A man from humble — but by no means poor — background climbs to power and wealth by dint of hard work, careful cultivation of the super-rich, the assiduous development of a high profile before entering public and a good marriage into a successful family — fuelled by raw ambition and a long-term determination to become prime minister.

Hello, Malcolm Turnbull. Or is that Bill Shorten? Wait. Sydney Grammar or Xavier College? Sydney University or Monash? Kerry Packer and Neville Wran or Richard Pratt? Lucy Hughes or Chloe Bryce? No matter! Parvenus! Arrivistes! Nouveau riche!

Fault the substance of Malcolm Turnbull’s spray at Bill Shorten yesterday all you like, but there’s no doubting its effectiveness as a piece of parliamentary theatre. It was Keatingesque, which is why many in the press gallery swooned over it. Keatingesque not in the try-hard, smirky, poor-man’s Keating (or, more accurately, rich-man’s Keating) manner of Peter Costello, but in the real sense: it could have been Keating savaging John Hewson — as he once did, during a motion to suspend standing orders moved by the then-opposition leader — for driving his expensive sports car past the unemployed in Sydney. Like Keating would, Turnbull homed in on a nub of truth about his enemy and mercilessly savaged it. Labor can complain about personal invective all they like, but they loved it when Keating was in parliament.

And for those who say such parliamentary performances don’t matter in the real world, they matter, all right, because of their effect on your own side and those opposite. Ordinary Australians may pay no attention to what happens inside the chamber but that’s the shopfloor of the political workplace and what happens there is crucial to how MPs feel about their own fortunes. And Turnbull finally gave his own troops something to cheer and laugh about, at a time when the government’s position is so dire, discussion of his possible replacement is beginning to come into the open.

Not that Turnbull’s attack actually made a lot of sense. Some have compared it to Julia Gillard’s epic misogyny speech at Tony Abbott. But Gillard’s attack traded on an issue with which Tony Abbott was already strongly identified in the minds of voters — his sexism and alleged misogyny. If Bill Shorten is identified with anything much in the minds of voters, it’s knifing successive prime ministers, not his arriviste social status. And it’s bizarre that after generations of complaining the Australian union leaders reflexively hate business and refuse to work cooperatively with business people, the Liberals are attacking Shorten for being too close to business. The CFMEU is too anti-business, the AWU was too close to business — what kind of unions do the Liberals actually think are OK, if any? In any event, Turnbull has now sent a clear signal to Australia’s union officialdom — don’t have good relations with business leaders and certainly never socialise with them. And it’s hard to work out whether Turnbull’s charge is that Shorten is too tied to billionaires, is too tied to the CFMEU, or is simply about his own interests. Or, somehow, all three.

At least Turnbull remembered to have a dig about Shorten’s appalling seven-years-late donation disclosure — although memo to the PMO for future use, it was more like $66,000 than $40,000

Gillard’s misogyny speech didn’t help her, in the end. Keating’s famous invective didn’t help him. His campaign against Hewson in 1993 was effective because he was able to brilliantly reduce Hewson’s economic program to some easily attacked targets — helped by Hewson’s own stumbles on the GST — and not brutal personal attacks (notwithstanding the pure, unadulterated genius of the phrase “the feral abacus”). John Howard offered no such targets in 1996 and Keating’s razor-sharp wit found no purchase. Seeing Turnbull label Shorten a sycophant and a parasite — the references to Raheen and Cristal would have gone entirely over voters’ heads — will for most voters be just more of one politician abusing another.

As for Turnbull deriding Shorten as a social climber — rich as it is from Turnbull, who has probably enjoyed the odd sip of top-shelf champagne in his time — it seems we’ve come a long, long way from the days of the Howard government when we were all encouraged (and, where possible, subsidised) to aspire to a mansion, a private school education for the kids and a share portfolio. In this great land of egalitarianism, it seems aspiration is only OK for conservatives. Unionists — preferably unionists who are not too close to business, but too hostile either — should stick to a brick veneeer bungalow in the suburbs and confine their socialising to a backyard barbie with the blokes. And definitely stick to Yellowglen.

Peter Fray

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