Malcolm Turnbull’s performance yesterday hasn’t exactly won rave reviews from the press, still, it was better than Tony Abbott’s on the 7.30 Report, where the next leader of the Liberal Party was alternately lost for words and sticking to the now officially-debunked claim that the Government was involved in “crony capitalism”. Was Christopher Pyne not available?
Turnbull’s argument that he was the victim of a public servant who was well-regarded but who had, unbeknownst to anyone, quietly gone off the deep end, is sound. You can quibble about whether Grech’s over-familiarity with the Leader of the Opposition in personal emails looked a bit odd, and the fact that at least someone in the Opposition might have wondered whether they were going to claim the scalp of Kevin Rudd on such a trivial matter. You can question whether Turnbull himself should have led the attack.
But what are Oppositions in a parliamentary democracy supposed to do when a trusted public servant presents evidence of impropriety? Obsess over due process? Call in IT specialists to check that the person who claims to have received an email is being honest? Should they have borrowed Kyle and Jackie O’s lie detector and strapped Grech in that night at Potts Point?
Turnbull would have been remiss not to have pursued the Government on the basis of Grech’s claims.
The problem lies in how Turnbull handled the affair when it blew up in his face. Like his political nemesis Kevin Rudd, Turnbull has a raging ego. Unlike Rudd, he appears unable to subordinate it to his political interests. Given Turnbull and Abetz’s interaction with Grech, the revelation the email was a fake on that fateful Monday should have been the cue for a retreat under fire and an acceptance that, having been fooled, it was time to cut their losses.
But Turnbull’s reaction was to tell falsehoods, to complain about the media being distracted by Rudd, and to head off any investigation of how the Liberals had handled it.
He has persistently claimed — and repeated yesterday — that no attack was made on the Prime Minister until after Godwin Grech’s Senate appearance on 19 June. The Hansard shows Eric Abetz accusing the Prime Minister of favouring John Grant and suggesting he resign on 4 June during Senate Estimates. Turnbull keeps claiming that Kevin Rudd has “accused me, without any basis in fact, of having forged this email.” Rudd has never done any such thing — indeed, has been careful to confine his comments to claiming that the Liberals had questions to answer about their role in the production or dissemination of the email.
And yesterday Turnbull admitted that he had an “abbreviated note” of the contents of the email, while still insisting, as he has done for weeks, that he did not have a copy. What’s the difference between an “abbreviated note” of a short email and the email itself?
And it was the Liberals who — with that jibbering idiot Steve Fielding — prevented a Privileges Committee Inquiry into Senator Abetz’s knowledge of the email, while pushing a bizarre inquiry into the treatment of Grech.
It now looks like that inquiry has only been delayed rather than stopped. The Opposition will struggle to credibly oppose an inquiry into Eric Abetz’s role in the OzCar inquiry and the elaborate scripting that occurred prior to Estimates. Even Barnaby Joyce wasn’t ruling an inquiry out this morning.
None of this has helped. Instead, it has merely raised questions about Turnbull’s lack of judgement, particularly when he’s under fire — the sort of judgement Rudd coolly displayed himself back in June. If anything, Turnbull’s efforts to obscure what happened have only made things worse, particularly in light of the Auditor-General giving Rudd and Swan a clean bill of health.
Turnbull would have been better advised declaring that he was misled, apologising to Rudd and Swan for accusing them of corruption, muttering something about “improved internal processes” and trying to move on.
He should also demand Eric Abetz’s scalp. This disaster has occurred on Abetz’s patch and Abetz falling on his sword for humiliating his leader, while not fair, might serve to bring an end to things. It might also be the equivalent of throwing some meat to the Press Gallery, where the right-wing Tasmanian isn’t exactly loved.
None of that will happen, because Turnbull’s ego and his loathing of Rudd won’t let it. And that’s where the question of Turnbull’s character looms largest. There was nothing wrong with how he prosecuted the case against the Government, and everything wrong with how he handled the revelation that there was no case.