A sombre Malcolm Turnbull called a news conference at the weekend to inform Australians of another thwarted terrorist plot. He played it straight and there wasn’t a hint of partisan politics. In political terms, some would see it as a lost opportunity.
Certainly it was a stark contrast to his predecessor Tony Abbott, who spoke of death cults and always condemned Islamic terrorism on occasions like this.
The wisdom is that defence and national security are the conservatives’ strong suit. The more they are in the headlines the better for the Coalition. But that is not the way it is playing out.
Indeed, despite Mr Abbott’s propensity towards whipping up hysteria, voters were not distracted from his broken promises and his maladroit handling of the top job. After 30 bad Newspolls he was gone. Now 16 bad Newspolls since the near-death experience at the last election, Mr Turnbull is scarcely travelling any better.
Some in social media were convinced the Sydney airport news was timed to gazump Bill Shorten’s big tax announcement at the New South Wales Labor conference. It wasn’t. Federal Police Commissioner Andrew Colvin revealed the police raids came after late international intelligence.
There were no quibbles from Mr Shorten. He praised the police and security agencies and even came up with some suggestions on beefing up airport protocols. Contemporary Labor is utterly determined to be in lockstep with the government on the issue. Mr Shorten is a genuine hawk in this space.
According to constitutional expert George Williams, it explains how Australia has been able to pass a record number of laws (60) through the Parliament restricting freedoms in the name of security. That’s far more than the United States which is restrained by its Bill of Rights or the United Kingdom with a similar charter.
Much to the relief of the Shorten office his announced crackdown on trusts received extensive TV, radio and newspaper coverage. Not the lead story but close. Mr Shorten has had a strong two weeks in setting the political agenda and forcing the government to play the scaremongering naysayer.
Republic debate is worth having
The Liberals’ responses have been weak. There is something pathetic about politicians who identify as republicans dismissing Mr Shorten’s new push for an Australian head of state as a second-order issue.
“Not a job in it” has been a common refrain, as if we as a nation and our government cannot deal with both issues at once.
A delighted republican organiser at the 800-strong dinner in Melbourne on Saturday night said the room was full of “Turnbull’s people”. They were Labor and Liberal voters who nonetheless identified with the Prime Minister’s republicanism, but have been left disappointed.
Mr Shorten is not a one-trick pony. He has successfully defined his tweak of the tax treatment of trusts in terms of fairness and the potent argument about addressing rising inequality.
Treasurer Scott Morrison’s attempts to deny the growing gap between rich and poor has certainly failed to convince voters, even in his own electorate of Cook.
A ReachTel poll commissioned by GetUp! found 63 per cent disagreed with his claim that inequality is not increasing, while a whopping 85 per cent said it is important for government’s policies to reduce inequality.
Attempts to denigrate Labor for playing the politics of envy or class warfare may have worked when wages were rising, full-time employment was stronger and housing more affordable, but not now.
Voters clearly have more than terrorism on their minds.
Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics. He tweets at @PaulBongiorno