There were times in 2012 and 2013 — when Kevin Rudd and his followers regularly lobbed bombs at Julia Gillard — that you could only watch events unfold with a sense of wonderment; that never before had we seen such chaos, and we never would again. One of the promises Tony Abbott made before the 2013 election, the one that even his devoted enemies thought he would keep, was to restore a sense of calm and order to government, of adults being in charge. After all, Abbott was extraordinarily disciplined, he led a united party and he and his ministers had substantial experience in government.
Boy did that turn out to be wrong. The incompetence and sheer brazen stupidity of the Abbott years (all two of them) made the Gillard years look relatively ordered. Gillard could at least blame Rudd and his malignant egotism. Abbott had no one to blame but himself. Malcolm Turnbull, we knew, would have Abbott destabilising and white-anting him, but surely would prove as skilful at being prime minister as he was at most everything else he had turned his hand to in his life.
But the Turnbull government is like a combination of the Abbott and Gillard governments: rank incompetence coupled with a vengeful former leader. Twice the chaos. Twice the dysfunction. Twice the fun. And there are days, like yesterday, when you can only marvel at the incompetence of this government, to contemplate, in a kind of aesthetic sense, the giddy beauty achieved by such sublime levels of idiocy. It had been clear for over 24 hours that the Prime Minister — doubtless, and rightly, deeply angry that his deputy had dropped him and the entire government deep in poo yet again — wanted nothing to do with the questions about the employment of the woman who is now (we’ve definitively established) his partner. It’s a matter for the Nationals, he said in question time. It’s a matter for the Nationals, Scott Morrison said in question time, too.
That only left the question of whether the woman’s employment had been ticked off by Turnbull because under the Statement of Ministerial Standards, the employment of partners had to be approved by him. To acknowledge that yes, his office had signed off on the move to Matt Canavan’s office, and then to that of Damian Drum, the hitherto anonymous Nationals Whip, would be to wreck the eager distancing from Joyce undertaken by the Prime Minister. So some bright spark came up with the reasoning that Campion, being merely someone with whom Joyce had had a sexual relationship, was not technically his “partner” for the purposes of section 2.23 of the Statement of Ministerial Standards.
With one bound, Mal was free.
Or not, really. Because it wasn’t a bright idea. It was a dumb idea. The dumbest idea anyone has had in a government that has been like a rolling summit of bad ideas, a kind of bad idea thinktank, the Institute for Shitty Ideas, perhaps, with regular spots on the ABC to advocate the rotten things it has thought up.
The coverage on the evening news bulletins of the claim that she was “not his partner” was scathing. The “pub test” was mentioned. It was worse than not passing a pub test. It was worse, even, than all the comparisons with Centrelink’s processes that so many pointed out. It signaled how disastrously out of touch this government is, how it has no grasp of how the electorate thinks. Not his partner? NOT HIS PARTNER? WTF?
One of the things that damaged John Howard in his last year in office was that in the public imagination he became the ultimate casuist, a man who twisted and parsed his own words to evade responsibility for things, in complete defiance of common sense. Howard, at least, had a residual store of electoral goodwill for his economic and political management. This government has none of that. And “not his partner” isn’t casuistry, it isn’t some self-serving, Jesuitical interpretation, it’s simple bullshit.
And best of all, it now means Turnbull is linked to the whole saga, not by a sin of commission but of omission. One’s mind boggles, one’s head shakes.