News National Malcolm in a muddle: PM’s series of blunders

Malcolm in a muddle: PM’s series of blunders

The first two weeks of the new Turnbull government have been a handbook in what not to do. Photo: AAP
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The first two weeks of the new Turnbull government have been a handbook in what not to do.

If it’s a harbinger of things to come, the scarcely majority government will struggle to survive.

Just when the whole nation, including his political opponents, welcomed Malcolm Turnbull’s decisive and humane response to the ABC’s Four Corners expose of unfathomable cruelty in the Northern Territory’s juvenile jails, the Prime Minister flubs it.

The appointment of Brian Ross Martin to the NT royal commission turned out to be a flawed one. Photo: AAP

The decisiveness masked a flawed judgement of foolish haste that began to become evident almost before former Northern Territory Supreme Court Chief Justice Brian Ross Martin had left the news conference announcing his appointment.

For starters, the new royal commissioner and his court were at the peak of that jurisdiction’s criminal justice system.

The judge himself had been involved in several controversial cases involving Aborigines. His daughter had also been an adviser to a relevant minister.

But before all of that drama reached its climax, the Rudd fiasco intervened. As a piece of political ham-fistedness and a manifestation of leadership weakness, this was it.

How could the leader of a government set himself up so badly?

Turning down former PM Rudd’s UN bid was another display of weakness. Photo: AAP

Let us assume that despite his earlier assurances of support for Kevin Rudd’s nomination to be the next United Nations General Secretary, he had genuinely changed his mind. Why then would you leave your closest ally and Deputy Leader, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, high and dry?

Ms Bishop brought to cabinet, as she had been asked to, a recommendation fully backed by her new department head for Mr Rudd to be given the nod. A view supported by our ambassadors to London and Washington, and former senior Liberal politicians Alexander Downer and Joe Hockey.

Mr Downer is no foreign relations neophyte. He was our longest-serving foreign minister. Like the present minister, he is aware of Kevin Rudd’s impressive high-level international contacts.

Ms Bishop and the majority of cabinet who supported her are perplexed. Cabinet sources say at the end of the heated and passionate attacks on Mr Rudd’s character from the right’s hardliners like Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton, they failed to convince most of their colleagues.

Liberal right hardliners Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton were outspoken in the opposition to Rudd. Photo: AAP

Not surprising given that their stand was a proxy power struggle to let Mr Turnbull know who really is in charge. The Prime Minister’s inclusiveness, especially of a former Labor foe who actually sent the Liberals into opposition, was not on.

Cabinet broke up unresolved and left it to Mr Turnbull to make “a captain’s pick”. The Prime Minister then waited almost 24 hours to tell Mr Rudd he wasn’t temperamentally suited – not that he lacked credentials for the job.

Unlike Kevin Rudd, who retaliated by releasing a trail of correspondence highlighting Mr Turnbull’s weakness in dealing with his internal foes, Commissioner Brian Ross Martin came to the rescue. He accepted, as Mr Brandis still does not, that there were perceptions of bias and a belief of conflict that would damage the Commission’s ability to be effective especially as far as the indigenous community is concerned.

Bill Shorten praised Mr Martin as an honourable man, but it’s hard to disagree with this assessment of the government: “This is what happens when you rush and you bungle, you create confusion, you create problems.”

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics. He is Contributing Editor for Network Ten, appears on Radio National Breakfast and writes a weekly column on national affairs for The New Daily. He tweets at @PaulBongiorno

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