Malcolm Turnbull had, by his own standards, a pretty fair anniversary week: it began badly with the Senate visibly twiddling its thumbs due to government mismanagement, but Scott Morrison managed to thrash out a deal with Labor on the omnibus budget measures bill and then secured agreement from his own backbench on the superannuation tax concessions measures. Couple that with the dearth of any egregious foul-ups in Parliament and it was, indeed, a good week for a government that, at times, has matched its predecessor for almost comical ineptitude.
You can be churlish and whinge that getting the opposition to agree to measures they took to an election just 10 weeks ago and securing the acquiescence of your backbench with changes to a package you promised voters was “iron clad” and would not be changed isn’t exactly Hawke-Keating level political mastery. But after endless torrents of criticism, most observers were in a mood to cut the government some slack given it had finally delivered some actual reform.
Some went a little further and thought they’d detected that the Prime Minister had turned things around and was set to improve the government’s performance from here onward. Similar views were expressed in March when he announced his double dissolution plan — seen at the time as a bold seizing of the political initiative, rather than what it turned out to be — a near-disastrous display of poor judgement that has left his government on the edge of oblivion.
Governments don’t magically turn things around — but they can stop making egregious mistakes, learn new skills and better exploit external circumstances, which is how John Howard went from seemingly inevitable defeat in 2001 to comfortable victory. The Turnbull model of economic reform, it turns out, isn’t one of brilliant, Keating-esque articulation of the problems confronting the nation followed by an identification of the bold reform needed to fix it and some vernacular-laden, cut-through rhetoric that sweeps all but the most recalcitrant along (which never happened under Hawke and Keating anyway), but perhaps a more prosaic one of clumsy compromise to win over vested interests, including and indeed particularly inside his own ranks.
But the spectacular error of the double dissolution will continue to haunt the government. The freak show of the Senate crossbench will force the Coalition to negotiate with Labor more often, and with the Greens, to avoid having to cobble together a majority from the likes of One Nation. But in enabling the shocking entrance of four One Nation senators into Parliament, Turnbull has also poisoned the polity. The Senate this week witnessed anti-Semitic tropes being bandied about in that chamber with insouciance — and without, it seems, any complaint from media commentators usually quick to swoop on any anti-Semitism or even criticism of Israel expressed by the Left. And, inevitably, in her maiden speech, Pauline Hanson offered her usual litany of hate against her current targets, Muslims.
So far, so repugnant. But the evolution of One Nation since its Howard-era origins hasn’t just been in switching to find new targets of hate because the old ones have become part of the Australian social fabric; the hate has metastasised into new areas. In particular, One Nation has now become the go-to party for white men angry that their partners have dared to leave them. Thus, Hanson offered this about the family law system:
“The whole system is unworkable and is in desperate need of change. Children are used as pawns in custody battles where women make frivolous claims and believe they have the sole right to the children. Children have two parents and, until we treat mums and dads with the same courtesy and rights, we will continue to see murders due to sheer frustration and depression and mental illness caused by this unworkable system.”
I’ve been watching politics since I was a (political tragic) kid in the Fraser era and I can’t recall a more sickening, more evil statement from a politician than this attempt to explain away the murder of women by ex-partners as “frustration” due to “frivolous claims” by women. Particularly given the current family law system remains biased in favour of abusive partners — including giving them the right to cross-examine the ex-partners they assaulted.
Not merely is Hanson’s explanation for murder and her vilification of victims profoundly offensive, worse, it legitimises violence against women: violent men now know that they have the understanding of a member of the Australian Senate in attacking or murdering ex-partners, provided it can be justified as due to “frustration” or “depression” about “frivolous claims”.
Nor did it help that the alleged Minister for Women, Michaelia Cash, warmly embraced Hanson after her speech. What signal does that send?
But this is the house (of review) that Malcolm built. The Senate is now a platform for the spewing of hate. Turnbull needs a turnaround here, as well. But that will be a far more complex matter than thrashing out a deal with Labor or the backbench.