George Brandis

While the government continues to be judged against its own poor standards — last week, when the Nationals defied cabinet on gun laws and the government lost a crucial vote on the badly bungled backpacker tax, was seen to be not too bad for the Prime Minister — there is no hiding the fact that Malcolm Turnbull is so weak he seems to have no effective control over his ministers.

I can’t think of another government that would have tolerated George Brandis for so long, purely from the point of self-interest. But now Brandis, notionally the most senior law officer in the land, has been revealed to be part of a potentially major scandal — trying to dud taxpayers of $300 million as a secret favour to a friendly government in Western Australia. He ended up being thwarted by two independent office holders — the Tax Commissioner and the Solicitor-General — and the entire bench of the High Court, which found in the ATO’s favour seven-zip.

According to media reports, Turnbull has demanded answers from Brandis, which raises the remarkable possibility that the Attorney-General pursued a secret deal with the WA Liberal government to rip off Commonwealth taxpayers and tried to stop the ATO from interfering, without informing his Prime Minister. If this is the case, why does Brandis still have a job? It’s one thing to repeatedly screw up, it’s another thing to stuff up a deal involving hundreds of millions of dollars — but it’s altogether something else to do so while keeping your boss in the dark.

[George Brandis and the struggle for competence]

If Turnbull fails to sack Brandis after this latest disaster, it will be plain he is too weak to act, that he’d rather go on enduring whatever the next monumental stuff-up Brandis manages to achieve is, rather than take some decisive action. There is (another!) reshuffle speculation — only partly centred on Brandis — floating around, but there is only one test for any changes to Turnbull’s ministerial line-up: the Attorney-General must go before he drags the government into an even worse scandal.

Decisive action is what many, mainly in Labor, demanded of Turnbull over Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s attack on all Lebanese Muslims. Repeatedly asked to comment on Dutton’s vilification last week, Turnbull declined to condemn, but failed to enthusiastically support, his Immigration Minister’s comments, although he did describe the ex-Queensland copper as “thoughtful and committed and compassionate”, a rare example of a Prime Minister uttering a statement that literally no one, anywhere, believes, including himself and the subject of the remark.

This could be dressed up as Dutton doing Turnbull’s dirty work of appealing to the racist One Nation vote, just as the Nationals — who resolutely faced down One Nation in the 1990s — are now racing to ape Hanson. But Dutton engaged in the same vilification during the election campaign, before Brexit, Hanson and Trump. If Turnbull thinks Dutton is working for him, he might have the wrong impression: Dutton is working very much for himself, on the basis that he could be the next leader, with the backing of the far right of his party, cashing in on the race hatred that One Nation is now effectively exploiting, trashing his own party’s legacy in a quest to stir up the kind of sentiment that is fueling far-right populism in the US and the UK. As John Howard famously said, “the times will suit me”. It seems Dutton feels the same — and given how monstrously absurd Western politics is currently, who can confidently contradict him?

[Justin Gleeson resigns, tosses final grenade at Brandis]

Dutton’s ongoing demonisation of immigration and particularly Lebanese Muslims infuriates security agencies, who rely, as a core part of their job, on effective relations with Australia’s Muslim communities to identify and monitor potential terrorists. But to the extent that vilification by a government minister pushes, say, an impressionable, radicalised or mentally ill teenager into attempting or succeeding at an act of violence, or prevents ASIO, the AFP and our state police forces from detecting a threat, that’s all the better for Dutton and the far right, who will exploit such an act to whip up further hatred and justify further legislative attacks on basic rights. Ditto the tabloid media, which revels in “terrorism” coverage — bearing in mind, of course, that only Muslims can be terrorists, and the same acts by white people get only a brief mention on page 6.

Dutton’s “Trump without the gravitas” ambitions, however, set up the potential for a fascinating struggle with Tony Abbott, who continues to destabilise from the backbench (but always, it should be noted to his credit, openly, unlike Kevin Rudd). Abbott yesterday again repeated his threat to keep offering destabilising commentary unless he was bribed with a ministry, and proceeded to do just that, with a tour d’horizon of the government’s challenges and opportunities; the “stop the boats” guy criticising Turnbull’s reliance on innovation slogans was a lovely touch. Abbott and Dutton are ostensibly singing from the same songsheet on matters pertaining to bigotry and terrorism (don’t forget Abbott attacking Muslims leaders for not saying Islam was a religion of peace enough), but both can’t replace Turnbull. Not to mention the small matter of the recent direct confrontation between Dutton and Abbott over the Adler shotgun deal-that-wasn’t. Watch this space (the one between them, not the one between Dutton’s ears).

The government caved in on the backpacker tax this morning (Treasurer Scott Morrison skipped the usual Blue Room presser in favour of a stand-up at the Mural Hall, like some opposition or minor party pollie) and expects to get a win on the meaningless, but much-trumpeted, ABCC bill. Despite the theatrics from Nick Xenophon, expect Turnbull to secure passage of that bill. But his problems are much closer to home. He needs to take charge of his ministry, and fast.