Some days in this place you can only sit back and watch as a large number of normally rational, intelligent people collectively lose their senses and embark on an ordeal of self-humiliation that leaves you gasping. March 21, 2013 was like that, when Simon Crean blew the Labor leadership wide open by calling on Kevin Rudd to move to replace Julia Gillard and Rudd bottled it, leading to an exodus of his supporters from cabinet.
Yesterday was just as bad. Clearly the government needed a distraction from Barnaby Joyce’s monumental citizenship stuff-up — which is his fault entirely — but the idea of the Great Aotearoa Conspiracy should have never have made it onto the whiteboard, let alone off it and into action. Whoever suggested it should have been quietly told to take some time off as, clearly, they were working too hard. By the time Julie Bishop — who has now shredded whatever belief there was that she represented a “safe pair of hands” if the party decided to remove Turnbull — had finished, she had not merely interfered in New Zealand domestic politics but in effect called the NZ Interior Minister a liar for pointing out that it was media inquiries that sparked the New Zealand government’s interest in Barnaby Joyce, not any questions by New Zealand Labour.
It got worse. Too late to abandon the conspiracy theory, the government had to double down and make it the theme of question time, to the open derision and mockery of Labor MPs. Tony Burke made that very rare thing, a genuinely funny parliamentary joke, when he asked if Bishop couldn’t work with New Zealanders how could she work with Joyce. And when Bill Shorten quoted Joyce’s own words back at him about how straightforward section 44 of the constitution was — uttered in the halcyon days when this was just a problem for some Greens senators — Malcolm Turnbull’s defence was to mock Joyce as a hopeless constitutional lawyer. This is the Prime Minister talking about his Deputy Prime Minister:
“The Deputy Prime Minister does not claim to be a constitutional expert … what the Deputy Prime Minister said in that interview was not a correct interpretation or description of the way the law operates … You can laugh as much as you like. But the constitution is interpreted by the High Court of Australia …”
“You can laugh as much as you like.” And how they did, Prime Minister, how they did.
After that, we learnt the government had done a deal with the literally fascist One Nation to attack the ABC as punishment for embarrassing Pauline Hanson and James Ashby, in order to get its media ownership changes through. An attack that we now know Nick Xenophon, whose support is crucial, won’t back. Then, to cap it off, last night the government managed to lose a vote on the floor of the House of Representatives, as if to shine a light on what might happen if Joyce goes down and Bob Katter makes good on his idle musing yesterday that he might back Labor to form a government.
When losing a vote on the floor of the House is only the least worst thing that happens to you, it’s a truly shocking day.
What’s clear is that this isn’t just a rattled government dealing with circumstances beyond its control, like Barnaby Joyce’s appalling laziness or Tony Abbott’s bloodyminded treachery toward the Prime Minister. It’s been rattled ever since election night when Malcolm Turnbull strode belatedly into the Liberal party election function to rail angrily at Labor. This is a crippling attack of collective misjudgment, confusion and hysteria, a government that is under attack from within and without and flailing at all of its foes — real and imagined — all at once, with poor tactics and no strategy.