In episode one of legendary UK politics sitcom The Thick of It, junior flak Ollie Reeder is given 45 minutes to save his incompetent boss, Social Affairs Minister Hugh Abbot, from the political graveyard. And so it went this morning at 4 Treasury Place in Melbourne, as Reeder’s local equivalent, the radiant Elisabeth Davies, distributed colour photocopies of an apparent “plan to pay off Labor’s debt” in a desperate attempt to prolong Malcolm Turnbull’s imminent demise.

The presser could have taken place on the sloping grass outside, but that would have looked too much like damage control. Instead, the droopy-eyed press pack was treated to the classic “united front” trope, as a Tory triad of Turnbull, Joe Hockey and Helen Coonan congratulated themselves on the detail-free “plan”, possibly produced overnight in an adjoining office.

After some nervous preliminaries, hearts sank when it became clear the prospect of a Sunrise Parliament (with EP Adam Boland as Speaker, presumably) wasn’t going to happen just now. Joe, without a skerrick of irony, trundled out tired lines on net debt with Coonan chiming in on the horrors of red tape.

If this had happened in Canberra, Turnbull would have been torn to shreads. But the talk among the b-team hacks in the lift was all about Malcolm’s last-minute decision to abandon his 9am slot on Neil Mitchell to do this presser instead. Mitchell, apparently, had to be calmed by his producer when told of the no-show, with the bearded one’s reported outburst unlikely to make it through Crikey‘s spam filter. Mitchell, of course, was the forum for Hockey’s admission yesterday that he had been sounded out by backbenchers to decapitate Turnbull now.

Instead it was left to part-time TV anchors and op-ed columnists to quiz the leader in waiting and extract some embarrassment from having Hockey and Turnbull standing side by side in the room.

Big Joe has clearly refined his approach in recent media encounters, after last month’s “sloppy Joe” fracas lead to a Laurie Oakes rebuke for a characteristically off-beam outburst on interest rates. This morning, he could have been mistaken for a bouncer, protecting his leader from oblivion, if he wasn’t so keen on sinking the knife in.

“Malcolm has my absolute unqualified support and … will continue to have that into the future,” Hockey said convincingly.

As to the plan’s details, coalition staff may have been suffering from a West Wing overdose with talk of establishing the local equivalent of a “Congressional budget office” alongside last week’s decision to “filibuster” debate on the ETS. The plan, distributed on colour-photocopied A4, contained only a skerrick of detail — possibly understandable given that it will be well and truly forgotten by the time Hockey is theoretically handed a key to the Lodge in 2014. The other concrete initiative was to formalise the real-time debt clock, which already appears on Turnbull’s website.

Despite the ruse, the the journo-pollie clubbishness was still palpable, with little attempt to tear the shreds off Turnbull’s terminal leadership. It was left to Crikey to ask the hard-hitting questions — what would leader-in-waiting Hockey have given last night’s “Jackson Jive” segment had he served on the Red Faces panel?

Big Joe giggled nervously before Helen Coonan stepped in to back Harry Connick Jr’s score of zero, labelling the stunt “absolutely disgraceful”.

So now the Herald Sun knows.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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