To the sins of Malcolm Turnbull can now be added his decisive demolition of the Christmas-New Year armistice. There are few set-pieces in Australain life, but this was one of them: we all slow down a little coming into the third week of December, Christmas is got through, and then there are three weeks (ideally, a month) of not much at all, politically or otherwise. Australia Day always seemed conveniently placed: a bludge day at the end of a bludge month, before the horror recommences. I’ve always believed that if a revolution and vicious civil war engulfed Australia in December, it would pause for the summer fortnight while everyone went for 10 days of boogie-boarding on the Central Coast or Rosebud.
The Christmas-New Year truce has been honoured in the breach before, but this time it was really smashed, with the resignation of Jamie Briggs, the long-overdue sloughing of Brough, and the release of the much-ballyhooed trade union royal commission (TURC) report. Everyone was still hungover, but we were right back into it. Feckin’ rich men, never take a holiday.
Of course the TURC release was totally hands-off, nothing to do with government, objective processes of law, etc, etc. Of course. More of that in a mo’, but the removal of Briggs was clearly a sign that the civil war engulfing the Liberal Party, far from ceasing, wasn’t even pausing. Briggs’ actions clearly constituted employee sexual harassment, and were deserving of reprimand and censure, but unless there’s some other part to them we don’t know about it, removal from the ministry is a ridiculous overreaction and has little to do with the event itself.
That’s the genius of the Liberal Party. They talk about freedom and being un-PC, but when they need a political weapon they resort to the tactics of a university student union. John Brogden, a decent leader, was removed in NSW on the strength of a late-night bad taste joke — but only because the Christian right of the party wanted him out. The de-Briggsing has elements of that — witness Eric Abetz’s Christmas message: this, uh, would, uh, be a, uh, good, uh, opporttttttttunity, uh, to put, uh, Tony Abbott back in the, uh, uh, ministry. Uh.
So, yes, Malcolm is far from wholly to blame for this breach of the ceasefire. Sloughing Brough was like the scene at the end of Casino, where Joe Pesci finally gets beaten half to death with a shovel, and then buried alive. “Gosh, that was a long time coming,” you think. “But it was worth it in the end.” As m’colleague Jeff Sparrow noted, Ashby-gate was the least of Brough’s sins, and the double execution was a measure of the degree to which scandal and minor infraction (though Ashby-gate was less minor than Briggs-gate, by a long way) is taking over politics. And with the Chris Gayle thing and Dutton-gate — where he sent a nasty text message about journalist Sam Maiden to Sam Maiden — we seem to be caught in the swirling tides of meta-commentary worse than most cultures.
Yes, I know it’s silly season. That tradition survives, thank god. Although one might say that one effect of the rise of social media is the, erm, silly seasoning of year-round news. But there is surely a limit to how silly it gets. Gayle’s thing was out of line, was quite rightly criticised. Then he was fined, and then the discourse around it became more or less racist, a touch of the Mandingo effect, scary black men with their jungle etceteras. Dutton’s pig-dumb sending of a narky SMS to the subject of the narkiness prompted a demonstration for his sacking. Do we really want speech acts to be policed by non-speech acts — by fining, sacking, etc — in this manner? Does that serve any good, except to make a society so repressive on the surface that breaching its codes then becomes an act of self-assertion, and the whole cycle begins again?
That sort of thing can be used for short-term political gain, a la Briggs-gate, in intra-party struggles, but it has a lot of potential for blowback — to the point where a whole party, then a polity, then a culture, is running itself by debating such infractions, while the bigger questions go undebated. All these “-gates” appeared to coincide with news that China was really further on the slide than we thought, with some major consequences. That’s when the holiday armistice did take over. We were all simply too hot and hungover to start to thinking about that — it’s difficult. Protocols of post-match interviews or workplace relations limits in a bar — everyone’s got an opinion on that.
So it was inevitable that landing the TURC report at this time was going to cause it to slip beneath the salty waves. Whatever damage it was going to do to the ALP has been done in the reporting of the hearings themselves — and the impact was fatally undermined by Justice Dyson Heydon’s acceptance of a Liberal Party fundraiser invite, and then by his judicial slow-strip consideration of whether to sack himself or not. Fans of the old English nonsense writer Beachcomber (“Mr Justice Cocklecarrot ruled today on the matter of the Filthistan trio.” Look it up. It’s a treat) had a nostalgic moment as the days went by. Judicial self-review became a sot of performance art. It’s a measure of how crazy the Abbott era was that this passage didn’t seem weird at all.
The TURC findings may still provide some ammo against Opposition Leader Bill Shorten — although how many bullets does mercy-killing really require? — but it’s unlikely. People don’t need a royal commission to tell them that the National Union of Workers is an elite, unresponsive members’ club geared to the needs of a student politics push. They simply need to be rank-and-file members of the NUW. Or the AWU. Or the SDA.
The Liberals have a genuine blindspot about how people relate to unions, because they see the organisations as basically illegitimate. So they think workers will judge them harshly. But given that the whole country is ruled like a banana republic — witness James Packer’s appearance in the news as an object of wonder and fear, but never as a lucky sperm — most people simply assume themselves to be ruled, and get on with it. The beach is the beach, the sun, the sun. One of the purposes of a holiday is to forget the nature of power for a while, and how much you don’t have. Malcolm, loathed by his own party, still has broad public support. He’ll lose it if he makes us think about Ja’mie Briggs on January 2 again. Now, back to the lilo (by which I mean translating the works of the well-known Azerbaijan poet. How are you spending summer?)