Former Labor prime minister Paul Keating reportedly once said that Malcolm Turnbull was brilliant and fearless but had no political judgement.
During the political train wreck that has engulfed the current PM over the past couple of days, he has shown little evidence of the first two qualities.
However, Malcolm Turnbull’s unprecedented media conference on Thursday afternoon, announcing what has become known on social media as #bonkban, has left political observers in no doubt that the current PM is politically clueless.
As a result he has not only caused a potentially irreparable split in the coalition but also exposed himself to refreshed attacks from supporters of his nemesis, Tony Abbott.
It’s difficult to tell whether Malcolm Turnbull’s announcement – that ministers are now explicitly forbidden from having sexual relationships with their staff – was nothing more than an earnest attempt to stem a growing voter perception that Canberra is a modern day Gommorah.
However, it’s also possible the sensational announcement could have been the PM’s way of ‘throwing a dead cat on the table’ to divert the media from accusations being made by both conservative commentators and Labor that he was at fault for not enforcing the existing ministerial standards.
Either way, the tactic badly misfired.
The PM should have left well enough alone. He’d already secured Mr Joyce’s agreement to take leave next week, thereby avoiding the ignominy of having the diminished leader of the Nationals serve as acting prime minister while Mr Turnbull was overseas.
Parliament had also risen for a week’s break, giving both men respite from Question Time and daily media scrutiny.
There was a chance the scandal would have fizzled out during that time, giving the Government another chance to seize the political agenda. If concrete evidence had emerged during that time of Mr Joyce misusing taxpayers funds, then his party would have made short work of him. It would have had no choice but to send its previously best asset out to pasture.
However, the PM tried to force the Nationals’ hand by emphasising the “appalling” judgement of their leader and suggesting that Mr Joyce should consider his future while on leave. Now that overreach has snowballed into a messy and unpredictable battle of wills and ambition.
By most reports, the PM’s misjudgement did nothing other than harden the resolve of those Nationals MPs who remain supportive of their leader. That support emboldened the man himself to front the media on Friday to claim the prime minister was not only “inept” but had no right to interfere in the workings of the Nationals.
Even political observers with relatively short memories would see this as an audacious accusation by Mr Joyce; he and other Nationals MPs were heavily involved in the political machinations that saw the Liberals throw out Malcolm Turnbull and install Tony Abbott as party leader.
Some of those Nationals, such as the Queenslander George Christensen, continue to agitate privately within the Coalition party room – and sometimes even publicly – in continued support of Mr Abbott.
Now the PM’s meddlesome attempt to resolve the Nationals’ leadership crisis may well have re-ignited his own.
Long before the Labor opposition tried to turn the Joyce affair into a test of Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership, the pro-Abbott forces on ‘Sky News after dark’ were doing so.
They’ve accused the PM of ineptitude – for not taking earlier action to manage Mr Joyce’s affair – as well as treachery – for ‘knifing’ Barnaby Joyce in the back.
They’re not only revelling in the civil war that has broken out between Mr Turnbull and Mr Joyce, but helping to kick it along.
Tony Abbott and his supporters have kept a relatively low profile since being trounced by the gay marriage plebiscite late last year. Since then, the former PM’s calls for ‘democratic’ reform of the NSW Liberal Party have been foiled, and there has been a lessening of media interest in his proclamations.
However, that may all change as a result of the PM’s misjudged intervention on Thursday afternoon.
A very angry junior Coalition partner might just be what Mr Abbott needs to convince Liberal MPs previously supportive of Malcolm Turnbull as leader to change their minds.
It’s worked in the past, so there’s a good chance it would work again.