There comes a point in the life of every new government when political reality and the daily press of events ends its honeymoon and begins dragging it down. No politician is perfect, and even if they were, they can’t control external events. Political journalists call it “losing some paint”. This week, the Turnbull government lost some paint. Or, more accurately, took an extended drive in a particularly ferocious hailstorm.

More problematically, most of the rather large pockmarks now adorning the Turnbull BMW aren’t pure happenstance, but the result of more fundamental problems that aren’t going away any time soon. In that sense, Mal Brough is the least of Turnbull’s problems, because his woes relate to himself. Having made it to the sanctuary of the summer break, Brough is now dependent on external factors — most particularly the Australian Federal Police investigation — to determine his future. His colleagues may prefer that he disappeared, but at least they don’t have to share parliamentary bench space with him until February.

The defection of Ian Macfarlane to the Nationals is a potent symbol of how much desire for a spot in the ministerial wing in Parliament House — along with the vastly higher pay packet — can determine individual politicians’ decisions. Sending Macfarlane to the backbench was one of the braver decisions by Turnbull when he put his cabinet together. If Mal Brough’s elevation was for services rendered, the most self-interested take you can put on Macfarlane’s demotion was that it prevented any accusation that Turnbull’s “generational change” was just an excuse to remove Abbott loyalists.

But as Macfarlane is now discovering, defection tends to make all sorts of people grumpy — not merely his now-former Liberal colleagues (Phil Coorey reported the immortal reaction “weak as piss”) but also Nationals who’ll move one spot down the pecking order to accommodate him and his ministerial ambitions. His shift, however related to personal ambition, is also an apt symbol for the unease within the Nationals and more conservative Liberals about how close to the political mainstream Turnbull sits, an unease that Tony Abbott and his loyalists are happy to exploit. Further defections, like the mooted shift of Scott “Horst” Buchholz, will start turning the symbolism into painful reality.

And a recalcitrant Senate is beyond Turnbull’s control, but is not, short of a double dissolution, going anywhere and doesn’t look much more inclined to smile on legislation than it was under Abbott. The government did have a win this week when the Greens, in what can only be described as an ego-driven search for parliamentary relevance, let the government off the hook on tax transparency — although Turnbull opponent Cory Bernardi immediately sought to cruel that by flagging he wouldn’t support any change that hadn’t been approved by the joint party room. But the government had a major loss in the Coalition’s ongoing war on industry super funds, with the Senate knocking back the Coalition’s proposal to impose retail-super-fund-style independent director requirements on industry super funds, which consistently and significantly outperform retail super funds despite the alleged encumbrance of being managed by representatives of employer groups and unions who are directly accountable to members.

The Coalition goal on independent directors is — reflecting their lack of success in destroying industry super which dates from the Howard years — to try to make industry super more like retail super, which will inevitably mean poorer returns for members, but eliminate the role of the despised trade union movement in a savings pool that will soon be larger than the entire economy. But new Assistant Treasurer Kelly O’Dwyer has come a cropper in her first big challenge, with the bill being knocked back by the crossbenchers (although perhaps the Greens will cave in there as well, next year?) in favour of an industry idea of an independent review by Bernie “Sandman” Fraser of governance arrangements in the sector.

Also playing out in the background — and not unrelated to the delusions of Tony Abbott about his potential to return to the prime ministership — is that some hard-right MPs evidently see the fact that they no longer need to temper their views to avoid embarrassing Abbott as an opportunity to vent their true feelings.

This week, thin-skinned Tasmanian and failed Abbott whip Andrew Nikolic spoke in a national security debate in Parliament. He described objections to extensions of national security powers as “impractical nonsense … undergraduate debate” which needed to be abandoned because “the security stakes in Australia are now infinitely too high for such luxury.” “The nature of the new security order today is so critical,” Nikolic declared, “as to make redundant the all too familiar and orthodox war of words between dissenting factions of our, thankfully, open society.”

Nikolic, it seems, doesn’t merely want civil liberties swept away in the name of security, but objects to any sort of debate being conducted at all on the issue. While this is unsurprising from a man whose idea of free speech is to contact employers of the his critics to complain about them, it is also, definitionally, fascism — Nikolic wants a “new security order” in which security agencies will not be “burden[ed]… further with nonsensical public commentary.”

One’s heart does indeed go out to security agencies, so burdened with nonsensical public commentary that they get whatever they ask for in terms of powers and money, whenever they ask for it.

While Nikolic was framing the restrictions on debate in his new order, another far-right MP was discussing religion. Newcomer Andrew Hastie adorned the front page of the Herald Sun — in his military uniform — to demand that Islam reform itself. “Modern Islam needs to cohere with the Australian way of life, our values and institutions. In so far as it doesn’t, it needs reform,” he claimed.

Hastie has only been in Parliament a matter of weeks; until this week his single contribution to public life was trying to exploit his military background to attack Labor for its failure to support our troops in Afghanistan (when challenged to provide a single example in a humiliating exchange with a journalist, he was unable to). Hastie is a fundamentalist Christian who has complained about his religion being dragged into “public policy”. Apparently, however, it’s fine to drag Islam into public policy. But one might think Hastie should focus on reforming his own religion first to ensure it “coheres with the Australian way of life”, given the ongoing revelations about child rape and child abuse by Christian institutions over many decades, and the systematic cover-up of it by churches that continues to this day.

It’s an interesting byproduct of the removal of Tony Abbott — the reactionary Id has been fully unleashed, and it’s not pretty. Just another issue that Malcolm Turnbull can’t do much about.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey