Yesterday commenced with a thick blanket of fog over Canberra. It lifted late morning, outside at least, but was settling back in again after dark.

However, a rather denser fog seemed to have settled over the Opposition in Parliament House.

Parliament commenced at midday. All morning the speculation had been that the Government was not going to wait until 2pm to start the fireworks. Anthony Albanese rose and immediately invited Malcolm Turnbull to table the Charlton-Grech email and explain himself. Turnbull rose and moved a bizarre motion not to censure the Prime Minister or the Treasurer but to demand that Swan come into the House and explain himself.

Rudd and Swan, however, were on their way, and arrived a couple of minutes into Turnbull’s speech. Swan, who oddly has been the most relaxed of the three throughout the scandal, looked his usual self, but Rudd’s face was a mask of cold, blank fury.

Events had already unfolded out in the real world, however. Perhaps the Prime Minister knew of them already via the Attorney-General; it was apparent the Coalition did not. While they had been filing into the chamber, the ABC’s Chris Uhlman had broken the stunning story that Godwin Grech’s house had been raided and a faked email found.

Turnbull’s performance was weak, almost insipid, for a man who usually commands the chamber. When Rudd rose, however, there was nothing of the automaton who uses the Dispatch Box to bore us all into submission. He was quietly, coldly savage.

By the time Joe Hockey rose to respond to him, word had filtered in from planet Earth about events in the Canberra suburb of Calwell. But Hockey, who was poring over a copy of the ABC report before he rose, completely misinterpreted them. His first statement was the bizarre declaration that “evidence from an emerging report suggests, firstly, that an email does exist, which contradicts what the Prime Minister said on Friday night …” Hockey was insisting that the discovery of the forged email meant the Coalition’s version of events had been confirmed. It was a spectacular own goal for an Opposition that had hitherto been retreating at a rate of knots from the email it had been talking up for so long.

Then Swan, the man who should have been closest to touching the void in this remarkable saga, rose and gave a strong performance in his own defence. He relied strongly on the Motor Trades Association head Michael Delaney, but he was also forthright in his claim that other dealers had received extensive and detailed assistance from Treasury to secure finance.

Later, two and a half hours into the debate, Turnbull returned and changed tack, calling instead for a judicial inquiry, which he had not mentioned earlier. He performed much more strongly second time around, but his strategy looked confused. At the end of Question Time — in which nearly every Government question somehow magically led to a discussion of Malcolm Turnbull’s previous career; it even looked at one point that Nicola Roxon would blame him for swine flu — Turnbull rose for a third time to move a censure motion against Swan.

The day began with Swan clinging to the cliff edge of his career. By day’s end, when fog began enshrouding the capital again, he had pulled himself back up, with plenty of help from his Prime Minister, but remained perilously close to the edge.

The problem for the Opposition is that the case against Swan is less open-and-shut than it initially seemed. It is now a 60-40 call as to whether he misled Parliament. There is doubt and room for interpretation, even if the case against him looks strong. There is evidence to consider, pages of emails, and context to consider.

But there is no doubt and room for interpretation about Malcolm Turnbull’s reliance on a forged email to go after the Prime Minister. He is now reduced to actually blaming Swan for the forged email, given it was faked in Treasury’s IT system. But the growing evidence of links between the Coalition and Godwin Grech undermine Turnbull’s attempt to play the victim here. Even if he and his office was the victim of a set-up by either Labor or conservatives within his own ranks, it was his call to ruin the pursuit of Swan by going after Rudd. No one forced him to run this attack against Rudd.

Malcolm Farr described the battle this morning as a case of Turnbull bringing a spoon to a knife fight. It’s a nice image, but it’s more like Turnbull showed up with a double-barrelled shotgun only to have the weapon blow up in his hands when he aimed the first barrel at the Prime Minister.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey