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A promise Turnbull surely regrets

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ANALYSIS

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull may well be regretting his assurance to journalists in recent times that there wouldn’t be an election until the second half of the year.

After having a horror week in the nation’s capital Mr Turnbull may now be wondering how much his opinion poll lead will last, and whether he should cut and run to an early election in May.

That would mean postponing the May budget, which has begun to look decidedly anaemic since the PM ruled out pursuing any change to existing GST arrangements.

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Mr Turnbull likely thought he’d neutralised his biggest problem last Sunday by effectively ditching the proposal to increase the GST. But on Monday morning the PM was greeted with news of yet another Coalition minister behaving inappropriately while abroad.

In the case of the complaint made against Jamie Briggs, which was not made public until the former minister resigned, the PM was able to privately initiate and then consider an inquiry into the matter without the opposition snapping at his heels.

Stuart Robert
Mr Robert has resigned from the ministry amid questions over a trip to China at the invitation of a Liberal Party donor. Photo: AAP

In contrast, this week Mr Turnbull had to endure countless questions, demands and denunciations from the government’s opponents, who clearly relished the opportunity to turn up the heat on His Nimbleness.

By week’s end, the PM chose the only sensible political option available to him, adding Stuart Robert’s name to the list of ministers who’ve stood aside (Mal Brough), been sacked (Jamie Briggs) or announced their retirement under his watch (Warren Truss and Andrew Robb).

Looking on the bright side, as Mr Turnbull inevitably does, the PM can now undertake an even more substantial refurbishment of the ministry than he ventured when he became Liberal leader.

There will be at least one new woman in the Cabinet, courtesy of Fiona Nash becoming Deputy Leader of the Nationals. And at least according to the new Nationals Leader, Barnaby Joyce, there will also be an increase in the overall number of Nationals in Cabinet, although the overall number of Nats in the ministry will not change with the junior Coalition partner losing one berth in the outer ministry.

Putting together a ministry is never easy, given the need to balance state and territory representation, the two parliamentary chambers, and the factions, while also promoting renewal and growth by bringing forward fresh talent.

There is also the gender element, of course, but at least being female does not appear to disqualify Coalition women from senior ranks of the ministry as it did during the Abbott years.

Speaking of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, his supporters will likely have continued to pressure the current PM to return his predecessor to the frontbench.

Mr Turnbull has all but ruled out that possibility, citing the need for renewal through the injection of fresh talent.

What conspiracy?

There’s considerable speculation over the genesis of the Stuart Robert story, given the clash of loyalties within the Coalition taking place beyond the public’s view.

Aside from the very real need to stop ministers doing favours for close friends – even if they also happen to be hefty financial supporters of the party – it is interesting to consider who has been drawn into the imbroglio and why.

ABC
Treasurer Scott Morrison has been embroiled in the saga. Photo: ABC

Mr Robert is reportedly a close friend of Treasurer Scott Morrison, who you might recall left the arch-conservatives at the altar when Malcolm Turnbull came a-calling.

It wasn’t until the third successive leak about Mr Robert, featuring a photo of him hosting a dinner for his party donor mate, a wealthy Chinese businessman, and a few senior MPs including Tony Abbott, that Mr Morrison entered the frame.

A spokesman for Mr Abbott helpfully told the media that Mr Morrison attended the dinner that night.

The Treasurer confirmed that he was there, but added he was not among those honoured with one of the flash watches that later turned out to be unsurprisingly authentic.

Lest we jump to any other conclusion, one of the former PM’s media cheerleaders spelt it out in a column at the end of the PM’s horror week.

The conservative commentator rhetorically asked whether Mr Turnbull was “trying to save Robert as a favour” to Scott Morrison, thereby putting his own interests above the country’s.

Get up to date on the Stuart Robert scandal with ABC political reporter Stephen Dziedzic’s report

The polls! The polls!

Meantime another opinion poll hit the decks this week, this time the Morgan Poll, which showed the government holding its primary vote but most other parties slightly increasing theirs.

After the notional allocation of preferences, this resulted in Labor notching up a 2.5 per cent increase against the government in two party terms, making the PM’s week just that bit more horrendous than it already was.

Indigenous plight lost in the scramble

Lost in the unedifying scramble to bring down yet another minister, politicians and the media far too quickly moved on from the sobering facts detailed (yet again) in the annual Close the Gap report that was released this week.

Federal Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten at the Close the Gap, 10th Anniversary Parliamentary Breakfast at Parliament House in Canberra on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas) NO ARCHIVING
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten arrives at the Close the Gap breakfast event. Photo: Getty

Both Mr Turnbull and Mr Shorten gave what appeared to be heartfelt speeches recognising the need to do more to improve on the Close the Gap targets, such as improving the life expectancy of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, raising their employment rate, and stemming the unacceptable flow of Indigenous Australians into our jails and courtrooms.

But even on an issue as important as this, our elected representatives could not help but play politics.

In his response to the report, Mr Turnbull clumsily tried to shape the Closing the Gap challenge to fit his corporatese rhetoric, saying that while it was often described as a problem to be solved, it was an opportunity “more than anything”.

Earlier that day, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten had put the boot into his opponents, deriding what he claimed was a conservative cliché that exhorted Aboriginal people to “just pull themselves up by their bootstraps”.

However, the ultimate political play came from the government backbenchers who did not even bother to turn up to hear Mr Turnbull or Mr Shorten’s speeches.

They were later joined by Mr Abbott, who left the parliamentary chamber once Mr Turnbull concluded his speech, and before Mr Shorten had launched into his own.

* Paula Matthewson was media adviser to John Howard in the early 1990s and then worked for almost 25 years in communication, political and industry advocacy roles. She is now a freelance writer and communication strategist. Paula has been tweeting and blogging about politics, the media and social media since 2009 under the pen name @Drag0nista.

You can read more of her columns here

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