News National An agile Malcolm Turnbull sticks with Brandis – for now
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An agile Malcolm Turnbull sticks with Brandis – for now

George Brandis
George Brandis is under renewed pressure from Labor over access to his diary. Photo: AAP
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A trouble-prone Attorney-General was only one of Malcolm Turnbull’s problems at the outset of the last sitting week of Parliament this year. The others were in the form of his predecessor Tony Abbott and the messy Senate proving as difficult as ever to deal with.

The Senate majority agreed with the Prime Minister that George Brandis had to explain himself in light of a bombshell report that he had done a “dirty deal” with the WA Liberals to forgo $300 million of Commonwealth tax revenue.

Mr Turnbull was said to be furious, according to several sources, after the West Australian newspaper broke the story.

Senator Brandis had no choice but to comply. His main defence was to throw former treasurer Joe Hockey under the bus.

His Sergeant Schultz defence did stretch credulity. He knew nothing even though the then-treasurer was sending clear signals to the WA Liberal government that its contentious legislation regarding the collapsed Bell group would not be challenged by the Commonwealth in the High Court.

When Senator Brandis eventually did find out, he informed the West Australians there would be a challenge after all. But this is where it gets murky. The state Liberals were of a clear understanding the feds would run dead.

A senior minister told the Perth newspaper that Senator Brandis had verbally instructed then-solicitor-general Justin Gleeson not to run the clincher argument he eventually did. Senator Brandis refuses to confirm or deny that.

Certainly the WA state treasurer and attorney-general believe they were double-crossed.

There is a widespread belief that Mr Gleeson’s defiance of Senator Brandis led to the fracturing of trust between them and the solicitor-general’s spectacular resignation.

Senator Brandis denies any connection.

It’s not a good look for the government. But the Prime Minister is sticking with his close ally for now. Senator Brandis is, however, likely to be the first casualty in the next ministerial shake-up.

bill shorten
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has borne the brunt of the PM’s scorn after slamming Brandis. Photo: Getty

In defending the Attorney-General, Mr Turnbull muscled up against Bill Shorten. He accuses him of pedalling falsehoods of being the “absolute embodiment of post-truth politics”.

In Mr Turnbull’s mouth it doesn’t sound as lethal as it would if it was Mr Abbott throwing the punches.

“Malcolm’s a lover not a fighter,” was the explanation of one of his more admiring ministers.

The Prime Minister’s willingness to deal with the Senate crossbench rather than ignore them or belt them like his deposed predecessor is paying dividends.

So the mess that was the backpacker tax has been somewhat inelegantly solved. Just 12 hours after Finance Minister Mathias Cormann told Sky News that 19 per cent was “as far as we can sensibly compromise” Mr Turnbull and the leadership team, accepted Pauline Hanson’s 15 percent.

The construction industry watchdog, the ABCC, is still having its teeth pulled by the crossbench, but again Mr Turnbull will accept the defanging as long as he still has a pooch in the end.

Tony Abbott
Former PM Tony Abbott’s hopes of rejoining the frontbench appear to have been dashed by Malcolm Turnbull. Photo: AAP

And like Banquo’s ghost Mr Abbott reinserted himself into the play with an hour-long TV interview on Sunday morning. He said he would continue to speak out while he’s left languishing on the backbench.

Mr Turnbull is not cowered. There will be no recall to the top table.

In Parliament he strongly refuted Mr Abbott’s observation that it’s “good we are no longer talking about innovation and agility. It loses people”.

The Prime Minister said nothing is more important to Australia’s future than innovation. It is a core government policy that is the only way to maintain strong economic growth, he said.

Mr Abbott is probably right that a better selling job needs to be done. But every time he raises his head above the parapet he only serves to remind people there is unresolved tension straining the unity of the government.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics. He tweets  at @PaulBongiorno

For more columns from Paul Bongiorno, click here

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