Howard in 1999, but still, nobody did. It’s as if it had been scrubbed from the record.
It’s unfortunate because with people having such short memories, it might have given us an idea of how Turnbull might perform as Liberal leader. Again, he took an idea with merit and said Never mind doing it well, just do it NOW.
I had been tempted to suggest that Turnbull imagined his referendum speech to be his “Well may we say....” moment but I really have no way of knowing that. Still, Whitlam and his government are another lesson in what can happen when you try to do things sooner rather than better.
Oh, and there’s a great recap of the whole, silly saga told completely in lolcats here.