We’re used to the Turnbull government having bad weeks, but too many more like this one and we won’t be waiting until later in the year for his party to remove the Prime Minister. So ineptly did Turnbull handle the penalty rate cut decision this week, and so relentlessly did Labor prosecute its campaign against it, that even the Coalition’s media cheerleaders are queuing up to detail Turnbull’s inadequacies.

The penalty rates failure is utterly inexplicable and yet, somehow, entirely unsurprising from a government that can’t perform the simplest tasks. Turnbull might have begun the week noting that former PM Tony Abbott was trying to undermine him, but by the end of the week, as Turnbull limped to the finish with a terrible parliamentary performance on penalty rates, Abbott was forgotten — he wasn’t the one who had so badly dropped the ball on the toxic issue of workers having their wages cut.

One can have some slight sympathy for Turnbull — the business community itself has now split on the issue, with long-time champion of penalty rate cuts Kate Carnell suggesting there needs to be transitional mechanisms to protect workers, while business lobbyists like Innes Willox were attacking the idea of mitigating the impact on workers. No wonder the government’s attempts to rouse business into campaigning for the cut didn’t get off the ground early in the week. But both the Coalition and business have been demanding penalty rate cuts for years. Now they have them, and they don’t appear to know what to do.

[What exactly is the government’s position on penalty rates?]

The ineptitude on display from the government was a distraction from some serious issues. The attack on blogger Andie Fox by the Department of Human Services and minister Alan Tudge, using her private information, was an extraordinary attack on free speech — and all the worse given, as The Guardian revealed, Tudge’s office had sent journalist Paul Malone a large volume of personal information about Fox, and then repeated the accident to The Guardian. The government, and the bureaucrats who work for it, have made clear that they will go after critics using their personal information, and are prepared to trawl through social media to identify them. The government wants to give itself the power to do the same thing to veterans who criticise it. 

And ASIO admitted, thanks to pressure from Senator Nick Xenophon, that it had sought journalist information warrants to hunt down journalists’ sources — an admission that elicited a strange lack of response from the media. To compound the problem, George Brandis and his department broke the law they themselves had written requiring them to tell Parliament’s intelligence committee about the warrants. Brandis himself, having been exposed for misleading the Senate the second time in six months, this time in relation to the Bell Group issue, spent much of Tuesday night red and hysterical as he played word games with his tormentors at estimates. Estimates also revealed, via NXT senators, that the Department of Education’s VET student loan scheme was sending people other students’ information in an extraordinary breach of privacy. 

[Total Recall: Brandis puts the English language to the rack again]

This is a government-wide, highly toxic mix of incompetence and malice: bureaucrats and ministerial staff who see government critics as fair game for breaches of privacy laws, an intelligence agency that investigates journalists, an Attorney-General so hopeless he can’t even adhere to laws he himself has written, government systems that fail the most basic tests of protecting citizens’ privacy. But this casual attitude to privacy is hardly unexpected; this government, right from the outset, has treated privacy with contempt, as a right to be junked in its relentless, and usually fruitless, pursuit of its own political interests.

There’s little to separate Turnbull from Abbott on this. He may not hold 10-flag media conferences, but the alacrity with which he seized on an otherwise low-key arrest of an Islamic State sympathiser with delusions of missile technology expertise in rural NSW to distract from his political difficulties during the week was straight from the playbook of his predecessor. It barely held the media gaze for a few hours before the government’s chaos was back in the spotlight.

It meant that Labor’s flaws received no attention. It’s clear that, with the departure of Stephen Conroy, Labor is heavily reliant on Penny Wong to score hits at estimates. Conroy lacked the legendary forensic skill of John Faulkner, but made up for it in sheer aggro. Labor senators looked particularly ineffective against the government’s rock, Mathias Cormann, who continues to set an example of cool, calm effectiveness and mastery of his brief that few, if any, of his colleagues — in either house — can muster.

Meanwhile, Barnaby Joyce was urging a Whitlam-esque program of shipping large volumes of taxpayer dollars to National Party electorates via “decentralisation”, while George Christensen was preparing the way for his defection by declaring a “breach of faith” on 18C — an issue that by his own admission was of no interest to ordinary Australians, but an obsession for the Twitter eggs and Facebook racists who form his party base.

Something has to give. A government can’t remain this cripplingly dysfunctional for an extended period. Coalition backbenchers, who have now returned to their electorates to hear what voters think about penalty rates and economic growth that’s not delivering wage rises, deserve better than this. And so does the country.

Peter Fray

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